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: The choices we make about food

by Larry Speight

Imagine going to the market, leaving with three full bags of groceries and coming home. Before you step through your door, you stop and throw one of the bags into a trash bin, which is later hauled away to a landfill. What a waste. Collectively, that is exactly what we are doing today. Globally, 30 to 40 percent of food intended for human consumption is not eaten.”

(Chad Frischmann and Mamta Mehra, Scientific America, Spring/Summer 2022)

This statement succinctly sums up the cause of many of the ecological problems that are overwhelming the life-support systems of the planet which in turn undermine the ability of global society to meet the basic needs of all of its members.

Food waste is a crying shame in a world where an estimated 800 million people are perpetually hungry, which is one in eight people. Aside from this unnecessary suffering food waste is a major contributor to deforestation and by extension loss of biodiversity, water scarcity, soil depletion, the demise in the number of insects and insect species, air pollution and global warming. In regards to the latter food waste accounts for 8 percent of global warming gases. Such is the extent of the food industry’s dependency on fossil fuels there is probably not a single item of food in your kitchen that would not be there but for fossil fuels.

Thankfully the scourge of food waste is something we are able to immediately do something about. The means is valuing food more than the money we paid for it. If we saw food for what it is, which is one of the essentials of life, we might, as has long being the case, regard it as sacred. As we don’t throw what we regard as sacred, as having emotional value, into a rubbish bin, this would be the case with food if it were held in this regard.

To see food as having a value that transcends money, we need to appreciate all that it embodies. There is the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors, passed by word of mouth over thousands of years about which plants are edible, how they should be grown, harvested, stored and prepared for eating. Likewise with animals destined to be eaten. There were the cultural exchanges and trade that allowed the food of one culture to become the stable of another far distant one. There is also the physiology and biology of the plants and animals themselves as well as the ecosystem that sustains them. Not to be forgotten is the skill and care of the people who prepare our food, the time and effort it takes to earn the money to buy it, bring it home and pay for the gas or electricity that enables it to be cooked.

In our culture much of the food sold in shops is the outcome of intense processing and obscure packaging which has resulted in it no longer resembling food as we have known it through millennia. Walk along any supermarket aisle and we will find food marketed as cartoon-type entertainment, this is particularly the case with many breakfast cereals aimed at children. Food often comes in packaging whose images of happiness and wellbeing can never be realised. The marketing of foods as something which they are not, along with their fabricated colour and texture, makes it easy to throw them into the bin long before their sell-by date.

Aside from reducing the multitude of negative effects food waste has on the biosphere there is a further reason for households, and the whole food industry, to abolish food waste which is the sharp rise in inflation. In Northern Ireland it is 9.1% and expected to reach 11% this autumn. In the Irish Republic it is expected to rise to something close to the North within the same time period.

One simple way to curtail food waste and save money is to cook at home rather than buy take-away meals. Sandwiches made in your kitchen can be just as tasty as those bought in a shop, with the added benefit that they don’t have throw-away packaging.

A change that most people can make, with ever higher returns, is to grow as much of their own food as possible. This will not only save money on an ongoing basis but do wonders for one’s physical health and sense of wellbeing as well as benefit the planet. If you don’t have a garden, you could ask a neighbour if you could use theirs in return for a share of the food you grow. You could also ask your local council to provide you and your neighbours with an allotment. Reducing your intake of meat and diary will not only save money but improve your health as well as that of the Earth.

In a world dominated by conglomerates, powerful financial institutions and incompetent governments, all of whom believe in the myth of continual economic growth and that they are entitled to do with the biosphere as they wish, we still have the power to enhance our own lives and improve the health of the biosphere. Much of this power lies the choices we make about food.

Eco-Awareness: There is no nature separate from us

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 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.

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

There are no passives in nature:

A walk in a  rainforest

The following is based on a bat survey in a forest bordering Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica.

After a time my body sweat becomes indistinguishable from the humidity of the great forest. My rubber boots sink deep into the brown, squishing, sucking mud which at times seemed to want to swallow me into the forest’s digestive system. The tree roots of the Sangrillo trees spread over the forest floor like giant fingers and toes, gripping the earth, absorbing its nutrients. They stand in imposing silence, vigilant; bulky and tall, ecosystems within ecosystems.

To most people trees are simply trees generic. They grow in our gardens, fields and along city streets unnameable and often unnoticed. They are, however, personalities with a story to tell and are known to other trees with whom they communicate, cooperate and compete. They are a home, resting place, shelter, feeding station and social venue for other life forms. They hold the soil with its trillions of microorganisms in place. Many have medicinal properties. The Sangrillo tree for instance contains an astringent resin which can heal wounds. The Aztecs and Maya used its bark to make codices, a type of manuscript, and the Maya considered the tree, which is widespread throughout swampy coastal forests in Central and South America, as a link between Earth and Heaven.

Amongst the crowded, dense intensity of green growth, decaying trees, leaves, fruits and nuts one occasionally sees brilliant, radiant colours in the form of flowers. This afternoon, in the midst of the gloom of a prolonged heavy downpour, I saw a yellow flower as bright as a summer sun in the crown of a palm and a flaming red ribbed flower shaped like a miniature walking stick.

All the while there was the rhythmic drum-beat of the rain on the leaves, a mind-penetrating liquid sound that one comes to swim in. I stood still; listened, smelt, inhaled and visually absorbed the multi-dimensional drama of forest life.

When the rain ceased for short intervals the sound of birds and insects resumed. We came across a hawk, unfussed by our presence, emitting a continual chwirk to its companion somewhere unseen. Our eyes followed a family of 10 spider-monkeys as they climbed in single-file ever higher on the upper-most branches of one of the tallest trees in sight. They would have had a magnificent view of the forest, albeit one that would have a different meaning for them than it would for their human cousins.

Cobwebs, if not seen, can become entangled in one’s hair and spread like sticky thread across one’s face. Even when wearing long trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and a hat, ants, mosquitoes and other insects inevitably find some part of the body to bite. There are butterflies, dragon flies and frogs as small as your thumb nail. One such frog, common in this forest, is the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog whose main source of food are ants. At one point I came across an insect on the forest floor the very colour of the brown leaf it had concealed itself on. Its limbs looked like delicate twigs. I learned that it is locally called a gladiator and kills its prey by using its long limbs to trap them in a snapping spring-release like fashion.

If you ever venture into mature native woodland, which sadly is rare in Ireland, stand still, breathe deeply, look around, notice the multiple forms of vegetation, the immensity of the entanglement whose symbiotic relationships are mostly invisible to unaided human senses. Be mindful that you are in the midst of an evolutionary process too complex and dramatic to fully grasp. Reflect, in your transient moment, your nano-eternity, that you are in the woodland, be it for good or ill, as a participant.

There are no bystanders in nature, no audience, no passives. In nature we are all participants. Even when dead, we are in nature, an integral part of the billions of years old wondrous science of life. Given this we should take care of it. One way we can do this is by planting trees, the right one in the right place. Or pay an organization like the Woodland Trust to plant one, or two, or more on your behalf. Planting trees is one way of being a good ancestor.

After three hours in the forest we were back at the biological station in need of a shower and a complete change of clothes.

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: Learning From Indigenous People

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Our culture provides us with a sense of place and purpose on the basis of which we make assessments about what is good for us, our loved ones and community. Within this sphere, with its particular tribulations and contradictions, we seek an equilibrium, a mean point, in which we can earn our living, be ourselves with a minimum of stress and live a life of reasonable comfort in settings we find aesthetically pleasing as well as emotionally and intellectually enriching.

It seems that most people, even nomads, want the emotional security that comes from order, a level of predictability and routine. We, however, need at times to glide like a bird above the terrain of our familiar daily existence and like a good cook or artist use the everyday ingredients of life in novel ways to create something new; recast, reassemble, reconstitute the givens into a paradigm that better addresses our societal problems.

The increasingly horrendous consequences of climate breakdown involving the flooding, burning, melting and blowing-away of our world, and the rapid loss of biodiversity which is undermining the very basis of existence, means that we need to reimage our place on this planet of immutable ecological laws. Among other things this involves releasing ourselves from the destructive belief that humankind can supersede, ignore and live without the chemical and organic process of soil creation, photosynthesis and symbiosis.

As President Putin’s war, and the intentions of governments to increase their spending on armies and armaments attest, we also need to shed, as a snake does its skin, tribal and national identities of a belligerent hue. We can in large part do this, as well as live within the regenerative capacities of nonhuman nature, through integrating into our worldview the millennium’s old social and ecological wisdoms of the indigenous communities whose pre-industrial cultures remain in-tack or accessible. In fact, as the scientist and author Diana Beresford-Kroeger highlights in her book, To Speak for the Trees, (2019) there is much that Celtic culture can teach us in regard to living well with each other and nonhuman nature.

In summary, we need to learn how to really see, rather than simply act-out our culturally ingrained perspective, which in regards to nonhuman nature, is one of guilt-free entitlement to turn our immensely beautiful life-supporting biosphere into one of toxic rubble. There is no question that we need to avail of the natural world in order to live but as many indigenous cultures teach, and science confirms, we can do so with discretion and equity.

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: Everything is connected

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Some things we read, hear, and witness bring us up sharp, causing us to suddenly grasp the reality of something considered until then common and every-day. The awakening moves us to ponder about the subliminal reasons for the thing we have come to see more clearly and question the norms and values widely regarded as common sense; natural and inevitable. Many readers might consider the assertion that we are financing our own extinction as belonging in this category. In the context of our risk-averse society, which prides itself on its rationality and the use of evidence in decision making the idea that we would bring about our demise is widely considered absurd. If only this were the case.

The recently published report by Earth Track, an organisation which monitors subsidies which harm the biosphere, found that worldwide governments subsidise the destruction of nonhuman nature to the tune of $1.8tn a year. The fossil fuel industry receives $620bn, agriculture $520bn and water $320bn. High as the net figure is it is thought by the authors of the report, Doug Koplow and Ronald Steenblik, to be an underestimate as it does not include the subsidies given to mining, which annually cause billions of dollars’ worth of damage to ecosystems and it does not include the ecological costs of the withdrawal of freshwater for agriculture and industry.

It should be said that placing a financial cost on the harm done to nonhuman nature is problematic as it is misleading to place a monetary value on life which by definition has intrinsic value. These costs should be considered as indicators of the degree of harm done within the framework of the market economy. The financial cost aside there is no escaping the case that the harm we are doing to the biosphere could, if it is not soon abated, result in our extinction.

This, however, does not have to be. Although it is a long-shot we can, metaphorically, turn the ship of our throw-away, life-annihilating economy around. As the local and global economy is the manifestation of our cultural values, attitudes and perspectives, the means of doing this is through ensuring, by means of education, that the public thoroughly understand that everything is connected.

One of the cardinal fallacies of our time is the belief that we are not only biologically and existentially different from nonhuman nature but are categorically separate from each other. The latter belief is highlighted by the individualism that underpins much of the motivation behind the protests against the measures taken by governments to curtail the spread of Covid-19. Although some measures are contradictory and are a cause of anger what is overlooked is that some perceived individual freedoms impinge on the biological reality of our interconnectedness and social and economic interdependencies.

This sense of disconnectedness can be addressed through formal and informal education as in group discussions led by informed mediators, TV soaps, film, drama, art and documentaries. The story of what happened when wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone Park in the United States aptly illustrates the interconnected nature of ecosystems.

In brief the introduction of wolves resulted in elk, their main prey, changing their feeding habits and grazing less on young saplings which led to the regeneration of flora along river banks, which led to less soil erosion which meant less siltation in the rivers which caused the numbers of fish to multiply, benefitting bears and eagles whose left-overs aided other species. A key, eco-shaping species that benefited the return of the wolves, is the beaver. As habitat improved birds, bears and mice returned further accelerating regeneration. Each species, even some long-adapted ones, are part of the jig-saw of the eco-system in which they dwell and the loss of one can have a negative, often unforeseen, impact on the whole.

The inter-connectedness of life-forms and eco-processes needs to be embraced in a practical policy-making sense by our culture and economy if we are to avert our extinction and that of other species. The idea that we have a right to behave as we want regardless of negative consequences, something which is particularly prevalent in western societies as the ‘freedom protests’ illustrate, should be critically examined through the prism of connections by the broad range of agencies that perform an educational role.

That everything is connected is vividly illustrated by President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Within a short time of the invasion the price of wheat, corn, sunflower oil, fertilizers, oil and gas shot-up. These price rises adversely affect people across the world with harsh consequences for the billions living in low-income countries. The sharp rise in the price of bread and fuel often leads to the attempted over-throw of governments and in turn further suffering.

Awareness that everything is connected should sensitize us to the possible negative effects of our behaviour leading to better personal relationships and an ecologically healthier and more harmonious world. To this end it might be helpful to remember that a person is a ’we’ rather than an ’I’.

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: Caring for the whole biosphere

Two outstanding features of the multitude of commitments made to limit global warming emissions in order to prevent the average global temperature rising above 1.5C against pre-industrial levels by 2050 is the almost complete absence of any interest in preserving other species, habitats, and an element essential to life, the finite supply of clean water. The other notable feature is the almost universal view that what needs to change is our means of generating energy but not our conception of the good life on which the energy is expended. This is blind folly, strongly suggesting that we have an inaccurate, self-defeating sense of our place within nature.

While there are many organisations and individuals dedicated to halting species extinction and safeguarding the purity of water; conferences convened and summits held in an attempt to get governments to commit to binding conservation targets, the coverage of the issues in the mainstream media compared to that given to what is misleadingly called the climate emergency is scant and fleeting, Have you for example heard of COP15 or the Aichi Biodiversity Targets? I expect few people have.

A UN conference on preserving biological diversity was held in Aichi, Japan in 2011 in which governments agreed on 20 targets to reduce the loss of biodiversity. Ten years later not a single target was met and during this time we exterminated species with aplomb. In May of this year, Covid-19 permitting, the follow up conference, COP15, will be held in Kunming, China. It aims to get governments to agree to conserve 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030 and reduce government subsidies that harm biodiversity by $500 billion a year.

Giving colossal sums of money to destroy our astoundingly beautiful biosphere with its wondrous sentient life is surely insane. It is akin to sitting in a tree and sawing off the branch you are perched on. When we see cartoon depictions of this we laugh at the absurdity of it and are genuinely puzzled by the short-sightedness of the person with the saw. That we fail to see ourselves doing this very thing in regards to the biosphere is surely a failure of our imagination especially when the mass extinction of species is thought by many biologists to be a greater existential threat than climate breakdown. Our blasé attitude towards fresh water increases this threat.

If anyone doubts the latter then what other explanation is there for us not providing our water authorities with funds sufficient to process our raw sewage rather than have it flow untreated into rivers and the sea? What accounts for the large number of people who flush sanitary products down toilets and the high number of mass fish kills in our rivers? In December 2021 the Northern Ireland infrastructure minister, Nichola Mallon, gave a measure of the extent of our lack of appreciation for fresh water when she told the Stormont Assembly that on average 7m tonnes of raw sewage are released into the country’s rivers and seas every year. About 200,000 tonnes pour into the catchment area of Lough Neagh, from which 40 per cent of Northern Ireland’s drinking water is sourced, and about 250,000 tonnes into Lough Erne.

This abuse of clean water occurs across our archipelago. In fact our misuse and abuse of water, with catastrophic consequences for humankind and whole ecosystems, takes place across the world. This is thoroughly documented by Fred Pearce in his book, When the Rivers Run Dry, (2019).

The systematic and casual abuse of water is illustrative of our instrumental relationship with the biosphere. In other words we think it is there for us do with as we wish without moral consequence. This attitude towards nonhuman nature has been stitched into our culture by our institutions, including most of the world religions, and is how climate breakdown is viewed and understood. Thus the techno approach to addressing climate breakdown, which is that we can abuse the biosphere as we have always done, vis-a-via unlimited consumption, but in a way that does not lead to the average global temperature rising above 1.5C. As for the loss of biodiversity and the pollution of water we imagine that we can live well-enough without the former and that there will be a techno fix for the latter. In spite of the major differences between governments on various issues what there is near consensus on is that the eco-ravaging consumer culture that underpins our exponential-growth economy is the only show in town.

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight

COP26, Success or Failure?

Whether one considers COP26 a success or not depends on one’s perspective.

Indigenous peoples, the Alliance of Small Island States, people who are vulnerable to extreme weather events and those who grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe that awaits because of the rapid breakdown of the stable climate we have enjoyed since the end of the last ice-age consider COP26 an abysmal failure. For the most part these groups have little economic and political power. The most powerful political and economic players generally consider COP26 a success. This group includes the fossil fuel industries, large corporations, banks, insurance companies, wealthy individuals and the politicians who benefit one way or another from their largess.

The interest group that had the largest number of delegates at COP26 was the fossil fuel industry with 500 people. Their role was to ensure that agreements were within the perimeters of the dominant economic paradigm. This is to say that the agreements did not meaningfully deal with eco-justice or reorient the international economic order towards meeting wellbeing needs but continue to pursue the impossible to realise the aim of infinite economic growth. The large number of representatives from the fossil fuel industry was probably unnecessary as most governments share their economic fantasy.

Among the outcomes was that the 12-year old agreement to transfer $100 billion annually to low-income countries to help them transition to eco-friendly technologies, prepare for and recover from the ravages of climate breakdown, was not met. The delegates agreed to return to the matter 12-months hence. In the meantime the needs of people in low-income countries who suffer from climate breakdown related weather events will go unmet, and as any agreement reached is not legally binding the annual transfer may never materialise. The $100 billion may seem a lot but in the view of John Kerry’s chief negotiator, trillions rather than billions are needed. The amount is between $2.6 trillion and £4.6 trillion every year. The hope of the Biden administration is that this will be in the form of private capital, which means the money will be directed towards profit making enterprises rather than those which pay ecological, and by extension, human wellbeing dividends.

An agreement was reached to end deforestation by 2030 and $17 billion was committed towards this end. This sum, insufficient as it is, may well materialise but will it go to corrupt politicians and functionaries or be administered by the indigenous communities on whose lands most deforestation is taking place? Given the head-spinning rate of deforestation what will be left of these bio-rich, water regulating, carbon absorbing ecosystems that are home to millions of people by 2030? Indigenous people ask why the wait? They want deforestation to end now. If banks, art galleries and properties of all kinds are protected 24/7 by guards, security apparatus and legislation why are forests not given the protection they need?

That said the rich countries are not wholly at fault. Within 24-hours of the agreement Indonesia, a country endowed with rainforests, said it had no intention of ending deforestation within the decade. The announcement was not welcomed by the indigenous peoples of the country.

Another headline grabbing agreement was the commitment of 450 major financial institutions in 45 countries to manage their collective assets totalling over $130 trillion in line with achieving zero global warming emissions by 2050. It transpired that this was not what it seemed as the financial institutions are free to invest in new fossil fuel projects. This is a classic Alice in Wonderland trick of believing in two contradictory things at the same time otherwise known as cognisant dissonance.

Among the other feeble agreements was the one on coal made on the fourth day of the conference and the one on cars made in the second week. It transpired that some of the signatories to the agreement on coal do not use coal and the major economies that do, including China, India and the US did not sign it. Although the agreement not to produce fossil fuel engines after 2040 was signed by some major car manufacturers others, including BMW, Toyota and Volkswagen, did not sign.

Many would consider 2040, in fact the lack of immediacy and robustness of all of the agreements, as indicative of the fact that the powerful entered COP26 with the intention of making the most miserly commitments they could towards meeting the Paris Agreement’s red line of keeping the average global temperature below 1.5C by 2050. If this was the case they succeeded.

Climate Action Tracker calculate that the average global temperature will, based on the commitments made, rise to 2.4C by 2050. This temperature will make life in many parts of the Earth impossible. One may gasp at the apparent irrationality of pursuing a course that leads to this outcome. Surely the kingpins of the political and economic world would not condemn humanity and other life forms to such a fate. It is not, however, irrational if you can’t imagine an economic model different from the present one and it is not irrational if you frankly don’t care about the fate of others.

This should not cause us to despair. In fact the outcome of COP26 could be considered a revelation. This is that the fate of the biosphere, eco and economic justice, rests in the hands of each of us. We can, through our behaviour, help change the direction we are travelling in. Recognising that we are responsible for the wellbeing of each other, future generations and other life-forms is the long stride we all need to take towards healing our bio-world. As with passengers in a small boat we all have a part to play in keeping it afloat.

Larry Speight was present in Glasgow for some of COP26 and a set of phpts taken by him there can be seen at

– – – – –


Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Understanding Cop26

By the time you read this Cop26 will be well under way and even if you had minimal interest in it, perhaps out of a mixture of despair and cynicism, you will nevertheless likely be aware that it is happening. As the outcome of the proceedings will profoundly affect every person and every generation until the end of humankind’s tenure on Earth, not to mention every species in the biosphere, there are some things it is important to know. Among these are its two cardinal aims.

The primary one is for the 196 countries who signed the 2015 Paris Agreement to pledge the amount of global warming emissions they will reduce by 2030 and each subsequent five years until they reach net-zero emissions by 2050. These pledges are known as ‘nationally determined contributions’. If the reduction pledges are less that what is required the average global temperature is expected to reach 2.7 degree Celsius by the end of the century. A temperature that will mean the end of civilization as we know it involving an unimaginable amount of suffering, hardship and the loss of much of humankind’s cultural heritage. The scientific consensus is that the rise in temperature can be kept below 1.5 degrees, as per the pre-industrial level, if significant reductions are made by the major economies. The global average temperature is 1.2 C while that of the Arctic is an alarming 3.5 C. These climate disrupting temperatures mean that the age of a lax regard to greenhouse gas emissions is over.

As a target is an aspiration unless based on a step-by-step procedure as to how it will be realized the signatures to the Paris Agreement have to submit a detailed plan as to how their emission reduction targets will be achieved. This involves intense political bargaining within each country as to what part of the economy has to make what greenhouse gas emission cuts. In Ireland, north and south, the sector over which much haggling is taking place is the beef and dairy sector. In the Republic the sector accounts for 37 per cent of emissions.

Another aim of Cop26 is for the wealthy countries to agree their individual share of the $100 billion annual transfer to the low-income countries to help them put in place technologies that have zero greenhouse gas emissions as well as help them mitigate and cope with the ecological catastrophes that will increasingly result from climate breakdown. The $100 billion is a fraction of the £2 trillion the International Energy Agency say is needed. The transfer pledge was made in 2009 and supposed to have been fully implemented in 2020.

Even if Cop26 goes as well as can be expected with ecstatic cheers all round there are a number of seemingly insurmountable hurdles countries have to overcome in meeting their pledges. These include dismantling and repurposing much of the physical infrastructure and financial arrangements that underpin our global economy as well as reconfiguring the dominant mindset which evolved in concurrence with them. Given the invested interests of powerful corporations and individuals making these changes within a short period of time will, even with the best of efforts, be no easy matter. The opposition of Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, to President Biden’s clean electricity program is an illustrative example. His refusal to vote in favour of the legislation has caused major setbacks. Readers may not be surprised to learn that he earns considerable financial dividends from his investments in the fossil fuel industry and represents a state which has a high number of jobs tied to coal.

The gargantuan nature of what is required is compounded by the clear lack of grasp governments, corporations, financial institutions and other bodies have of the need for a complete restructuring of society to take place without delay. Or it might be that these institutions understand the dimensions of the task but chose for the reason of short-term gain to take an incremental approach. This is one that, among other things, avoids constructing a rigorously fair and transparent taxation system, persuading people to significantly reduce their consumption of meat and dairy produce, ration their number of flights, and governments severely cutting back on the colossal sums annually spent on the military. In 2020 the global sum was $2 trillion. This includes the $72.6 billion the nine nuclear countries spent on nuclear weapons. The incremental approach, which is that of most governments, allows the vehicle we are collectively in to drive straight over the cliff into the abyss.

A number of reasons account for why society shies away from accepting that an ecological sustainable society, one that has zero greenhouse gas emissions, a thriving bio-diverse world and an absence of poverty and avoidable ill-health, cannot be a replica of our present consumerist society. The politics and marketing of electric vehicles in the format of the myth of individual autonomy and a means of status signalling exemplifies the commitment of governments and powerful business interests to the prevailing Earth destroying paradigm. This helps explain why the Irish and UK governments are intent on spending billions on new roads. The UK government plans to spend £27 billion over the next ten years.

The Earth destroying paradigm is summed up by James Ball in The New European, 21-27 October 2021. He writes that “Green tech and building can be good for growth and the environment.” Economic growth, dubbed green or not, is based on the extractive economy which in many instances has an inherent number of negatives including pollution, loss of biodiversity and poverty-level wages for many. This is in part illustrated by the case that the 70 per cent decline in the global population of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians since 1970 aligns with the worldwide rise in economic growth in this period.

The greatest impediment to becoming an ecological sustainable and equal society is not the lack of technical know how or organising abilities but our unwillingness to envisage such a society coupled with insufficient awe, love and respect for the natural world. As these can be addressed through education, in the holistic understanding of the term, there is no need for despair. Further, as each of us has a stake in the present and future health of the biosphere we are, whether we acknowledge it or not, ecological actors rather than spectators. Knowing this is empowering.

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight:

Dominant views, cognitive dissonance and climate breakdown

It can be said with reasonable confidence that few people are unaware of the disintegration of the bio-world as it has evolved since the last ice age 11,500 years ago. The response to its disintegration caused by how we have interacted with it over the centuries, and crucially since the industrial revolution, varies enormously.

The dominant view, biblical based and integral to capitalism, is that the Earth exists solely to meet the needs and wants of humankind. Other species, and natural processes deemed to have no practical use, or indeed considered impediments to furthering our perceived interests, are relocated, altered, destroyed or extinguished. An example is the building of the multi-billion pound HS2 high-speed train line from Birmingham to London in which every living thing in its path is sacrificed on the altar of economic growth. No amount of financial gain or travel time saved can ever replace felled ancient woodlands, altered river courses and the death of life forms through the loss of habitat.

Another view about the human-induced disintegration of the biosphere, one that is widely held but few admit to, is contained in the phrase ‘it’s no concern of mine’. This view is rooted in our culture of individualism which says one is primarily responsible for oneself, immediate family and close friends. Excluded are other folk, especially those we think of as outside our tribe, and other species. The ‘no concern of mine’ individualism encompasses the welfare of future generations who will have to live with our legacy, which as Pope Francis said is the “immense pile of filth” the “Earth has turned into”.

The trashing of nonhuman nature is based on another deeply rooted view which is that as it has no intrinsic value it is not deserving of our affection and concern. Thus litter, which is a serious hazard to wildlife, is tossed out of car windows, left by picnickers on beaches and dropped by walkers, cyclists and people who fish.

These views, combined with a degree of delusion, help account for the recent figures released by the UN which reveal that none of the commitments the 196 countries made to reduce global warming emissions at the climate change conference in Paris in 2015 have been met. In fact greenhouse gasses are on a trajectory to rise by 16 per cent by 2030 compared with 2020. This it is estimated will, if not reduced, raise the temperature to 2.7 degrees C by the close of the century. As the average global temperature continues to rise the commitments to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, which it is hoped will be underpinned by definite plans at the Cop26 conference in Glasgow in November, are seen as delusionary.

This delusion might well be due to a character trait we acquired to help us to survive. The trait induces us to say what we think others would like to hear and what we think aligns with the dominant political norms, rather than what we actually believe and are prepared to follow through on. The trait also manifests itself in people holding an idealized view of themselves markedly different from the type of person they actually are. This is particularly the case in regard to virtues including those related to living in an ecologically sustainable way. The inconsistency between belief and behaviour is known as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance underpins the societal approach to making the immediate and radical changes needed to rebalance our relationship with nonhuman nature. We say that it is imperative that this be done with governments and local councils declaring a climate emergency but act with complacency. Another example is the expression of intent to avoid a sixth mass extinction without doing anything meaningful to prevent it from happening in changing our habits of consumption.

The science is clear about the behavioural changes needed to reduce our global warming emissions and protect biodiversity. At a personal level these include an immediate and steep reduction in the amount of meat and dairy the average person consumes; walking, cycling and using public transport rather than travelling by private car and restricting aviation for leisure purposes. Cognitive dissonance also comes into play when we think that these changes are for others but not us.

For good or ill, governments circumscribe our lives and the options open to us. Their job in the area of ecological breakdown is to pass and enforce legislation that ensures ecologically sustainable practices are abided by in every economic sector. For the legislation to be effective they need to educate, incentivize and deter whilst ensuring that the poor, the vulnerable and marginalized are not penalized but rather, to use the words of the UK government, given the “levelling-up” support they need. Active citizenship involves persuading government to do what we would like them to do, which should be predicated on the common good.

The question is can we, individually and collectively, close the cognitive dissonance gap and cohere around an agreed set of restrictions and innovations to prevent the temperature rising above the 1.5 degree level by 2050 as well as abruptly bringing an end to the sixth mass extinction. With the global temperature now close to 1.2 degree C and global warming emissions continuing to rise this seems highly unlikely. This tragic state of affairs does not, however, release us from our responsibility to live as good eco-citizens and love the Earth as we love ourselves and our nearest and dearest. Any behavioural change that protects our wondrous and beautiful Earth, even by a small degree, is more than worth it.

– – – – –

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight

The IPCC Report & Exceptionalism

The August report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is not a flippant document. It is based on the contributions of 230 of the world’s leading climate scientists and was eight years in the writing. Nearly 4,000 pages in length it was approved by 196 national governments. Its key deduction is clear and unequivocal: humankind, which is you and me, our family, friends, colleagues and neighbours are responsible for climate breakdown.

Among the report’s findings is that if the present level of emission of greenhouse gases continues unabated the average global temperature will rise above the critical level of 1.50C by 2040, as against the pre-industrial level. This we are told will be catastrophic for humanity and the life forms we share the planet with. The day-to-day circumstances of our lives will be so changed that few will find any joy in living. What should serve as a wake-up call is that the two decades left before the planet warms to 1.50C is within the life-span of most people alive today.

The year 2040 is not a bold white line at a road junction marking pre and post 1.50 C for as the average global temperature rises so will the magnitude of ecological disasters and human suffering. This year with the temperature at 1.10 C above the pre-industrial level many people living in temperate climatic zones directly experienced the consequences of global warming.

A combination of drought and high temperatures turned forests into ash. The fires destroyed towns, killed hundreds of people, displaced hundreds of thousands and subjected tens of millions to toxic smoke. The fire in British Colombia killed at least a billion creatures, mostly marine life living close to the shore. The Dixie Fire in California, which started on 13 July, has to date burnt over 1,167 square miles of forest destroying public facilities and family homes. This July and August fires in California burnt 2,500 square miles of forest.

We know from our newspapers and TV screens of the terrible forest fires in Algeria, Cyprus, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Turkey and Siberia. The fires in Siberia are ominous as it is normally one of the coldest regions of the world. Floods washed away villages in central Europe killing in excess of 200 people, while over 300 people died in floods in China. The intensity of Hurricane Ida, which swept through Louisiana and Mississippi in late August, was likely heightened by climate beak down. In Armagh the temperature reached 31.40 C on 22 July, which is the highest temperature in Ireland since records began.

Giving voice to the seriousness of climate breakdown the UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, described the report’s findings as “code red for humanity”. We have as it were been given our orders, which is to radically reduce our emission of global warming gases through changing every aspect of how we live.

Contrary to the negative clichés, the outcome of the necessary changes will likely mean improved physical and emotional wellbeing. Cycling for example will make us healthier and fitter, prolong our expected life-span whilst saving us money. Travelling by public transport and car sharing should lead to greater social cohesion. Buying local produce will contribute to the local economy. Some people will have to make what they might initially consider sacrifices. These include significantly reducing their consumption of meat and dairy and flying less frequently. The former will lead to better health and the latter can mean we get to know and enjoy the world on our own doorstep. We will also be required to devote some of our time to petitioning public bodies, financial institutions and large corporations to play their part in reducing global warming emissions and protecting biodiversity.

If we really are the ‘wise ape’ we like to think ourselves as we can make the world a more liveable place through having a clear understanding of how we see our place in the world. An inherited view, one so embedded in our psyche we for the most part are unaware of it, is that we are exceptional. We for example consider ourselves the exception among all the species that have ever existed, so exceptional that we think of ourselves as immortal, destined for an eternity in either Heaven or Hell. This belief allows us to claim moral licence to commit ecocide and in any particular year incarcerate 70 billion sentient creatures in horrendous conditions for our culinary gratification.

For many the idea of exceptionalism encompasses the belief that Aboriginal peoples have no soul and thus can be exterminated and their possessions and lands taken at will. The papal bull Romanus Pontifex issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1455 provided European colonialists with the rationale to regard Indigenous people as soulless whilst giving them the legal authority to invade their lands, steal all they owned and subjugate them. In 1835 the Reverend William Yates expressed the view that Australian Aborigines “were nothing better than dogs and it was no more harm to shoot them than it would be to shoot a dog when he barked at you.” (*1) In 1902 the politician and businessman King O’Malley told the Australian Parliament that: “There is no scientific evidence that the aboriginal is a human being at all.” (*2) In our own time Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, told an audience that: “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry wasn’t as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated their Indians.” (*3)

This is the language of genocide. Taking other peoples’ land is theft. Obliterating nonhuman nature is ecocide. Destroying the entire biosphere for convenience is madness. From the exceptionalism perspective all this is nought against the belief most commonly held by religious people that “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John: 18:36) We not only think of ourselves as the exceptional species but also as the exceptional generation as we diligently disabuse the biosphere at the expense of all future human beings.

We almost certainly won’t accomplish what is required of us in regard to caring for the Earth unless there is a change in our collective mindset and we regard ourselves as Nature, without exceptions. Then we should be able to apply the golden rule of “do unto others as you would them do onto you” to the life forms, bar certain viruses, for whom Earth is also home.

(*1) The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, Wade Davis, 2009, p. 151

(*2) The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, Wade Davis, 2009, p. 151.

(*3) Ernest Londono, The New York Times, 10 November 2018.