What with Ireland’s static economy and with many Irish families feeling the pinch, more and more people across the country are taking a step back and re-evaluating the way they live their lives. Can ‘the man on the street’ really do something about climate change, or the rapid depletion of global fossil fuel resources? Faced with a socio-economic system that seems to have failed them, or at least exposed them to the peaks and troughs of boom-time Ireland, some groups are searching for ways to make their communities more independent of the vagaries of global markets.
Transition Maynooth is a group of volunteers who are part of a wider network of transition towns all over the world that are looking to use the power of local community to respond, locally and ecologically, to the great challenges faced by mankind today: the end of the age of cheap oil, food security, and the impact of climate change. Transition Initiatives seek to develop resilience within communities, to make them better able to deal with future shortages or crises as they arise—or to prevent them occurring.
“When you begin to learn about these issues, it can be really overwhelming,” says Eileen McDermott of Cultivate Maynooth. “But I have found that the concept of ‘Being the Change’ is a really useful one to hold on to—it’s proactive, positive and genuinely useful. At a wider level it means building co-operation, learning, listening, facing the facts, and then taking responsibility for what I can do in my own life and within my circle of family and friends, as well as in the wider community in which I live and work.”
Some of the driving forces behind the projects are group member understandings that our food production, transport, and energy systems are heavily dependent on finite natural (mainly fossil fuel) resources, the use of which leads to unsustainable environmental degradation. While oil production looks likely to continue at present rates for the foreseeable future, the so-called ‘age of cheap oil’ is almost certainly over. If ‘supply shocks’ were to occur, or if energy prices were to double or treble, would we be able to afford or obtain even the simplest foods? Such situations are already reality for people in developing countries.
Nathan Jackson is the farmer from Celbridge’s Community-Supported Farm, and he believes Ireland has both strengths and weaknesses in terms of food supply and energy.
“Compared to many European countries, Ireland is in a uniquely positive position,” he says. “We have a low population density, plenty of wilderness areas for producing biomass for energy, and plenty of good, rain-fed pasture capable (if managed correctly) of producing protein—beef, lamb and dairy—with very low energy inputs.”
Jackson believes that Ireland has the potential to produce plenty of food and energy—if we are willing to make changes.
“If we don’t want to change our lifestyles then we are in trouble, as we are highly dependent on cars and imports, and we’re at the tail end of the European gas supply lines. If we remain reliant on oil and gas, then we’re in for some very unpleasant shocks,” he says.
Jackson envisages a more resilient planning system to cope with climate instability and longer periods of drought, rain and cold, including the use of polytunnels and rainwater harvesting techniques. He also suggests that innovative solutions such as forest gardens could be used to make our food production systems more resilient to climatic uncertainties.
One of the founders of Cultivate Celbridge, Anne B. Ryan, has written several books and articles on these issues, including her examination of our culture of excessive consumption, Enough is Plenty. According to Ryan, the interrelationship between environment, society and economics is evident in the increased pressures on ecosystems—not just in Ireland, but internationally too. “Energy prices are rising, and with that, people are resorting to burning more peat and timber. Climate disruptions are reducing yields of crops and fodder, with greater amounts being imported from abroad and more nitrate fertilisers being used to increase yield, with associated runoff causing problems in watercourses,” she says. Ryan believes that the excessive degradation and potential collapse of valuable ecosystems in Ireland is likely, and points to more intensive agricultural policies as evidence.
“The document ‘Food Harvest 2020’ published by the Department of Agriculture was financed by the agribusiness sector,” she points out. “They want to intensify agriculture and export more food. This will result in more carbon emissions…most people you talk to are not interested in climate change or global warming. They are only interested in economic growth…there is almost no understanding that a failed growth economy is not the same as a steady-state sufficiency, low-carbon economy,” she says.
We’ve got the Power
Nathan Jackson believes that energy prices have stabilised due to a crisis-related reduced global demand for energy, coupled with the advent of unconventional fossil fuel sources—especially the fracking boom in the US. He’s not sure, however, how long this can last.
“Fracked wells have a very steep decline rate, so the only reason prices have stabilised is that the Americans are drilling more and more wells at increasing environmental cost…I reckon prices will keep rising over the next few decades, either in steep bumps or just gradually. Regardless, we can’t afford to burn it if we want a civilization-friendly environment in decades to come,” he says.
Jackson believes that Ireland must explore a range of options to secure its energy supply.
“In my opinion we need wind farms for industry and public transport; micro-generation and community wind turbines/hydro for home electricity; biomass combined with insulation for home heating; and biodiesel (based on hemp oil or other low-input oils) for essential vehicles which can’t be electrified, such as JCBs, ambulances, etc.,” he says. Along with changes to infrastructures and lifestyles, Jackson advocates reducing the working week.
“If we did this, people would have the spare time to cycle, and grow their own food and fuel (via co-ops, community gardens, etc.). This would also mean we would need less money to fund our lifestyles, because things like transport and food would cost much less,” he says. One major problem he sees is that in Ireland, many people are locked into their long working week in order to pay off mortgage and other debts, or to pay high rents.
Jackson believes much of the resistance to wind turbines is irrational, though understandable, as we “fail see that wind farms are the result of industrial society, not necessarily of green energy.
“We don’t need huge wind farms if we’re happy living smaller lives with less useless stuff in them….You only need the big wind farms if you want to change your car every few years, buy the newest i-Rubbish, and have all your food packaged and neatly arranged in a giant refrigerated warehouse!” he says.
Cultivating a way forward
“The Edwardian gardeners perfected many aspects of low energy agriculture just at the dawn of the oil age,” says Jackson, “only for it to be discarded by the onward march of civilisation. They figured out how to grow all sorts of things on manure and compost, using greenhouses to full advantage.” He says that we can produce highly nutritious, simple food very well in Ireland with the proper set-up. “The biggest down side with these sorts of agriculture,” he says, “is that it generally means a shift away from the things we love, like meat and starchy grains, and more towards the nuts and pulses. But then we’ll save on healthcare, so it could be worse!”
“We can also make ourselves more resilient by getting to know people in our communities, so that when crises do occur, we at least can work together,” says Anne B. Ryan. “We need to be trying to create a social environment that helps people to be resilient, and to work with others towards community resilience.”
Nathan Jackson also sees community as the most important factor: “We’ve lost our sense of community over the past two decades,” he says. “So I think that community building is what is most important right now, which I suppose is really the point of the Cultivate group.”
“It has been a massive learning curve,” says Eileen McDermott of her time with Cultivate Maynooth, “and I’ve realised that I will be constantly learning. …Four years on I’ve made massive lifestyle changes, all of which are for the better. Instead of feeling deprived in any way, the quality of my life has actually been enhanced. For example, I’ve become a vegetarian, I’m a much better and more adventurous cook, I’m a much more conscientious and responsible consumer, I’m more active within the community, and I’m a gardener, not to mention quite the skilled composter!”