Category Archives: Eco-Awareness

Only the ‘Eco-Awareness’ columns from 2021 onwards are accessible here. For older Eco-Awareness columns by Larry Speight please click on the “Go to our pre-2021 Archive Website’ tag on the right of this page. Also see ‘Eco Echoes’ – a selection from his columns – in ‘Pamphlets’ under ‘Much more’ in the menu bar.

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: We are the words we use

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

When I was growing up in Belfast I was oblivious of the ideological and ethical meanings imbedded in the words people used. Rather, what my mind alighted on were accents. When I worked in community education I became so attuned to accents I could tell what part of the city the person I was listening to likely grew up in. Although this was interesting to know, a person’s accent did not tell me anything about their values, worldview or emotional disposition. Words, I came to appreciate, are more important than accents as they reveal a person’s unconscious biases, fears, aspirations, moral code and political ideology.

While I am still interested in accents and what they tell about a person’s background I am by far more interested in the words people use, especially when talking about public affairs. The following selection of phrases used to describe the ecological consequences of our behaviour are, as part of the dominant lexicon, fairly good indicators of what the likely outcome of our unfolding story on Earth will be.

A term used by a wide range of people to describe our warming planet and the accompanying consequences is ‘climate emergency’. The word emergency is commonly used to describe a serious situation that is temporary in nature. For instance, in the aftermath of a serious motor vehicle collision the emergency services are called who will respond with speed and use their skills and specialist equipment to mitigate the harm to all involved. There is no sense of permanency associated with the emergency. Likewise, with the word crisis. A crisis interrupts normalcy and all relevant resources are deployed to deal with it until such times as stability is achieved and a potential catastrophe averted.

To describe the warming of the planet and the consequent extreme weather events which uproot hundreds of millions of people on an annual basis. causing the premature death of tens if not hundreds of thousands of people, a temporary situation, as implied by the use of the word emergency, is not only inaccurate but harmful. It is harmful because believing that the rapidly warming planet is a temporary phenomenon does not incentivise us to structure the economy in a way that does least harm to it and its inhabitants.

The words emergency and crisis downplay the serious and in many cases irreversible consequences of global warming. Fiona O’Connor of the UK Met Office tells us that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere means that the planet will continue to warm for another hundred thousand years. This is approximately twenty times the amount of time that has passed since the advent of civilization, which is when our ancestors began to live in a network of urban settlements and developed economic and social hierarchies. Within this time scale the warming of the planet is not temporary but forever.

Other misleading terms which go unexamined are ‘normal society’ and ‘common-sense’. Unlike weights and measurements as determined and overseen by the International Committee for Weights and Measures set up in France in May 1875 there is no authority that specifies what constitutes a normal society and defines what is common-sense.

Yet people in Northern Ireland are commonly heard to say that they want to live in a normal society. I am inclined to think that what they consider a normal society is a Disneyworld / advertisement version of society in which racial discrimination, the unfair treatment of women, economic injustice, widespread poverty, under-funded public services and wanton ecological destruction are rarely depicted. Through repetition, and lack of critical critique, the public mind comes to consider the construct as a depiction of normal society.

When the term ’common-sense’ is used the question to ask is whose common-sense?

When Donald Trump was president of the United States he, his advisors, financiers and supporters, thought that it was common-sense to nullify over 100 pieces of legislation governing air and water quality, wildlife and toxic chemicals which resulted in endangering the life of the entire population. In the Trumpian paradigm the common-sense role of government is to enable the wealthy and the corporations to make and retain as much money as possible without regard to nonhuman nature, economic equality and people’s health.

Being a good ancestor, as in taking care of our biosphere and cultural heritage for the benefit of future generations, is not common-sense for those who think that we are not charged with the welfare of future generations.

The term common-sense is held by its users to mean that which coheres with their preferences and view of the world as if these were supported by empirical evidence. As the term can mean almost anything it is a nonsense term. It is also a derogatory one as it implies that those who do not share your view of the world are not sensible and might in fact be deranged.

Deranged is tagged with another nonsense term that is widely used to demonise and undermine those who are fundamentally opposed to one’s worldview, this is ‘radical ideology’. The implication is that those thought to subscribe to a radical ideology should be on the police watchlist. Radical of course means to get to the root of something. Thus, scholars and investigators of all kinds are radical and whether people are aware of it or not they have an ideology. If, for instance, you think there should be no potholes then this view is part of your ideology and if you want to get to the root cause of why there are potholes then you are radical in this regard.

What we can take from this brief survey is that words and phrases can be used to enlighten, liberate, comfort or confuse, coerce, denigrate and shame. As participants of the ultimate democracy, which is the use of language, we should be mindful of the embedded meaning in the words we and others use. Such mindfulness is critical to nurturing good personal relationships and creating a better society.

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Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: The parable of the Good Samaritan

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Most readers are probably familiar with the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke. In the parable a man asks Jesus “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus by way of illustration tells the story of a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho who is set upon by robbers who leave him by the roadside cut, bloodied and half dead. Two people who see him, one of whom is a priest, pass him by without stopping. A Samaritan who was passing tends to the injured man, transports him on his animal to an inn and pays for his keep until he is restored to health.

At this time most Jews hated Samaritans so the last person Jesus’s audience would have thought would help the injured man, who was a Jew, was a Samaritan. The point that Jesus made was that everyone is our neighbour even those we might think of as the other and are hostile to the community one identifies with.

The concept of the Good Samaritan has a cosmic dimension. As the Good Samaritan helped heal a stranger, who is dubbed by Jesus as a neighbour, we should be a good Samaritan to the Earth inclusive of its bodies of water, the soil in fields and gardens, habitat and all forms of life bar the viruses, bacteria and parasites that are known to harm us.

One of the traits of the Good Samaritan is that he was selfless, he acted out of compassion without any thought of personal gain. This is what we need to keep in mind when corporations and financial institutions announce that they are committed to reducing their level of global warming emissions and be carbon neutral by 2050. Are corporations Good Samaritans, working selflessly to restore the ailing Earth to good health, or are they interested in financial gain?

The evidence in the financial sections of the press and audio media suggest that the mission of large corporations to become ‘green’ is based not on a love of the natural world but on a desire to make money. Governments are duplicitous in that they vocalise what they think the electorate want to hear, which is that they are taking action to reduce the emission of global warming gasses and the loss of biodiversity whilst whole-heartily supporting the extraction of the very fuels whose use increases global warming and the loss of biodiversity..

The conundrum that society finds itself in is that obtaining and processing the enormous amount of minerals necessary to produce, distribute and store renewable energy will make much of the Earth uninhabitable as well as cause great harm to the Indigenous communities in which large quantities of these minerals are located.

Institutions that advocate renewable energy without at the same time working to change some of the fundamentals of how we live such as our high level of consumption of meat and dairy, reliance on private rather than public transport, fast fashion in clothes and many other things besides, are doing what a U.S. Major told the journalist Peter Arnette after the 1968 Battle of Ben Tre, Vietnam, that “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

In other words, the approach the powerful institutions take, who incidentally construct the parameters in which we make our personal commercial choices, is so counter to serving the common good that it might be considered insane in the sense of destroying something in the belief that in doing so it will be saved. Unlike the restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral after in went up in flames in April 2019 some eco-systems once destroyed cannot be restored and species driven to extinction are gone forever.

What is rarely mentioned by the organisations who blow the trumpet for electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels is the enormous amount of minerals that go into their manufacture and the infrastructure that sustain them. Once mined, at the cost of immense ecological devastation, and in many cases the abuse of human rights as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the minerals have to be refined, which involves the use of large quantities of toxic chemicals, eye-watering amounts of water and fossil fuel generated energy.

The report Minerals for Climate Action, 2019, by the World Bank Group, informs us that the zero emissions economy, if realised, will increase electricity demand from 28,000 Twh in 2022 to over 100,000 Twh by 2050. A Twh is a unit of energy representing one trillion-watt hours. This means that an estimated 3 billion tons of minerals will be needed up until 2050 which is more than has been extracted from the Earth in the entire span of human existence.

A zero-emissions economy that leaves the structures that underpin gross economic inequality in place, an agricultural system that is responsible for one-third of global warming emissions, and leaving indulgent consumerism unaltered, will not, as a Good Samaritan would want, restore the Earth to good health. This in spite of the case that a global economy based on renewable energy would, once established, emit less global warming gases than one based on fossil fuels.

A question we should ask is would we want to live in a world with even scarcer flora, fauna, fungi and bodies of fresh water than presently exist? Aside from the joy and wonder they provide, a severely contracted biodiversity could lead to the collapse of the global ecosystem resulting in our extinction.

What might bring about the outcome a Good Samaritan would want for the injured Earth and its suffering people is a new, or perhaps rediscovered, mega-narrative in which the right to a life of well-being includes all beings, not simply human beings. This is in contrast to the story we tell ourselves about our place in the world which in general is that the Earth is a warehouse full of insentient resources which we are entitled to consume without regard for the needs of subsequent generations and the welfare and survival of our nonhuman neighbours.

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Eco-Awareness: The myth that all will be well in the end

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

There is a part of the human psyche that wants to dwell forever in childhood, a place of happy endings, comforted by the thought that as the Big Bad Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood met a sorry end we can expect our own tribulations to end well. When we had fearful and worrying moments as children we would, if we had attentive parents or carers, be comforted by their explanation that our anxiety had magnified our worries and all would be well.

The message that all will be well is one we have ingested all our lives. This is the primary message of most religions, which is that if we adhere to a particular set of beliefs and code of living the prospect of spending eternity suffering in Hell won’t materialize. That all will be well in the end is the bread-and-butter message of political parties of all hues. If you vote for us, they tell the electorate, your aspirations to live a better life in a better society will be met. They assure us that unlike the other political parties they have the magic formula to put everything right.

The transnational corporations also appeal to our Peter Pan yearning to live in a fantasy land of perpetual play where the vile pirates, the threats to our wellbeing, are always defeated. At this point in history when our frivolousness, ignorance and hubris have brought the Earth’s life support systems to the point of collapse the infantile part of ourselves is more than willing to accept the message of the corporations that we will hasten the transition to the paradise of a green economy through buying their supposed energy saving, carbon neutral, ecologically sustainable, ethically produced products.

In appealing to our primeval desire to be comforted, protected, and our wish for all our trials to have a happy outcome, society’s pivotal institutions ask one simple thing of us, which is to place our faith in them. That so many people do in no small measure accounts for wars that cause unimaginable suffering and trauma, deaths by the tens of thousands and in some cases millions, as has happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the destruction of the natural and human constructed world.

Our blind faith in the pivotal institutions helps account for climate breakdown which in 2022 is thought to have caused the premature death of 60,000 people in Europe alone and led to the rise of heat-related deaths in the United States by 95% in the years 2010 to 2022. Worldwide, hundreds of thousands die and millions are displaced by climate breakdown every year.

Blind faith in our institutions allows for gross economic inequalities, which among other indignities means that billions live out their lives trapped in extreme poverty. UN-Habitat inform us that in 2020, 1.1 billion people lived in slums, a figure that is expected to rise to 2 billion by 2030. Rural areas also suffer from poverty, which the UN says is 17.2% higher than in urban areas. As we in Ireland know poverty in the high-income countries is unacceptably high.

As a society we need to awaken from our induced infantilism in regard to societal problems and no longer passively accept the mantra of our pivotal institutions that all will be well if we have sufficient faith, vote for them and buy their products. Highlighting the pitfalls of not questioning those in authority Frank Herbert, author of the bestselling 1965 novel Dune, said in an interview with Mother Earth News in 1981 that he thought President John F. Kennedy was among the most dangerous leaders his country ever had. This is not because he thought Kennedy was malevolent but because people didn’t question him.

It is ironic that in spite of the emphasis society places on each new generation receiving a good education, and the widespread understanding that education is a life-long process, we don’t sufficiently question the soundness of the dominant political – economic paradigm or the lived theology of our religious institutions.

In regards to the former, while the major political parties are emphatic in saying that they want fundamental change, each, without apparently being aware of their cognitive dissonance, advocate they very thing that is the cause of the rapid degradation of the biosphere and so much human suffering. This is continual economic growth. Consuming more means more mining, poisoning of rivers, lakes and sea, an increase in the loss of biodiversity, air and noise pollution, traffic congestion, more Indigenous communities expelled from their ancestral lands, and rising temperatures. As Joyetta Gupta writes in Scientific America, March 2024, “There are limits to our natural resources. At some point they run out, or we ruin them.”

Many religious people, perhaps the majority, accept without question the idea that the primary purpose in life is to ensure that they and their loved ones go to Heaven rather than Hell. The belief that of all the species that have existed in the 3.7 billion years of life on Earth, Homo sapiens is the only one that is immortal is the ultimate in exceptionalism and gives license for humans to treat nonhuman beings as objects. Within the framework of religious belief it is reasonable to think that God did not create multiple forms of life for humans to mistreat – as in factory farming, destroy – through agricultural run-off, and exterminate.

The idea that all will be made well by technological innovation in the form of electric vehicles, solar, wind and nuclear-generated energy, is one of the most dangerous myths of our time as it is so readily accepted by the Peter Pan part of our psychology. This is our inclination to believe in implausible things such as that we can reduce our negative impact on the biosphere without changing our life-style, that there are no moral constraints on how we treat nonhuman nature and regardless of our eco-callousness all will be well in the end.

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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.

Eco-Awareness: Locked-in poverty syndrome

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

I normally write my column in the cool wet climate of County Fermanagh assured that at this time of the year the day time temperature won’t rise about 8 or 9 Celsius. On this occasion I write from Juba in South Sudan where I can be assured that it won’t rain and the day time temperature won’t fall below 38 Celsius.

Living here one cannot avoid noticing the negative impact that the economic imperative to survive, underpinned by cultural practices, has resulted in the near complete negative transformation of a biome.

Outside the sprawl of Juba, the country’s capital with a population of 460,000, are the lands of the Bari Tribe. Over the last few decades, the land has morphed from being a verdant rainforest into a bio-impoverished expanse of savannah. This has been due to the felling of the forest to make charcoal for use in the villages, in Juba and for export to Saudi Arabia. The cultural practice of regularly setting fire to the grass and small bushes prevents the forest regenerating.

The transformation of rainforest to dry savannah is a classic case of what happens when a society lives beyond its eco-regenerative capacities through opting for short-term financial gain at the expense of persistent if not permanent economic hardship.

The loss of the rainforest has led to the loss of the produce and services it provided the Bari people and neighbouring tribes. These include a cooler climate, shade from the sun, a reliable supply of fresh water, medicines, fiber, food, wood, as well as materials for a range of useful implements and decorative accessories. It also meant the loss of agroforestry, which is the practice of growing crops and keeping a small number of economically useful animals among the trees. In addition, the loss of the forest has meant the loss of an important sequester of carbon and has had an impact on the local weather system. When the rainy season arrives, it will inevitably lead to severe flooding as it has done in the past.

There is nothing to replace these losses as given the lack of paved roads, electricity, piped water and the ever-present threat of tribal animosities resulting in widespread violence, economic development, whether indigenous or from an international company, would be difficult or unlikely. Thus, we have a locked-in syndrome of poverty.”

The removal of the threat of widespread violence could see a major company wanting to buy or rent Bari land and use it to produce plantation crops for both domestic consumption and export. Plantations, however, do not aid biodiversity, rely on expensive imported hazardous chemicals, employ relatively few people who are usually underpaid with the economic profits going abroad rather than circulating in the local economy.

This tragic scenario of ecological degradation leading to the locked-in syndrome of poverty is not particular to this part of South Sudan. It is the case in many parts of the world including Ireland as illustrated by the ecological degradation of Lough Neagh, other bodies of water, and the steep loss of biodiversity due to the Forestry Department’s over-reliance on coniferous trees and the farming community’s over-reliance on diary, beef and poultry. Northern Ireland in fact ranks 12th in the world for biodiversity loss.

Many of the businesses that relied on Lough Neagh are in decline as a result of the blue-green algae that has blighted the lough in recent years. Among them are eel fishing and leisure boating. Other bodies of water that were once replete with fish no longer provide suitable habitat for them due to agricultural run-off and the disposal of untreated sewage.

This takes us to the nub of the issue, which is how do we meet our needs, essential and relative, whilst not at the same time undermining and eventually eradicating the bounty of the Earth without which our needs cannot be met.? Is it wise, and do we think it is ethical, to meet the needs of the present at the expense of experiencing chronic need in a few years or decades time? Do we take our ecological legacy into account in the decisions we make?

As a society it seems we have opted, perhaps contrary to our avowed moral code, to live by the credo “I’m all right Jack”.

As a result of the imperative to meet pressing needs, as well as prepare for a rainy day, we by default largely rely on patterns of thought, dispositions and beliefs that are not fit for purpose. We behave in a way that a family business would not which is to use up all of our capitol in the form of the intact ecosystems left to us by passed generations.

Although it is said that we learn from our mistakes we often don’t. In regard to the harms we cause to nonhuman nature, which includes the over-heating of the planet and loss of biodiversity, we have not acted with the urgency, imagination and doggedness necessary to address them.

Like the Bari Tribe, who were unable to modify their long-established land-management practices in regards to felling trees for charcoal, communities the world over are finding that as a result of being unable to live within the regenerative capacities of their ecosystem that they are marooned in a locked-in poverty syndrome. Ecological destruction increases poverty which exasperates ecological destruction which in turn deepens the level of poverty.

It does not have to be this way. The move in the Republic of Ireland to recognize the rights of nonhuman nature in their constitution offers some hope. Many countries already recognize that nonhuman nature has rights comparable to those of people. Imagine the positive transformative impact across society if the rights of nonhuman nature were respected.

Like human rights in many a political jurisdiction, enshrining the rights of nonhuman nature in a country’s constitution does not mean they will be protected but it sets an important moral standard and wrongdoers can be held to account.

Eco-Awareness: The Paradox

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Paradox

If any of us went to see our doctor for a health check and the results revealed that all was not well we would immediately address the problem which might include eating less processed food, committing to a regime of daily exercise, getting sufficient sleep and if we drink alcohol reducing the amount we consume. For, unless we are in a state of despondency, we want to be as healthy as we can for as long as we can. Not only because we want to live an enjoyable life and there are things we want to accomplish but also because we don’t want to leave our loved ones bereft through our premature death. Yet, when it comes to the ill-health of our extended selves, the biosphere, without which we would not exist, we respond to the evidence of its critical condition with a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders.

There are studies galore that describe the poor health of the planet. A recent report published by the non-profit organization Climate Central, based in Princeton, New Jersey, found that the past 12 months were the hottest since records began with one quarter of humanity experiencing dangerous levels of extreme temperature. In September, Science Advances, informed us that 6 of the 9 planetary boundaries have been breached. These boundaries they say “are critical for maintaining the stability and resilience of the Earth’s system as a whole.” Studies published in advance of COP28 show that rather than reducing our consumption of fossil fuels, as we should be doing, consumption is rising in spite of the investment in renewable forms of energy.

Scientific research tells us that we are living in a new human created geophysical epoch called the Anthropocene which is significantly less benign than the Holocene epoch of the past 11,700 years. It was the Holocene period that provided the conditions that allowed civilizations to flourish. Life in the Anthropocene epoch will be exceedingly difficult for human and nonhuman beings alike rendering the Enlightenment idea of progress redundant and much of our sophisticated technology unusable.

A paradox of this tableau is that while we our concerned with our own wellbeing and that of family, friends and acquaintances we are not concerned enough about our extended selves to do something meaningful about it. I am inclined to think that Hannah Arendt, author of the best-selling book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil’ (1963), shines light on this paradox.

Arendt is of the view that horrendous deeds, such as the industrial-scale mass murder of Jews and other peoples by the Nazis during the Second World War can, aside from hate and furry, stem from automated instruction-obeying behaviour rooted in a lack of critical thinking. In other words, people will do terrible things because they are told to by someone in authority or because they regard what they are doing as normative and therefore don’t think about its meaning and consequences.

This lack of critical reflection, or one might say complacency, can largely be attributed to the strong desire humans have to belong to a group, a tribe and in recent centuries a nation. The wish to adhere to prevailing norms is a part of our social-navigation software with our antenna alerting us to align with the prevailing views and behaviour of the group / tribe we feel we belong to or risk being scorned as deviant or out-of-touch. The commercial world is well aware of this and uses the persuasive power of advertising to reinforce or change what is considered normative and desirable. This November and December £9.5 billion will be spent in the UK doing precisely this.

The answer to the riddle of why we don’t extend our strong desire to care about our personal wellbeing to the biosphere is because our society does not value it. The biosphere is perceived as external to us rather than part of us. It is the ‘other’.

Viewing living entities as ‘other’ enables both ecocide and genocide.

The Hutu militias who massacred an estimated 800,000 Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994 called the Tutsi “inyenzi” – cockroach, and “inzoka” – snake. In Hitler’s Germany, Jews were called “Untermensch”, subhuman. Many Turkish people referred to Armenians as “dangerous microbes”. When Europeans colonised the Americas, Australia and other parts of the world they called the Indigenous people brutes and savages on the basis that they were thought not to have a soul as they supposed themselves to have.

Committing ecocide without the enormity of what we are doing dawning on us is what makes it banal. We have wiped whole habitats from the face of the earth along with thousands of species. We are in fact living through the sixth mass extinction and are on course to extinguish a million species in the next few decades.

The worldwide annual consumption of 8,127,632,113 chickens and 3,331,950,000 cattle together with a plethora of other farm raised animals can justifiably be called ecocide especially when the horrendous ecological consequences of rearing and transporting the animals to the point of sale is taken into account. The banality of the infliction of so much suffering is underscored by the fact that it draws so little comment.

Is ecocide a sin?

Do religious people hold that poisoning soils and rivers, felling primary forest, polluting the atmosphere with emissions, noise and light amount to turning one’s back on God? Is striving for infinite economic growth, with the annihilation of life this causes, to disown God? Further, is the method of keeping billions of sentient, intelligent, imaginative, problem-solving, familial-bonding creatures in sensually deprived conditions an affront to God? These are pertinent questions as religious beliefs are an integral part of the dominant paradigm which, if we wish to be considered good ancestors, we should examine with the thoroughness of a forensic scientist.

Whatever the outcome of COP28, and other ongoing negotiations to regulate our relationship with the biosphere, we are unlikely to follow through on any positive agreements without embracing the idea that our extended self, the biosphere, has moral value and an intrinsic right to exist. As the Brazilian Indigenous academic and activist Ailton Krenak says in his book ‘Life is not Useful’ (2020): “Either you hear the voices of all the other beings that inhabit the planet alongside you, or you wage war against life on Earth. Waging war against life on Earth is what we are doing and unless we cease our defeat is assured as is the elimination of most life-forms we share with this small spherical rock.

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: War and our treatment of nonhuman nature

Our ruination of the biosphere, which day-by-day undermines the long-term survival of humankind, has much in common with the use of violence, particularly in war.

The causes of war and ecological destruction are not incomprehensible as they are the result of a given set of ideas. The blue-green algae which is extinguishing the bio-richness of our loughs, most noticeable in Lough Neagh and Lough Erne, is a direct result of society regarding nonhuman nature as a collection of inanimate discrete things which we feel entitled to do with as we wish, rather than, as a sensitized, interconnected community of life-forms.

This belief about nonhuman nature is so hardwired into our culture that few are aware of the part it plays in their reasoning and behaviour. This means that when we look at a forest we don’t see trees but timber, when we see non-domesticated animals living on the land, in water and in the air we readily categorize them as prey or pest. Sand extracted from the bed of Lough Neagh or from a sea shore is regarded as building material rather than habitat that plays a vital role in the overall health of the lough or seashore.

As a society we take what we want from the natural world and drop, dump, pour and emit our waste into it without regard for the consequences. If we clear-fell trees from hillsides, rather than harvesting them in an ecologically sustainable way, we should expect the inevitable, which is that our towns and cities are liable to flood after a long spell of heavy rain.

If we want to live in a world with a tolerable climate, rich in biodiversity, free from noise and light pollution, with plentiful supplies of fresh water and nutritious food then we have to change our understanding of our place in nature and rapidly transition to a way of life that respects the integrity of the living world. We, in other words, have to reconfigure our mental landscape. Or as Albert Einstein said “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive.” (New York Times, 25 May 1946)

In spite of the science, we are unfortunately not doing this. This is illustrated by the main Irish and UK political parties, who with an eye on the next general election, talk of real change whilst promising us more of the poison that is killing the Earth and ourselves which is infinite economic growth. Their cogitative dissonance makes it seem as if they the are living inside a fairytale.

Our fixation on the idea that nonhuman nature as a collection of discrete things is of the same genera as the mindset that underpins wars such as those being fought between Russia and Ukraine and between Israel and Hamas. Each of the warring parties regards the other as existing outside the fold of humanity. As with the predominant view of nonhuman nature the perceived enemy is regarded as alien and therefore can be subjugated, if not eradicated, with a free conscience not least because the warriors are convinced that their mission is endorsed by God.

This is what Europeans did in the Americas, Australia and elsewhere. As with the two major ongoing wars the end goal was land and as the Indigenous people could not be wished away, war was made upon them. The mental trick that enables people to do this with a clear conscience is their sense of entitlement for which a rationale can always be found.

In regards to abuse of nonhuman nature there is the self-justifying refrain ‘if I don’t someone else will’. Thus, a forest, which is home to a multitude of species, is felled for wood or to provide land on which to grow soya for livestock which is eaten for dinner. The religious can find permission for satisfying their sense of entitlement in a sacred text. Reference is frequently made to Genesis 26-31:

And God said …. let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air, and over the cattle and all of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

Most Israeli people base their right to live on land taken from the Palestinians on the Torah which says that the land was given to Abraham and his descendants by God. President Putin’s claim to Ukraine is based on the belief that Russians and Ukrainians were always “one people”. He thus sees himself as divinely appointed to right an historical wrong.

The European colonization of Turtle Island, which today is called the United States, was based on a sense of entitlement which became crystalized in the mid-19th century in the idea of manifest destiny. The idea, which holds that the country was granted to the European settlers by Providence, was articulated by John O’Sullivan who in a newspaper article in December 1845 argued that manifest destiny was a moral absolute that outweighed all other considerations.

The way out of our deeply ingrained sense of entitlement, that our needs have priority over the welfare of others, including nonhuman life, is through education. This not only involves learning about such things as climate breakdown and history but includes expanding the circumference of who we feel empathy for, improving our ability to make connections and consider consequences, learning to listen to others in the context of their circumstances, and regularly testing our views and behaviour against the right of communities, cultures and most life-forms to live unmolested.

Eco-Awareness: Maltreatment of our loughs is emblematic of how we treat the biosphere

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.

Eco-Awareness: The fires in North America

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The fires in North America, and the recent one in Hawaii, absorb the attention of most of us. They are the imagined Earth-on-fire apocalypse of the distant future brought rudely into our present.

The roaring red flames, thick smoke blanketing entire landscapes, burnt buildings, scattered skeletons of motor vehicles, the tales of frantic escapes and the tragic deaths chime with some of our deepest fears of what might befall us, our children, grandchildren, friends, neighbours, civilization and the very fabric of the world. Cormac McCarthy in his novel The Road, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, gives us a glimpse of what trying to survive in a burnt-out ecosystem might mean.

Thankfully, as a global community, we are not living in the very scary world described by McCarthy and if we listen to the scientists and heed what our collective experiences are telling us, we probably don’t have to.

There is little doubt, as the World Weather Attribution initiative tells us, that the heatwaves in North America and Europe this summer, as well as the melting of the ice sheets in Antarctic, would have been “virtually impossible” without human induced global warming. If we want to live in a predictable, benign climate we know what to do to address global warming which is to act on two fronts simultaneously.

One of these is to persuade our government to work in unison with other governments to change the economic framework in which the transnational corporations and financial institutions operate. The mechanisms that enable this to happen already exist. We also, metaphorically, have to leap out of our warm beds on a cold night and close the windows that are letting in the storm. In other words, we have, without delay, to live a less fossil fuel intensive life-style which means eating less meat, dairy and travelling when feasible by public transport as well as walking and cycling. All of which, it is satisfying to know, will improve our physical health, emotional wellbeing and enrich our sense of place.

Another thing that we need to do is restore our seriously degraded ecosystems.

One reason why the fire in Hawaii was so intense and spread so fast is because much of the original forests had been clear-felled and turned into sugarcane and pineapple plantations. When these crops could be produced and harvested more cheaply elsewhere the companies abandoned the land which was colonised by highly flammable grasses and shrubs which had been brought to Hawaii to provide livestock foliage and for decorative purposes as early as 1793. Today almost a quarter of the land area of the Hawaii chain of islands is covered with these grasses and shrubs. The Pacific Fire Exchange organization say that this situation can be reversed by planting native trees.

This year, as of the 28 August, the wildfires in Canada have burnt more than 151,615 sq. kilometers or nearly 59,000 sq. miles of forest. A cause, in addition to global warming, is that the timber companies replaced the bio-diverse, multi-aged, damp forests with monocrops. These are single species, single age trees, readily seen in Fermanagh, and were planted in regimented lines across the landscape. These tree plantations are not only more susceptible to fire than the native forests but also enable the rapid spread of diseases.

Another factor is that the Indigenous people in North America managed the forests in such a way that their fuel load was reduced, which meant that forests were less combustible and when they did catch fire were less likely to burn for weeks on end.

The recent wildfires in Hawaii, in southern Europe and the massive ones presently burning in Canada are a wake-up call for us to regard our local ecosystem as something very precious which we need to take care of and restore to good health. Equally, we need to be concerned about the Earth as a whole and educate ourselves about where what we consume comes from, how it is processed, how it gets to us and if the workers along the line are paid a decent wage and treated with dignity.

We live in an age when it is imperative that we recognize that Nature has no borders, that there is no us and them, and all things are connected, including the present and the future.

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: The Seventh Generation

The term ‘economic growth’ must rank as one of the expressions most commonly used by politicians, and economic commentators the world over. Certainly, politicians in English-speaking countries use it in almost every speech on public policy. In the same way as the world was once described in a way that referenced males as the primary change markers and doers, the default way human welfare issues are framed is in terms of continual economic growth. As the former view of the world is oppressively askew so is the view that human wellbeing is almost entirely depended on the economy continuing to grow.

The reasoning that underpins continual economic growth is that not only does it provide people with jobs by which they can earn an income to support themselves and their family but it provides government with tax revenue which they can spend on public services. The equation is that economic growth means more money going into government coffers leading to better public services, which in turn means a healthy, educated population who contribute to economic growth. The high level of crushing poverty across the globe and the deep alienation many feel, as in part reflected in the large number of people suffering from poor mental health, shows that the system simply does not work.

The idea that economic growth is indispensable to our wellbeing has been deeply inculcated into the common consciousness by the agencies of socialization. In fact, so ingrained is the belief that institutions that pride themselves on the notion of being impartial, such as the BBC, present figures that suggest that the economy is growing as a good news story, something to feel cheerful about. The ecological destruction and human injustices that underpin the figures are considered irrelevant and so are not mentioned.

On examination, the idea that continual economic growth is the solution to societal woes, can be seen for what it is, a fairytale. This is because it is mathematically impossible for the finite to contain the infinite. Although the Earth is dynamic as in seasonal changes, evolution and extinction, earthquakes and the eruption of volcanos, its measure of resources such as water and minerals are fixed. The visual fact of this is depicted in the dramatic Earthrise photograph taken on the 24 December 1968 by astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 orbit of the moon. In the picture the Earth is seen for what it is, a small self-contained blue and white spherical island of rock in the incomprehensible expanse of dark space.

A tragic outcome of the fable of unlimited economic growth is that we have designed a linear rather than a circular economy. One is which we mine, process, manufacture, use and discard. In doing so we emit global warming gases, extinguish other species and pollute the soil, air and water making life increasingly hazardous, and in many cases, impossible for ourselves and other life forms.

The ubiquity of the belief in continual economic growth, embodied in the idea of Gross National Product (GNP), is not only due to the potency of our socializing agencies but our inclination to believe in impossible and hardly plausible things. A discerning politician who saw the reality of the fairytale was Robert F. Kennedy, brother of assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

In his March 1968 campaign speech for U.S. presidency made at the University of Kansas, Kennedy critiqued GNP saying that it encompassed air pollution, the destruction of the redwood forests, the loss of habitat to urban sprawl, napalm and nuclear warheads. It measures, he said, “everything … except that which makes life worthwhile.” That, which makes life worthwhile, should be the essence of any economic system. Not worthwhile only for the richest 1% who consume more than their fair share of the Earth’s resources but for the entire human family including the unborn generations.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which compromised six nations who prior to the arrival of Europeans lived in what is today the northern part of New York state, made decisions on the basis of the impact they would have on the seventh generation. Of particular concern was the long-term impact decisions would have on the biome. The credo extends empathy and compassion to people who will be living 150 years after we are dead. By way of contrast when Michael Gove was the Environmental Secretary in 2017 he warned that due to the eradication of soil fertility through intensive agriculture the UK had 30 to 40 years of harvests left.

If the seventh-generation philosophy guided our decisions, rather than the four to five-year election cycle, we would steer the world away from the pursuit of economic growth towards an ecologically sustainable economy in which the emotional as well as material needs of everyone are met.

If nothing else the prevalence of mental health problems, climate breakdown, the loss of biodiversity and rising poverty tell us that the orthodox economic construct has failed and a rethink is long overdue. We revaluate and change our paradigms in regards other areas of life. This will happen in the aftermath of the tragic implosion of the submersible en route to view the remains of the Titanic lying on the seabed of the north Atlantic. Why not apply the same rigorous assessment to the long-term feasibility of continual economic growth and consider other economic models?

This is something Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados encouraged world leaders to do at the recent two-day climate summit in Paris arguing for a radical reform of the global financial architecture put in place after World War 11. She told the delegates:

What is required of us now is absolute transformation and not reform of our institutions.”

Commensurate with this required change is a need to change our view of nonhuman nature from one that sees it as a collection of things that have economic value to one that regards it as an integrated body of life forms that have intrinsic value.

Meanwhile the global temperature is rising, the world’s soil is becoming less fertile and the clock is ticking.