Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
It is a rare occasion that a Northern Ireland non-party political issue is aired on RTÉ 1’s evening news and even rarer on BBC Radio 4’s The World at One as well as their early morning programme Farming Today.
This happened recently and readers won’t be surprised to learn that the item brought to the attention of listeners and viewers is the deplorable biological state of Lough Neagh. As has been well documented it is polluted with blue-green algae as are Lough Ross in County Armagh and parts of Lough Erne.
The algae is a bacteria called cyanobacteria, is the result of human behaviour which includes the rise of the water temperature due to global warming, the dumping of sewage into the loughs, leaking septic tanks, the run-off of nitrogen and phosphorus from fields in the form of slurry and fertilizer and the presence of invasive zebra mussels which filter the water enabling sunlight to reach into their depths hastening the growth of the algae.
Unfortunately, it is not a case of problem understood, problem solved as is often the case with a mechanical breakdown; once a malfunction is understood it can be put right by a skilled technician.
One reason for the absence of effective eco-management of Lough Neagh is that it lies within the jurisdiction of five local councils, is overseen by five government departments and is managed by the Lough Neagh Partnership. It receives its funding from the five local councils. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is conflicted: it is simultaneously responsible for promoting the interests of a sector of the economy that helped cause the problem i.e., intensive agriculture, while at the same time it is responsible for tackling the problem by virtue of its environmental mandate.
Another complication is the legacy of colonialism. The bed, the eels and banks of the lough are not owned by the people of Northern Ireland but by the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury who inherited this ecosystem of approximately 153 sq miles at the age of 26. His family came into possession of it in 1857 when the 8th Earl married into the Chichester family who inherited it from Sir Arthur Chichester who was gifted it by King James1st in the mid-1660s.
On the basis of the precept that possession is not the same as justified ownership the question some will ask is what right did King James 1st have to dispose of the lough, a collective asset availed of by families bordering it for untold millennia and a moral entity in its own right? The question is relevant to restoring the health of Lough Neagh as Nichols Ashley-Cooper, the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, could return his inheritance to the people of Northern Ireland placing it in the trust of a single authority.
In doing this the Earl would be following a precedent set by museums who recognize that they have a moral obligation to return to Indigenous communities artefacts stolen from their ancestors. The Horniman Museum in London did this in November 2022 when it returned to Nigeria 72 bronze artefacts looted by British soldiers in 1897 from Benin City, now southwest Nigeria.
More recently Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of returning 9,300 sq miles of land to the Xokleng people who were evicted from it in the late 19th and early 20th century by colonialists who hailed mainly from Germany. In the view of the court the passage of time did not erase the rights of the Xokleng people to their ancestral lands. This is something the Earl of Shaftesbury should ponder in regard to his presumed entitlement to the bed, eels and banks of Lough Neagh.
Aside from the administrative complexities, the algae problem that afflicts the three loughs is emblematic of how we treat the entire biosphere. We act as if we are sitting at a table laden with food and water for innumerable shifts of people. Instead of leaving nourishment for these diners we gobble everything up leaving the table empty and in a disgusting mess.
I hypothesis that the reason why we behave like this is because we are shackled by the straps of our enculturation. A cardinal edict of this is that we are only responsible for ourselves and family, and to a lesser extent our neighbours and community, and that the people beyond the circumference of our vision in place and time, and the nonhuman beings and natural systems that sustain us are simply of no account.
We think of the natural world beyond our skin as things rather than living entities many of whom are thinking, feeling beings with preferences and foresight and part of a complex network of relationships. The Abrahamic religions have played no small part in people viewing nonhuman life in this way, after all, they are not held to be immortal like us and have no special status in the eyes of God.
Thus, while our moral code tells us that it is wrong to willfully harm someone in close proximity to us, we think that poisoning our ecosystem by pouring sewage into rivers and loughs, unnecessarily emitting global warming gases and buying merchandise composed of materials that have been mined by indentured labour as morally neutral. The ecological catastrophe taking place in our loughs, and the elimination of much of the biodiversity of our island, are a direct consequence of how we see our place in the living world and our sense of entitlement in regard to others including future generations.
Fortunately, we can extricate ourselves from our enculturation. One way is through what is called transformational learning as conceptualized by Jack Mezirow in the late 1970s. This involves critically reflecting on our received wisdoms, cultural imperatives, worldviews and assumptions; testing them to see if they accord with scientific evidence. It involves comparing, contrasting and exploring alternatives. It is a collaborative on-going process which takes place in a trusting, noncoercive setting. This can happen over a cup of tea, a pint, during a meal, a long walk or in a classroom.
An outcome of transformational learning that is focused on living in an ecologically sustainable way is recognizing that we live in an interconnected, interdependent, multi-generational, multi-species, sentient world. Our place within this cosmology is to do what we can, with justice issues in mind, to restore the bio-world to health. This life-long work is done for the sake of nonhuman nature and ourselves including those who will sit at the table after we are gone.
In summary, we need to change the prevailing view of our place in nonhuman nature if we are to find a sustainable resolution to our ecological problems including restoring our loughs and rivers to good health.
Photos by Larry Speight of the wake for Lough Neagh held on its shores on 17/9/23 can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/53218375754/in/dateposted/ and accompanying pictures.