Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
The next time you are walking in an elevated place such as Topped Mountain in County Fermanagh or the Cave Hill in Belfast survey the landscape that stretches to the horizon and consider how the land is used. Calculate how much is devoted to urban living, farming and is reserved exclusively for the nonhuman life we share the planet with. From the Cave Hill it is clear that the majority of what you see is urban infrastructure. Prominent landmarks include the M2, Belfast Harbour and the City Hospital, all serving the life of the citizens of the city and beyond. Even Belfast Lough, which looks serene on a sunny day, is a busy thoroughfare.
If you took a notion to walk to the summit of Topped Mountain, which is technically a hill at 277 metres high, you might, as compared to your view from Cave Hill, think that so much acreage is free from urbanisation and therefore available to other life. This would be mistaken for most of what you would see in terms of bogland, fields, forest and woodland has been altered for our supposed benefit. None could be considered pristine.
We have in fact commandeered most of the planet for ourselves, including the rivers, oceans and sky. According to Axis.com just 5 percent of the Earth’s landscape is untouched, largely because it has been, until now, inaccessible. Even this percentage will be affected by climate breakdown and nano-size plastics that fall with the snow and rain. We are without doubt the dominant species but not, from a survival perspective, the most intelligent.
One of the critical things that has largely escaped our consciousness, that has no place in the prism through which we look at and make sense of the world, is that other species have as much right to exist as us. Perhaps this is the message of the story of Noah’s Ark as told in the Old Testament and the Quran. Fauna, and flora, as research is increasingly showing, is sentient, individuals have emotional bonds with their own kind and live as humans do in a social universe. As far as we can tell many species have the range of emotional experiences humans have such as fear, boredom and a sense of belonging.
The right of other species to live out their essentialness and fulfil their role in the wider ecosystem is something that should be as much a part of planning legislation as the management of motor traffic or the building and maintenance of sewage treatment plants. Jason Hickel in his book Less is More (2020) reminds us that the view that there is no existential difference between humankind and nonhuman nature is commonly held by indigenous peoples. Hickel cites the example of the Achuar, who live on both sides of the border between Ecuador and Peru. They don’t have a word for nature. In their cosmology every living thing in the rainforest where they live is a person with a soul (wakan) similar to the soul humans are widely thought to have.
If we had this view our world would be a very different place. Our meat and dairy consumption would not be based on the ecocide that occurs in order to grow the crops that are used as animal feed for the billions of nonhuman animals that are eaten every year. Nor would we have vast plantations of tropical crops that provide much of the food for sale in our supermarkets.
Many will argue that the needs of the near 8-billion human population could not be met on the basis of the Achuar view that there is no nature separate from us. This is countered by two points. One, is that the predominant international cosmology, which is the cause of climate breakdown, rapid loss of biodiversity and a great many wars is well on its way to causing the total collapse of civilisation. The other point is that more than one third of the food that is produced globally is dumped, which means that if this did not occur the land and water used to produce it could revert to habitat. The food we waste is enough to feed two billion people a year and the financial loss is approximately $1 trillion a year. It is not only the food that is lost but also the energy and other inputs that went into producing it. The latter point is supported by research published in Nature, 1 June 2017, which informs us that the Earth is:
“capable of providing healthy diets for 10 billion people in 2060 (whilst) providing viable habitats for the vast majority of its remaining species.”
Adapting the view that we are the nature that is conventionally thought to be outside us would, without doubt, led to us living simpler lives but not necessarily unhappier, less satisfying ones. It is time to have a complete rethink about how we view our place in a world shared with billions of other sentient creatures who like us have a right to a life free from persecution.
One thing the law-making bodies on both sides of our island could do in protecting nonhuman life is follow the example of countries such as Columbia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Panama and confer legal rights to ecosystems similar to those granted to people.