Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: We are burning the world

When earlier this year I was living in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, I did not need to read any scientific reports to realise that we are burning the world.

Juba sits in a bowl of polluted air because of constant fires and might well provide a glimpse of what a future ecological catastrophe will look like as well as what can happen when there is not enough money in the local and central government coffers to provide basic public services.

While the footpath verges in towns across our domain are kept free of litter the roadside verges in Juba are covered with household rubbish which are regularly set alight. Further, every cooked meal eaten by every one of the estimated 480,000 population is done with the use of charcoal. Added to this mix is the dust raised by traffic travelling on unpaved roads by vehicles emitting streams of black smoke. The stifling heat compounds the health dangers and unpleasantness of what must be one of Dante’s nine circles of Hell.

The reader’s response on learning this might be that Juba is on a different continent, and although you sympathize with the people living there, their plight does not really concern us here in Ireland. A different continent and climate does not mean that given the same circumstances our plight would not be the same as that of Juba.

What for instance would you do if your Local Council no longer collected your household rubbish because the refuse staff were on a long-term strike? Would you in the course of time toss your rubbish onto the verge of the street and when the unsightliness and stench of it became too much set it alight? What would the outcome be if the MOT/NCT service ceased to function as it is designed to and there were too few police officers to prosecute drivers emitting over the limit amounts of exhaust fumes from their vehicles? And in time would our roads not crumble away because of the lack of funds to maintain them?

These things already happen to a certain extent. We know that the newly formed Northern Ireland Assembly has insufficient funds to meet all of its public obligations and that an unforeseen event, or series of them, could send the international economic order into a tailspin leaving national and local governments without the financial means to fulfill their basic responsibilities. The governments north and south of Ireland are already experiencing financial constrains as illustrated by their under-funding of care packages for the elderly.

The dysfunction of public services on our island and in affluent countries across the world on the scale of what it is in South Sudan might seem to be a never-never land we are unlikely to experience. Without doubt this is what the people thought in the extinct civilizations when they were at their apex. There is no evidence that the peoples of such highly sophisticated societies as the Ancient Egyptians, the Maya, Aztecs, and the people who built Newgrange some 5,200 years ago thought that their worlds would cease to exist. Likewise, with us today.

As we tend not to like change that might be disruptive we are prone to ignore the seismic shifts taking place in the background of our lives. This is most certainly the case in regards to the degradation of the biosphere.

The recent report in Nature that the Amazon rainforest, which has been climate resilient for an astonishing 65 million years, will become savannah by 2050 due to a combination of forest fires, deforestation and climate breakdown, highlights the case that we are blithely undermining the ability of the Earth to sustain life. The expected ecological change in the Amazon will have regional as well as global climatic and economic consequences.

If we view the world in a fragmentary rather an integrated way we might think that as the Amazon rainforest is on the other side of the world we have nothing to worry about. If so we would be mistaken. For although we live on a small island we are a part of the biome and effected by ecological changes of even a moderate magnitude. Further, we are, as every farmer knows, part of the international economic order.

To take one example, Up to 90 per cent of feed that is fed to our cattle, pigs and poultry is in the form of soyabeans and maize grown in Argentina, Brazil and the USA. A major degradation of the Amazon rainforest, as the paper in Nature predicts, will affect rainfall patterns across the Americas leading to a calamitous fall in the amount of crops farmers in Ireland and much of the world use to feed their animals.

Another, not widely recognized way we are turning the world into ash and smoke is through the emission of methane gas from landfill sites, most of the organic matter from which it arises was produced by burning fossil fuels. A 2018 report by the World Bank states that methane from landfill sites makes up 11% of global warming gasses, a figure that is expected to rise substantially by 2050 due to an increase in the human population and the subsequent rise in the amount of food waste.

Our dependency on fossil fuels means that we are doing nothing less than making the world uninhabitable. Because our economy is out of sync with the regenerating capacities of the biosphere and its long-established meteorological patterns we could, within the span of a generation, find ourselves at the stage of ecological and social meltdown that Juba and many other places find themselves in today.

We our long-passed wake-up time in regard to aligning how we live with what the biosphere can cope with. However, as with our personal health, it is never too late to make positive eco changes as well as ensure that our local and central governments spend our money wisely which means on public services that benefit us all.