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.