Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: Keeping our dogs on a lead

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

On a recent early morning run through one of Fermanagh’s Global Geoparks I was reminded of the extent to which we are immersed in a human-centric view of the world when I met a middle-aged woman taking a walk with her two dogs which were not on a lead.

My first encounter with the woman and the dogs was when I rounded a bend and saw a four-legged creature dash into the undergrowth and was wondering what I had seen when I realized with dismay that it was a dog. On seeing a woman on the path ahead I called out to her to bring her dog to heal, at this stage, it was dancing frantically around me. She did not hear me for some moments as she was wearing headphones.

When she was close and had removed the headphones I told her that her dogs should be on a lead, which I feel is as obvious as not driving through red lights. Her immediate response was to talk about her dogs in relation to people. When I remarked out that I was concerned about the threat her dogs posed to the red squirrels, hares, pine martens and birds she replied “we love nature”. I silently pondered if the ‘we’ referred to her dogs. Before I could say anything more she issued an insult, put on her headphones and walked away with her dogs still free to harass the wildlife.

With miles to run before I reached home I had time to reflect on the values and perspective that might underlie the woman’s behaviour and consider if they were unique to her or common to society. Her words “we love nature” stuck me as peculiar as if this was the case she would not have let her dogs terrify the wildlife, poo wherever they wanted with the potential of spreading pathogens, and would not have blocked out the dawn chorus with her headphone, including the captivating call of the cuckoos who live in the locality at this time of the year.

By the time I reached the end of my run I had concluded that how this woman interacts with the natural world aligns with the predominating attitude towards it, which can be summed up in a single word, narcissistic. This is to say that society values nonhuman nature in terms of the benefits it provides us rather in terms of it having intrinsic value and self-interests.

In this context what the woman meant when she said “we love nature” is that she values having a place where her dogs can run free without the danger of getting run-over by a motor vehicle or people complaining about the danger her dogs posed to them and others. Also, when her dogs inevitably pooed she was free from the social pressure that in a busy place would compel her to clean the poo up and dispose of it properly. The same narcissistic love of nature is held by many of those who fish in rivers and lakes and picnic on the beach on sunny days. If asked, they would likely say that they loved nature, that the sea and sand are wonderful, and there are pleasant views to be enjoyed by a lakeside. Yet, as any local council and concerned citizen will verify many of these self-proclaimed nature lovers leave an enormous amount of litter when they depart from the places they say they love.

This narcissistic relationship with nonhuman nature is imbedded in our economic system and is in fact supported by many a religious text. In the Christian tradition people will refer to Genesis 1:28 in which God tells humankind to subdue the Earth, “and have domination over the fish of the seas and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” The woman’s insult may well have arisen out of her perception that I was challenging her God-given right, as she saw it, to dominate the Earth through letting her dogs scare the living-daylights out of “every living thing that moves” within the confines of the Global Geopark.

On a different scale on the narcissistic spectrum Global Witness report that between 2012 and 2021, 1,733 land and environmental defenders were murdered worldwide. Most of these people were murdered by miners, poachers and farmers who were destroying forests, polluting rivers and extinguishing species in exercise, as the killers would likely have seen it, of their right to subdue the Earth. A recent well publicized case was the murder of British journalist Dom Philips and Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira in the Brazilian Amazon in June 2022 who were investigating illegal fishing in the area.

The challenge for humankind is to see ourselves as an integral part of nature rather than outside of it and to live in partnership with it rather than dominating it. The evidence is clear on this point, our narcissistic relationship with nonhuman nature has resulted in climate breakdown and the sixth mass extinction, from which a cascade of ecological disasters have occurred and are unfolding.

As we need to keep dogs on a lead when in the public domain we also need to keep our appetite for things and experiences on a lead otherwise much of the biosphere will expire and most of humanity with it. This likely outcome is supported by a study in Nature Sustainability, 22 May 2023, which found that the planet is on course to warm to a degree that will drive billions of people out of the “climate niche” in which humanity has flourished for millennia. The climate niche is a mean annual temperature of between 13C and 25C. If the warming trajectory continues the average annual temperature outside the niche will reach 29C by 2030 making life barely livable for two billion people. Of this number up to one billion are expected to migrate to a cooler climate, which, among other places, means northern Europe including the Irish – UK archipelago.

The authors of the study say that human suffering and migration on a scale never seen before caused by climate breakdown does not have to be. It depends on whether we continue to subdue nonhuman nature or live in partnership with it. Our responsibility for ourselves, family, friends and neighbours extend to caring about other life-forms and the generations yet to be born. As Tad Friend writes in The New Yorker, 22 May 2023:

wildlife has a right to exist regardless of its economic value, regardless of its usefulness to us in any way. … Animals are our family..