There is no shortage of stupid things to do with money, especially if you suddenly find yourself with loads of it. US socialite Theresa Roemer, for instance, has a three-storey, 3,000-square-foot closet: that’s a space twice the size of the average Irish family home… to store her shoe collection.
Then there’s the €180m Palazzo di Amore mansion in Beverly Hills — with 12 reception rooms, 22 bathrooms, a 50-seat cinema, swimming pools and a 12-acre vineyard. This property has been entirely vacant for the last eight years. Its owners have so many other mansions, apparently, they just haven’t gotten around to staying there recently.
Oxfam recently published figures confirming that the world’s richest 62 people control as much wealth as the combined assets and incomes of the world’s poorest 3.7 billion people, and this trend is, if anything, accelerating.
With yet another EuroMillions winning ticket sold in Ireland recently (giving some indication as to how disproportionately much we are gambling per capita), our media went into overdrive with advice on how to spend the estimated €88m fortune. The Sunday World’s staggeringly banal list of suggestions includes buying an island, or 17.4 million pints of beer, or 355 Audi R8 V10s.
The Irish Examiner helpfully suggested buying Middlesbrough football club or, yes, another island. Or maybe the Sycara V yacht, just the ticket for you and 20 guests, for €62.5m. And, the Examiner added, no doubt tongue in cheek: “beat the devastating effects of global warming and melting ice-caps by sailing the yacht around the planet. But, avoid roaming pirates”.
Our love affair with lotteries is not new, but the scale is certainly unprecedented. The hollowing-out of income for the working classes and much of the middle class is now a worldwide phenomenon, all part of a zero-sum game in which the global elites have pulled off the most outrageous wealth grab since the Medicis, while conning the same public with the outrageous lie that the only way to make the rich work harder is to pay them more, yet conversely that to make the poor work harder it is necessary to pay them less.
The massive surge in interest in the US Powerball lottery was a forerunner to the EuroMillions phenomenon. More and more people have come to slowly realise that the system is completely rigged against them, and end up resorting to ever more desperate measures to break out of the cycle of poverty, low pay and debt. This reached its mad apotheosis in January 2016, when the Powerball jackpot hit $1.6bn.
Mega lotteries operate as a bloodless version of the ‘Hunger Games’, giving the proles the illusion that anyone, with a bit of luck, can slip through the concrete ceiling that separates privilege from poverty and arrive in a heartbeat in the sunlit uplands where the gilded classes reside.
But what would a wise person do with the loot?
Call me crazy, but let’s just consider for a moment doing something actually useful with such a hoard instead. Having volunteered with environmental NGOs for the last several years, one thing that’s clear is how hopelessly outgunned they are in almost every department.
So radical change might see instigation of the Irish Climate Action Network (I-CAN). Imagine six months hence.
Headquartered close to Dáil Eireann in Dublin city centre, the network has already completed its first round of hiring. We now have three environmental lawyers, five researchers, a media/online unit with ten staff, three PR officers, two education officers, three political lobbyists, two fund-raisers and general staff, comprising 30 in all, with an annual payroll of €1.5m. Nobody is going to get rich working for I-CAN, but everyone earns a decent living wage.
Our media unit has its own production and web broadcasting facilities. The website Climatechange.ie is undergoing a complete rebuild and will have its own staff and annual operating budget of €500,000. We will be large-scale content creators on climate and environmental issues, syndicating output to maximise its reach and providing high-quality multimedia content for national and international media.
We have completed negotiations with RTE to secure a three-year blanket sponsorship of all its radio and TV weather bulletins. This means climate change reminder ‘stings’ on the hour, every hour, on the national broadcaster, as well as on the TV bulletins. It’s expensive, with a total cost running to close to €1m per annum, but it’s going to be pretty hard to miss and it’s an editorial match made in heaven. And besides, it might even encourage Met Eireann to engage more vocally in discussing the rapidly shifting climate baseline that underpins the science of meteorology.
As an EU member, Ireland is part of a much larger bloc when it comes to limiting emissions. That does not, however, mean that we don’t have the power to influence this process, for good or ill. Witness how the Irish government, working tirelessly at the behest of domestic special interests in recent months has managed to water down our 2030 commitment to achieve 30% emissions cuts versus a 2005 benchmark, to a farcical 0.4%.
The IFA and IBEC are among the special pleaders who maintain a strong presence in Brussels, where they work the lobbies and cocktail parties, schmoozing with the decision-makers, diplomats and opinion leaders. I-CAN will have its own Brussels office and staff, with a €1m annual budget with which to battle the well-oiled machinery of disinformation and spin.
We have another €1m advertising and sponsorship budget available. Some of this will target traditionally hard-to-reach audiences, including via local radio and newspapers, as well as trade press like the Farmers Journal. We are also holding a €500,000 discretionary budget for more creative approaches, such as flash mobs and guerrilla marketing. We will also host an annual conference on communicating climate science and wider ecological issues.
On the capital side, we’ve spent €1.5m to buy our Dublin HQ outright, and another €4m on a 3,500 acre estate in rural Tipperary with extensive accommodation and river frontage, farmyards and outbuildings. Most of the land will be sealed off as a nature reserve, with 2,500 acres to be reafforested with native species. A combination of wind, hydro and solar energy mean it will be a net energy exporter to the national grid, and the revenues will help fund this project. An electric bus will provide connectivity.
The estate is being developed as a live-in model for sustainable building, renewable energy, organic farming and kitchen gardening – in other words, many of the skills that up until three or four decades ago, were commonplace in almost every farm in the country. Apart from the high-tech aspect of new energy technologies, this estate is also being developed as a hub for traditional skills, from carpentry to weaving, bee-keeping, food preservation etc. The estate will also run courses for farmers interested in reskilling to be fully organic and moving away from beef/dairy. It will also welcome school tours to explore the woodlands and connect children with nature. We are budgeting €500,000 for the annual running costs of the estate, as well as a once-off €2.5m to be invested in the capital costs of the afforestation and renewable energy programmes.
We are also looking at the inspiring model of the Dutch Foundation for the Conservation of Irish Bogs. This was set up in 1978 by Matthijs Schouten, a Dutch research student who had come to Ireland to work on an academic project. Schouten was horrified to see the wholesale destruction of Ireland’s boglands, and set about raising funds, in conjunction with the then newly formed Irish Peatland Conservation Council, to buy three peatlands, Scragh Bog, County Westmeath; Clochar na gCon Bog in County Galway and Cummeragh River Bog, County Kerry, which were then gifted to the Irish state for preservation.
While the tireless work of Bord Na Móna and a small army of turf contractors has ensured little now remains of the unprotected peatlands that still stood when Schouten first arrived in Ireland, it reminds us it is never too late to fight to protect what remains and restore what we can.
So, what of our initial €88m capital? Around €8m went on capital costs, from the Dublin offices to the estate, including the afforestation and energy programmes. All the activities above can be delivered on an annual budget of €5.5m, minus projected revenues of around €500,000 a year, leaving a net €5m running costs. That means a fully funded programme locked in for the next 16 years – the critical period in which whatever remaining opportunities to achieve political and societal shift on climate change will either be taken or squandered.
Or maybe we’d just buy an island or 17.4 million pints of beer instead.
By John Gibbons