Meeting Minister White – April 2015

A couple of weeks ago I was part of a delegation of 6 from the Environmental Pillar meeting with Alex White, Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources – DCENR. My agenda items were public participation in the National Energy Transition Plan – NETP and anything to do with community energy that wasn’t covered by someone else. I decided to focus on actions – what could I propose be done that would progress transition at a local level, driven by communities? I decided to go with my national conversation idea.

Being engaged in the transition process in Ireland, the transition towns network, for the past 8 years has taught me a lot about community participation and interest, or lack of, in our energy future. However in recent times as we find ourselves increasingly under threat from the capitalisation by big business of our natural resources, not just energy, people are beginning to take notice. Action usually manifests in the form of an “anti” campaign as people engage in stopping venture capitalist developments such as fracking, selling woodlands, drilling for oil, industrial wind farms and the infrastructure to support them, privatisation of our water. Thankfully we have alert citizens willing to stand up for the common good despite the misrepresentation and negative attention they receive. I have learned that when you stand up to big business every trick in the book is used to discredit and marginalise you.

Idealistically, the transition towns process evolves as a proactive step where people come together and proactively work at building community resilience. That works in some places, however, in Ireland anyway, there seems to be more people joining forces opposing issues than contemplating transition in the wake of the climate and energy crises. On the up side perhaps we can use this togetherness to design an alternative system that suits us and incorporates action on all of our issues. Almost every significant challenge we face today is opposing corporate takeover of our common resources, whether that be oil, property, gas, workers rights, water, wildlife, wind, food, secret trade agreements – TTIP and much more I’m sure.

The challenge is setting the scene for that to happen, getting people out and together to discuss it.

When people come together with challenges this big they tend to think big. A community can work together to lower their dependence on fossil fuel and build resilience in their economy and society. Energy, transport and food co-ops. Community heat, water and waste schemes. Sourcing local produce and keeping money in the local economy. Employment close to home. They come up with all sorts of answers, solutions and actions they can take that will address the problems. I’ve seen it over and over. These solutions very often address many of the other issues we face such as homelessness, food and fuel poverty. We can build a better society especially now that we know what we don’t want!

My suggestion to the Minister and his staff, focused on climate and energy, was met with apprehension – how can anyone be sure that these community initiatives will last? What’s to say they won’t all fail in the first year? Why should communities drive the transition plan? Why is it not happening already given that people have tried? All valid concerns, however fear is not a valid reason to take no action or not try something that just might work.

I immediately reminded everyone of all of the amazing projects currently under way. I pointed out that there are contributing factors that help a group succeed. First and foremost comes awareness. The facts about what is happening and recognition that it’s real is usually the kickstart. A good driver or two usually emerge. Enough people to share the workload. A supportive wider community. A supportive local authority. A supportive funding stream. Quality, unbiased advice and information about what works and what doesn’t. Networks. Media coverage and social media presence. Ongoing support at every step really helps a community work.

The national economic and social council, NESC, through this report, propose that the NETP should be intentional, participatory and problem solving. Where does that fit in with the transition process? How might they compliment each other?

What has been missing in Ireland is intent. There is no national voice reiterating the urgency of climate change. The media hardly ever mentions it and the political parties avoid it like the plague unless it’s current and then the usual placid responses are rolled out. Energy security comes up if war looms in the east. This has been a major obstacle to those initiating action in their community. There is no validation that what “Theresa O’Donohoe” is saying about climate change and energy security is fact or something we should take action about. This just leaves the initiator high and dry.

So we need intent. We need leadership on this. We need politicians who are not afraid to state that we face major challenges. Not just EU fines for missing targets but the state of the world we are passing on to future generations. We need the media to start taking climate serious and relaying facts and realities more often. Not necessarily negatively or doom and gloom but supporting the transition process, validating the actions being taken to move from fossil fuel all the while repeating the fact that we do need to act.

We need participation. Usually the people who participate do so when they are aware. Awareness could come at a relevant course, awareness raising or information event or start up meeting. What makes for a good community meeting, inclusive of as many people as possible? How do you go about inviting them all? Why would they bother coming, especially if they’re too busy or tired fighting?

Who do we want to participate? These challenges are not something any government can fix. These challenges are something each and every one of us must engage with. We must all play our part. This is not up to DCENR or Department of the Environment. This is a collective responsibility. Government can get the ball rolling but we must get on to the pitch and run with it. I emphasised the importance of having the farming community at the table. The fact is that if farmers need to keep their methane emissions high sacrifices will have to made elsewhere and that will take a collaborative approach. It may be that a local anaerobic digester will cut out fossil fuel heating for some area of their town bringing the communities collective emissions down.

How do we participate? First you need a venue. Then you need refreshments – I always do whatever I can to make sure we’ve tea at everything! A good facilitator is very important. Finally you need the people and for this it helps if existing groups are involved.

My proposal is to host a national conversation akin to the ideal community conversation by bringing  representatives of all of the national bodies of organisations with branches throughout the country to a workshop together and encourage them to replicate the workshop in communities all around the country. 

What might that look like? One or two key decision makers from bodies such as the GAA sports, IFA farming, ICA women, Youth groups, local media networks, shops, religious orders and other stalwarts of community life in Ireland, together in a room to explore a national transition plan to be developed by the people. Spend some time presenting and discussing the enormity of the challenges we face with climate change, peak oil, fuel poverty and energy issues in general. Then we could explore the transition process followed by a workshop on how these groups could help kickstart the community response that is essential.

What might happen? We could end up with a proposal that the GAA, Scouts or religious orders would approve the use of their halls as venues. Musgraves, Tidy Towns or the ICA would supply the tea. The GAA, Scouts or IFA may offer to organise the events. Local media would raise awareness. All of them would encourage their members to attend and engage with planning the transition for their community. Some may be in a position to sponsor facilitator expenses.

Is it problem solving? This is an idealistic scenario however that does not mean it is unachievable. Many communities have been working on climate issues, energy security and the transition from fossil fuel for years solving all sorts of problems as they go. A side affect of transitioning away from fossil fuel is the resilience it brings with a more localised supply chain and circular economy. This means that many problems may never arise because they’ve already been solved in the transition process.

Not all communities need the validation from government and anyone can start the ball rolling in their community so get in touch via email if you have something to offer to Ireland’s National Energy Transition Plan.

Theresa O’Donohoe

25th April 2014


5 thoughts on “Meeting Minister White – April 2015

  1. Fantastic. Love it. Must talk to you about this. I was recently thinking of something similar as I couldn’t get to the climate conversations in Dublin . I was thinking, well why not organise one myself here in Kilkenny? Well done anyway. You keep things clear and in the frame of practical understanding and action. I’ve been reading so much climate science recently and its depressing… So hard to know how to turn things around.

  2. The challenge I feel is this – if we take a rural community – what is the end outcome for the community. What will it look like, can our solutions be designed to be lived with, how can people develop confidence based on REAL LIFE experience that the low carbon era COULD work for their community

    Personally…..

    1) I would like to see as many communities as possible be able to keep going as actual communities – thriving communities.

    2) A focus is needed on actual outcomes for residents and their local community – ideally with a focus on achieving GOOD outcomes. This is very much missing in our energy planning at the moment – the focus is on simply getting the wind turbines etc in place.

    3) If something can be designed to work well – seen to actually to work well – with nothing to fear – acceptance becomes more likely. In fact – forget acceptance – because…..

    4) Developing a culture of EMBRACING the community and the people in it – this doesn’t mean “no to this or no to that” – but looking at how people live – understanding them and their needs – and based on that – learning to like the community and people – and developing change that works for people and places we actually like.

    5) What should a community we live in – in the future – look like in the low carbon era – how do we design it from a LIVING viewpoint to actually work for locals on a basic everyday living basis.

    Anyway – ive gone off on a tangent – so my apologies – keep up the good work with the blog

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