Interview with Shirley Gallagher by Victor Brannigan, SustainEd, taken on 19th March 2015
Shirley was born in London to parents who were from Arranmore Island in Donegal. The family moved back to the island when she was a child. She has one daughter who now lives in London. She believes island living has infused and informed her sense of sustainability. She studied Science and holds a PhD from the University of Ulster. Dr Gallagher has worked in scientific roles in a number of different positions. She is a natural self-starter, networker and collaborator. She refocused the learned society Environmental Sciences Association of Ireland. She was the co-founder of the Not for profit Training organisation Enviro Skillnet in 2007. She has been self employed for many years and has been involved with a number of ‘green’ projects over the past fifteen years. Shirley is the owner of SysPro: Systems for Progress Limited.
Getting started on the road to sustainability:
Her entry route into sustainability was through scientific environmentalism combined with an islander’s pragmatism and a parent’s thoughts for the future.
Shirley’s first ‘call to action’ to sustainability was at a conference in Cork in 2008 which was inspired by the International Panel on Climate Change report of that year. The quest for sustainability reminds her of the island living with its focus on local, sharing and caring which she had experienced growing up. Island living teaches resilience and an understanding of resource use that is fundamental to sustainability.
Her scientific training and knowledge also brings her to sustainability along with the fact that sustainability just makes sense to her. Shirley is troubled by the injustice of the global financial mess we are in, which seems to become more inequitable every year. The current mainstream focus on the economy is skewed as it overpowers all other concerns and values and this, she feels, is unbalanced and unfair.
Balance is vitally important, though often lacking, in the arguments by all sides of the sustainability debate. She considers some environmentalists to be fundamentalist or zealot like in their approach. The structure of our debates on these topics foster imbalance with one side being deemed either completely right or wrong, leading to a sense that the world is ‘off-kilter’
She does not say this to point a finger as often she knows that her own life needs more balance and needs to be more sustainable. Like so many people she has often worked an 80 hour week which is not sustainable individually, for a family or for a society. She has found trying to make a living out of her sustainability skills very challenging and is now looking for work in a more mainstream environment. She doesn’t see this as a failure rather she views her efforts to be a change maker as commendable and courageous.
Is sustainability only for the rich? – “Well it is very much a middle class issue at least” she says. She feels that businesses are still very convinced that going green is too expensive and there is no real market inIreland for green products or services. She believes it will be some time before the current mindset will allow green to become the norm and for un-sustainable products to be taxed and so be more expensive.
On the topic of food she would buy more organic if she was earning more money though she is more attracted in local food rather than organic. She believes that processed foods are unsafe because it is too difficult to track what the processors are up to as the ‘horse-burger’ case showed. She has a mainly vegetarian diet which is not just an animal rights or environmental issue for her but the fact that she feels healthier for it and it is cheaper. Respecting our food and where it comes from can offer us a tangible daily connection to the planet instead of just being considered on the twin values of price and convenience. She understands that there are long term consequences to our current agricultural practices and it is hard to square the circle about productivity and feeding everyone on the globe if we reduce productivity to comply with organic practices.
Shirley’s own experiences has made her wary of becoming involved in collaborative projects as she feels many are too stuck on the ‘what is in it for me’ argument. She is very impressed with things like ‘crowd-funding’ which are carving new collaborative pathways (raising project capital through web-based supporters) which get over the personality or ego issues sometimes found in smaller community projects. She senses that in Ireland there is a reluctance to engage with community around issues such as energy but recognises that the political landscape here is an issue.
This is a key issue for Shirley, she states “connecting with like-minded people supports us and our belief system and this is especially important if we are ploughing a different furrow. When trying to change the status quo the challenge is that people who are comfortable with the status quo don’t want change to happen. Many in the mainstream are scared to be different, scared to not toe the line, and they need to conform”. She feels she herself has an in-built tendency to be non-conformist. The act of trying to be more sustainable is part of being a change maker.Shirley is more positive now than she was even a couple of years ago. She is quite excited about the rapidly developing new ideas which are being supported through social media and the paradigm shift that the ‘Internet of Things’ will bring about. This is giving rise to new communities which don’t have to be your next door neighbour as before. She feels that social values and neighbourliness are important and sees many of the new technologies as supporting and not necessarily undermining society. The new media are brilliant for getting the story out there and for developing new communities of intention.
Some suggested readings or links:
Thomas J Friedman The World is Flat – A brief history of the 21st Century
Naomi Klein The Shock Doctrine – is very scary and very good
Elizabeth Lesser ‘Broken Open’ How difficult times can help us grow
Shirley’s own TedX CorkWomen talk in Cork December 2013 ‘Freedom from Conformity’ can be accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yw9C2C-96ig