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: Are electric cars really eco-friendly?

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

One of the most common things one hears political candidates say at election time is that they will bring about real change if elected. One usually does not have to listen very long to learn that what they mean by real change is an intensification of the effort to increase economic growth, which is widely considered to be the solution to most if not all of society’s problems.

The belief is the ideological bedrock of the main political parties in Ireland, the UK and across the world. Where the political parties strive to distinguish themselves from each other is the means by which economic growth will be achieved. Even when it comes to dealing with ecological catastrophes such as climate breakdown, loss of biodiversity and pollution the parties frame their solutions in terms of growth, albeit, with the prefix ‘green’ added.

When the mainstream politicians, CEOs and most commentators use the term ‘green’ they do not mean a change from viewing nonhuman nature in humancentric terms as in it is a collection of resources to be used for our benefit, be it material or a means of enhancing mental health. Nor does it mean respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples from whose lands most of the minerals used in the manufacture of the goods we purchase are sourced, or that the people employed in the chain of events which brings a product to the shops or our doorstep are paid a living wage.

Green growth’ is somewhat akin to putting new wine into old wine skins (Mt: 9:17) and is almost always used in regard to energy generated by wind turbines, solar panels, batteries, hydro and thermal power as well as conserving energy through insulation of the building stock. What is an anathema to governments and corporations is the idea of only buying what one actually needs.

Thus, the purchase of electric cars is encouraged rather than the replacement of petrol and diesel ones by comfortable, reliable and affordable forms of public transport and safe and attractive walk and cycle-ways.

The electrical car, which is widely trumpeted, is a good example of why so many ‘green’ inventions are the antithesis of real change. Will electric cars solve traffic congestion? Not if the aspiration of replacing every petrol and diesel car with an electric one is met as this will mean that there will be no decrease in the number of fatalities and serious injuries caused by vehicle collisions. They will also not lead to a reduction in road building and the amount of farm land and habitat paved-over to create park and ride enclosures. Nor will electric vehicles lead to the elimination of air pollution as according to the UK government’s Air Quality Expert Group (2019) more than half of the particle pollution from road transport comes from breaking and tyre wear.

The big sell of electric cars, one that is rarely critically evaluated in the media, is that they will make a significant contribution to the reduction of global warming gasses. This will not be the case if the batteries are recharged with energy generated by fossil fuels which is how most of the electricity used by the global economy in 2023 is produced.

In the highly unlikely event that all electricity worldwide is generated by ecologically benign sources of energy by 2030, after which no new petrol and diesel cars will be sold in Ireland and the UK, electric vehicles will still be a major source of global warming gases, a cause of ecocide and horrendous human rights abuses.

An electric car, excluding steel and aluminum, requires six times more minerals than a comparable petrol or diesel one. As 99 % of minerals come from mining, which produces 100 billion tonnes of waste a year, electric vehicles cause at least six times more ecological damage than conventional vehicles including the loss of biodiversity, the use and pollution of water and degradation of landscape. In fact, 56 % more fresh water is used to produce an electric car than a conventional one, which is a major draw on water at a time when large swaths of the world increasingly suffer from prolonged droughts.

The pre-showroom story of electric vehicles is one of high CO2 emissions as illustrated by the sourcing of just one mineral, cobalt. 70% of this is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where in the large Chinese owned mines heavy machinery using fossil fuels are used. The cobalt is then transported by diesel lorries on a two-week journey to either Dar es Salaam, Tanzania or Durban, South Africa where it is transported to China on ships using heavy diesel. In China, which has 73% of the market share of vehicle batteries, the energy to manufacture them comes from coal-fired power stations. The batteries are then sent by CO2 emitting ships to car factories around the world from where they are transported to the car showroom by – you guessed correctly, diesel powered ships and large vehicle transporter lorries.

As one would expect in our linear economy it is not the end of the story. As a BBC Costing the Earth programme reported in 2020, 93% of electric batteries are disposed of in landfill sites where, in time, they can contaminate soil and underground bodies of water. This will certainly happen if your battery ends up in an illegal dump such as the one close to the Faughan River on the outskirts of Derry City which was recently highlighted by the Radio 4 series, Buried.

Unlike in this part of the world the miners in DRC have no recourse to protect their human rights. Michele Fabiola Lawson in Human Trafficking Search, 1 September 2021, reports that of the estimated 250,000 cobalt miners in the DRC, 40,000 are children who, using their own tools, mainly their hands, earn less than $2 a day. Pete Pattisson reports in the Guardian, 8 Nov 2021, that a miner working in a large industrial mine earns 30 pence an hour. Both UNICEF and Amnesty International have published research documenting the exploitation of cobalt miners in the DRC. Not only are the miners grossly exploited but they are under constant threat of being killed as the cobalt mines are fought over by various militia.

What is the thinking that allows prosperous health and safety conscious societies like ours to base their life style on the exploitation of people in a faraway country, and through a chain of connections, utterly destroy their ecosystem? Might it not be the very same colonial mindset which made European countries, and later Anglo-countries like Australia and the United States, immensely wealthy in the first place? Might it be because prosperous societies regard the ecosystems in which the mines are sited as a thing rather than a complex web of life-forms and processes that have intrinsic value?

As consumers we could be more discerning and follow the example of Belfast born social activist and campaigner Mary Ann McCracken (1770-1866) who boycotted sugar grown on the slave plantations in the Americas. We should certainly educate ourselves about the cradle to grave life-stories of the things we buy and examine the notion of continual economic growth.

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: COP needs to be reformed

The COP climate talks, held every year since 1995, is the only international event where a concerted effort is made by almost every government in the world to reach consensus on reducing the emission of gases, namely carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, that are the cause of global warming. Given the mistrust, animosity, competition and real sense of historical grievance felt by many of these countries towards each other the fact that COP exists, and is well attended year after year, is a tangible success.

That said, it is apparent from COP27, recently held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, needs to be radically reformed. At COP27 there were 636 participants with links to the fossil fuel industries. A size that outnumbered the combined representation from Indigenous communities and the ten countries most affected by climate breakdown including low-lying island states whose whole way of life will likely be erased by the ravages of climate breakdown.

The intention of the representatives from the fossil fuel industries and most of the major oil and gas producing countries was transparent, which was to lobby hard against any meaningful agreement to reduce the world’s consumption of fossil fuels. They succeeded.

An item of contention was the commitment of the host country to the aims of COP. Egypt is not only a dictatorship that prohibits dissent as its 6,000 political prisoners bear witness but it is also a close ally of Saudi Arabia. At the conference Saudi Arabia along with Russia fought hard to have the 1.5C ceiling abolished, which thankfully they failed to do. They did, however, manage to get the aim of phasing out the use of fossil fuels left out of the final text while the proposal to accelerate the development of “low-emission” energy systems, a euphemism for upscaling the use of natural gas, was added.

It was perceived by many in attendance that Egypt managed the proceedings in a way that hampered the realization of the positive outcomes that many countries hoped for. The disappointment of these delegates was perhaps best expressed by Alok Sharma, UK president of COP26, who said in his closing remarks.

Emissions peaking before 2025, as the science tells us is necessary. Not in this text. Clear follow-through to phrase out all fossil fuels. Not in this text. And the energy text, weakened, in the final minutes. Unfortunately, it remains on life support.”

COP28 will be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a major oil and gas producing country. Given that 30 per cent of its GNP comes directly from oil and gas and its tourist industry is oil and gas dependent through reliance on aviation, air-conditioning and desalination plants can the world expect it to fervently work towards phasing out fossil fuels? This is as implausible as a tobacco company hosting a conference to persuade the participating tobacco companies to agree to cease to do business. Likewise with COP29 which is likely to be held in Australia, a major exporter of coal.

There is widespread agreement that one of the few positives that came out of COP27 is the setting up of a loss and damage fund that will help those countries most adversely affected by climate breakdown. A committee composed of representatives from 24 countries will in the coming year work on deciding exactly what form the fund should take, which countries should contribute and how the money should be spent. It is envisaged that aviation, shipping and the fossil fuel companies will be asked to make significant contributions. This is not unreasonable as they on average have earned a $1 trillion a year, ever year for the past 50 years.*

A number of European countries have collectively pledged $300 million to the fund. This might seem a sizable amount but it is insignificant in comparison to the hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of damage per year that the most vulnerable countries suffer as a result of climate breakdown. In late August 2022, for example, flooding in Pakistan displaced 33 million people, killed 1,500 and caused at least $30 billion worth of damage. Like many poor countries its large international debts prevent it doing very much to make good its losses.

Sceptics will point out that it is easier to agree to contribute to the fund than actually contribute. Here one is reminded of Greta Thunberg’s comments about COP26 in Glasgow:

Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah, blah, blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah.”

The point is that in 2009 the wealthy countries, including the EU and the United States, agreed to make $100 billion a year available by 2020 to help poor, vulnerable countries prepare for the effects of extreme weather events as well as put renewable energy projects in place. Little of the money materialized. In the case of the United States, it is highly unlikely that Congress, which will be in the control of the Republican party, will approve donating money to the loss and damage fund. Without the lead of the largest economy in the world pledging money, many other countries are unlikely to.

In a nutshell the outlook for the health of the planet is not good. This is something we can’t divorce ourselves from as the life of each one of us eight billion humans, rich and poor, is directly dependent on having a healthy biosphere. A major ecological meltdown could erupt in multiple wars, from which even the wealthiest would not escape harm. This is demonstrated by Putin’s war in Ukraine where nuclear power stations are viewed as military assets, and therefore can be bombed. This is perhaps no different from the UK and the USA carpet-bombing Dresden in Germany during the Second World War. The factories, railway network and communication facilities were considered legitimate targets as were the people who worked in them.

With regard to future COPs, Simon Stiell, the UN climate chief, will scrutinize the COP process to ensure transparency, their smooth running and that they are less susceptible to the interests of the fossil fuel industries. On the basis that the fossil fuel industries peddle what the world urgently needs to wean itself off they should be banned from attending future ones.

COPs should also have strict guidelines about who their sponsors are. In the case of COP27 it was Coca-Cola, which produces more than 100 billion plastic bottles a year. Much of this plastic, which is made from oil, ends up discarded causing serious ecological problems. Such sponsors undermine the integrity of COP.

* Kevin O’Sullivan, Burning of fossil fuels relegated to side issue, The Irish Times, 21 November 2022.

Eco-Awareness: The need for new stories

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

As revealed by innumerable, scrupulously researched reports on the climate and biodiversity the consequences for the biosphere and humanity as a result of us living the way we do are dire. This is that people everywhere are likely to experience an increase in the severity and frequency of extreme weather conditions in the coming years as well as live impoverished lives due to the steady collapse of the Earth’s life support systems. Perhaps the reason we pay little heed to the science of impending ecological disaster is that we have internalized the myth that a super hero, heroine, good fairy, athletic figure on a white horse, a bugle-led cavalry or a divine being will save us. We absorbed these stories during our childhood and if we are parents or grandparents probably tell or told them to our young offspring or gave them the story books.

In one sense we know that these stories, whether told, read or seen on film, are the product of the imagination. Yet, and it may be primeval, most people appear to believe them, not so much the details but the embedded message that somehow, we will be saved. We are inclined to deduce this on the basis that our culture has long taught that humankind is an exceptional species. The religious texts of the Abrahamic religions, which most of us are familiar with, are absolutely clear that we are the chosen species and will be saved. In effect this means most people consider our species to be so exceptional that we are, like the mythical gods, endowed with immortality.

One of the most commonly believed saviour stories is the one the UK Prime Minister Liz Truss never ceased telling the electorate with the conviction of an evangelist, which is that economic growth is the formula to economic salvation. Like a magic wand it would save the country’s public services, provide a living income for all of its citizens and enable them to live long productive lives in a world that has a stable moderate climate and thriving wildlife. Fanciful as this is she was elected by her political party to be their leader and thus the prime minster. Although Liz Truss held the post for the shortest period in British history the problem is that almost all governments believe the story about economic growth, including the whole of the EU. Not only this, the fable of continual economic growth is so widely believed it is rarely questioned by the public media as was evident when Liz Truss was campaigning to be elected leader of her party and during her time as prime minister.

The fact that there cannot be infinite growth in a finite world is something governments, corporation executives, the financial institutions and voters must know in the same way they known that two plus two equals four. So why the cognitive dissonance? In part it is because, as the political history of Northern Ireland shows, fables play a more determining role in our lives than facts. Another reason is the tendency to accept things as we find them.

All of us were born into a political, economic and cultural world we did not create and in the same way we assimilated language, norms of behaviour, tastes and preferences, acquired an accent, we internalized one of the most destructive stories of all, that of unlimited material consumption in a materially limited world. In the same way most people don’t question the ideas that form the scaffolding of our cultural world such as belief in God, that humans have eternal life, are self-determining and are entitled to holiday overseas once a year, most don’t question the plausibility of the foundation story of our global economic system or its ethics.

Aside from the power of fable and the tendency not to question the nature of the society we grew up in, a third reason for the widespread belief in economic growth, in spite of its absurdity and the dire ecological, climatic and human consequences, such as the present famine in the Horn of Africa, is that we, and in particular those who have immense political and economic power, simply don’t care. It is a case of out-of-sight out-of-mind. Although this attitude has survival benefits such as reducing stress, in our intensely interconnected world in which the fate of others, human and nonhuman, affects us all, it is fatal. As the poet John Donne (1572-1631) wrote: “No man is an island, Entire of itself.” Our interconnectedness is why the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP27, is meeting in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt this November and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, COP15, is meeting in Montreal in December. It is why Putin’s war in Ukraine has caused a spike in inflation and hunger around the world and why the outcome of the presidential election in Brazil affects us all vis-a-vis the fate of the Amazon rainforest.

Our lives are entwined with each other and the biosphere. What we need are not stories of economic salvation through, to quote Liz Truss, “growth, growth and growth” but stories that tell of our interdependencies and the consequences of not respecting them. This means stories which, when they have seeped into our subconscious, trigger a red alert when influential and powerful people present economic fables as fact.

Eco-Awareness: UK Prime Minister Liz Truss’s economic plan

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Although the overwhelming majority of us share the same language as the UK Prime Minister Liz Truss, it is becoming increasingly evident that many of us do not live in the same existential universe as her. In a recent BBC interview, she was asked if it is fair for her government to create a tax system that enables the wealthy to acquire even more wealth whilst the economic position of the majority would be so little changed as to make no measurable difference. She said it was fair. For clarity’s sake the question was put to her a second time and she gave the same answer. (BBC 1, Sunday with Laura Kuensberg, 4 September 2022)

On hearing this it occurred to me that if such a scenario were presented to children in nursery school in the form of a game, they would straight away call foul. They would see that giving to those who have much at the expense of those who have little is wrong. Donald Trump did this when he gave $2 trillion in tax giveaways to the ultra-rich.

The sense of not living in the same universe as the Prime Minister, and many of those who yield enormous economic and political power, is reinforced by the case that in spite of ecological catastrophes occurring on a regular basis in various parts of the world directly linked to the nature of the global economy, Liz Truss has placed economic growth at the heart of her premiership. This is akin to a doctor prescribing to a sick patient the very thing that made them sick. We would immediately see the absurdity of this if a smoker were told by their doctor that the way to heal their diseased lungs is to smoke more cigarettes, in fact as many as they could per day, rather than give up smoking.

Liz Truss proffers that economic growth creates jobs and thereby puts money in everyone’s pocket. This is not necessarily the case, there is for instance no correlation between economic growth and people on the shopfloor earning more money. Think of the people who work in the Amazon distribution centres. Economic growth can be accelerated by automation in which few workers are needed. As the present high rate of inflation shows more money in your pocket compared to 12-months ago does not mean you can buy more than what you bought last year. Economic growth that increases air pollution, which in Belfast kills 5,000 people a year and incapacitates many more, is not something we should applaud. It is in fact impoverishing, not only in terms of the human suffering caused but on the cost to the NHS.

Given our heavy reliance on fossil fuels economic growth means a warmer planet, the annual cost of which runs into hundreds of billions of dollars; death, injury and sickness, lives uprooted the pollution of water, the loss of crops, agricultural land and the destruction of physical infrastructure and habitat. The floods in Pakistan in September illustrate this. More than 33 million people were made destitute, 1,600 people died and a third of the country flooded. Reconstruction, as in providing health clinics, hospitals, schools, homes, water treatment plants, warehouses, roads, communication systems and community centers, will take years and cost billions in hard currency. More recently storms of various magnitudes, thought to have been intensified by climate breakdown, have caused death and destruction in Cuba, eastern Canada, Dominican Republic, Luzon the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Florida and Vietnam.

The type of economic growth favoured by the Truss government reduces the health of the biosphere to the detriment of all including future generations. Continual economic growth in a finite world is pure fantasy. Young children will tell you that the consumption of a limited amount of something, a packet of crisps for example, leads to a lesser amount in the packet until eventually the crisps are all gone. So with the resources of the earth, most of which are not recycled after use. In our linear economy the plastic crisp packet will either end up in the ocean or in a large hole in the ground along with the estimated 6 billion crisp packets used in the UK every year.

It should not be over-looked that belief in continual economic growth is not only the wrap around goal of the Truss government but also that of most of the political parties on these islands and beyond. I have no doubt that our political leaders and major economic investors would derive some benefit, and save all of us a great deal of misery, from reading E.F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful (1973). Its critique can be summed up with words to the effect that ‘if we won the battle with nature, we would find ourselves on the losing side’. (p.11) In other words, to treat the economy as separate from the biosphere is to be blind to the fact that we are the Nature we are destroying.

It seems that those who believe in continual economic growth can’t grasp the basics of mathematics or simply don’t care that its pursuit will leave us all destitute in a decade or two, including the very wealthy and those of Liz Truss’s generation. There are alternatives, namely those which mimic the dynamics of what is conventionally thought of as the natural world.

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Eco-Awareness: Holistic decision making

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Outside of the two World Wars it is difficult to think of a time when so many in this country have been facing such a direct threat to the way they live.

– Presenter of World at One, BBC Radio 4, 25th August 2022

The presenter quoted above is referring to the steady rise in the rate of inflation in the UK and in particular the unprecedented rise in the price of oil, gas and food as a consequence of the war in Ukraine.

A rise in energy prices leads to a rise in the cost of goods and services across the economy and the scale of the present and predicted rises will make it next to impossible for millions of people to keep themselves warm this winter without forgoing meals and accumulating unmanageable debt. The public media has not failed to communicate the seriousness of the situation with the regular use of such words and terms as awful, catastrophic, devastating, exceptional, extremely serious, grave, terrible, misery, fearful, out of control, eye-watering prices and lives will be lost.

If these forecasts turn out to be true for people living in high-income countries what will the impact of the steep rise in the cost of energy and food be for the billions of people whose everyday experience has long been one one of toil, stress and fret in their effort to provide for themselves and their family?

The global community is not only experiencing hyper-inflation but an out-of-kilter climate which this year, as in previous ones, has caused devastating forest fires in Europe, the United States, Asia, Africa and South America as well as drought and floods across many parts of the world. Most recently floods in Pakistani left 60% of the country under water, affected 33 million people, made one million homeless and since June caused the death of over a 1,000 people. China is in the midst of a record-breaking drought which has caused some of its major rivers, including the Yangtze to dry up. In Europe the Loire, the Rhine and the Po dried up, which, as in China, affected farming, hydropower and shipping. The impact of the climate on these countries alone will add to the economic woes caused by President Putin’s war including an increase in the shortage of food leading in turn to a rise in its price.

The effects of climate breakdown and Putin’s war serve to remind us just how interconnected our world is. We are not, as the growing number of libertarians like to think, neutral agents with an almost absolute right to behave however we like. As with individuals, national sovereignty has its limits. Britain is an island nation but its regular outpouring of sewage into the seas around its coast concerns people in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Ireland who fear the sewage will affect their fishing and coastlines.

Hyper-inflation, climate breakdown as well as the catastrophic loss of biodiversity can in large part be attributed to the ultra-nationalism of world leaders who fail to work from the premise that the world is ecologically and economically interconnected and ignore the counsel of Indigenous People not to borrow the future from our children.

More than the need for ecologically sustainable technologies, which are widely seen as a miracle cure to climate breakdown allowing us to continue to live our materially extravagant lifestyle, is the need for a collectivist’s mindset. In the same way as it is necessary for the various departments of a business to work towards a single goal, the success of the business, it is likewise necessary for world leaders to work in unison towards resolving our global ecological and economic problems.

Besides this we voters need to waken up and closely question candidates running for public office about the impact their policies will have on the biosphere, the poor in their own constituency as well as in the wider world. What will the legacy of their policies be for future generations?

Although the following suggestion might well come from Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) it is worth putting it forward. In the manner that new employees are given an induction by their employer into the culture, policies and practices of the body they are newly working for, as well as put on probation, it should by mandated that public officials and representatives of every rank should undertake likewise. In this case the body is the biosphere inclusive of humankind. The culture is comprised of a sense of compassion, connectedness and fairness and the policies and practices based on the Hippocratic oath of the medical profession which is “do no harm”.

A course for new public decision makers on the wisdom of basing decisions on a holistic, eco-centric, non-tribal and non-nationalist basis would not be suffice to ensure long-term compliance. The courses would need to be supported by regular forums, such as Citizen’s Assemblies, in which experts in the field and concerned members of the public, share their knowledge and experience in regard to the pros and cons of various options which are considered from the perspective of the local and the global, the short and the long term. During the assemblies, face to face interaction would take place between the parties most directly affected by decisions enabling humanism to dilute stone-faced tribal, class and national interests, and compassion for the welfare of nonhuman species to melt the idea of economic gain for the few.

Such an on-going educational program for our elected and appointed decision makers should result in a significant reduction in decisions made on the basis of Donald Trump’s sentiment “America First” or the pre-Brexit wish “to take back control”. In the long term there are no firsts in our interconnected world, and as the present cost of living crisis shows, when it comes to the price of fuel and food national sovereignty can do little to change things.

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 Axis.com 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’.