Pat Mooney on the climate crisis: “If we keep doing it as we are, we will fail”

News 04.07.2022

1985 Laureate Pat Mooney is not only an endless optimist, but at the age of 75, he’s still at the forefront of the fight for food security and safeguarding the planet’s genetic heritage. In 1972, he was invited to the first UN Environmental Conference on the Human Environment but decided not to attend. Fifty years later, as the conference was reconvened in Stockholm, he changed his mind. 

“Stockholm 50 years ago did not have it right,” Mooney said as he sat down with Right Livelihood to talk about the – at the time – upcoming Stockholm+50 conference. “They were too focused on the environment and not focused enough on inequities in our world.”

While acknowledging that he did in fact misjudge the 1972 conference as a gathering for “garbage pickers and bicycle enthusiasts,” Mooney said he remained concerned that the world still needed to put these issues together in ways not done before. If not, we’re in for another failure. Only this time, we won’t have another 50 years to spare.

While in Stockholm to attend the conference he once objected to, he emphasised the importance of participation in the climate discussion. It’s quite simple, he said: “Societies lead governments. Governments don’t lead society.” He pointed to the fact that even though governments have a vital role to play, governments don’t have the courage civil society does. That means societies are overdue for some “tough love.”

To paint a picture, he used the concept of Stockholm Syndrome to characterise the relationship between civil society and UN mechanisms.

“I was afraid then, and I’m afraid now still, that civil society fell in love with the United Nations system and was prepared to march to the drums of the UN agenda and governmental agendas for too long,” he said. “We need tough love. We need to really address the fact that our governments aren’t doing what they have to do.”

Mooney received the Right Livelihood Award in 1983 “for working to save the world’s genetic plant heritage.” This fight has continued and evolved over the last four decades. Nowadays, Mooney is working on a new project called “The Long Food Movement,” which aims to map the trajectory of global food systems and food supply over a longer period. The idea is that food production can’t move ahead and have success if people think only a couple of years ahead. Mooney says people need to be thinking a generation ahead when it comes to such vital processes.

As a veteran activist and campaigner for change, he said a big lesson from the last decades has been that change requires foresight and vision beyond what’s right in front of people. The food movement is only one part of a much wider series of movements and civil society actions.

“To be visionary is a demand – we have to be,” Mooney said. “Otherwise, we cannot function in the world today simply narrowly seeing one issue by itself without recognising that we’re connected to others. So, being visionary to me means both looking wide, seeing the horizon, scanning the horizon, seeing all that is there and at the same time looking far enough ahead, to at least recognise where the threats are.”

Mooney noted his family refers to his optimism as a genetic feature that he just can’t help. Even though an inherent belief that people are good has kept him going, he acknowledges that in a time of crisis, that’s not always enough to remain hopeful.

“I’ve been asked by my children and my grandchildren to give them reasons to have hope,” he said. “And it was hard initially. Here we are with the European war. Here we are with a pandemic. Here we are with a food crisis. And once again, our climate is collapsing. But I still find myself genuinely optimistic that humanity will get through this. It’s only been in times of major crisis that humanity has advanced itself in real ways.”

He believes that crises offer opportunities, not only hurdles.

“The reason we call it the sixth extinction is that we survived the other five,” Mooney said. “The world has carried on and we can get through these things. Nature is more diverse and more resilient than we think it is. Human beings are better and more resilient than we think they are. And that gives me optimism.”

Mooney attributes a lot of his strength to the strength and courage of his fellow Right Livelihood Laureates.

“Courageous are the people that have the guts to recognise how the world is and still confront it, still have the courage to know that the battles that they’re fighting aren’t ever entirely won,” he said. “You never have a complete victory. We always go through one battle after the next. There’s always a step back. We [the Laureates] have an affinity I think, because we know we’ve all been in battles, and we’re still fighting. I don’t know anyone who’s a Laureate that isn’t still fighting.”

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