Tag Archives: Eco-Awareness

Eco-Awareness: Fish don’t vote

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

In the UK general election, along with the other 92 general, presidential and mayoral elections that will be conducted worldwide this year, the call made by the competing parties and independent candidates is that to vote for them is to vote for change.

This is the mantra across the UK political spectrum inclusive of the SDLP and the UUP, the UK Labour Party and the Reform Party led by Nigel Farage. Even the Conservative Party that has been in power in Westminster for the last 14-years is trying to persuade the electorate that it is the party of change. Perhaps this is why the polls suggest that it will not form the next government as to claim that to vote for them on the basis of wanting change is to repudiate its time in office.

When one reviews the political policies of the candidates the outstanding thing about them is that tinkering rather than radical change is on the agenda. Bar a few exceptions this means that electioneering is smoke and mirrors which accounts for why many who see through the sham don’t vote.

What the UK political parties with a chance of forming the next government have in common is their religious-like faith that unfettered economic growth is the remedy to all of the country’s woes. It is hoped that the revenue raised will finance public services including the NHS, home care, education, nurseries, the police and judicial system, social housing and the armed forces whose appetite for money is insatiable.

The delusion of the political parties, and it might actually be deliberate deception, is that the irreconcilable can be reconciled. This is that economic growth has a miraculous ability to over-ride the physics of how nature works, which is akin to the magical thinking that often occurs in our dreams. As Marco Magrini in Geographical, May 2024, says: “The laws of chemistry and physics that govern our atmosphere are inescapable.

The tragic thing is that presenting faith as fact to the public is to unteach what children throughout their 12-years or so of schooling are taught, which is that life on Earth, and probably the entire unquantifiable expanse of the cosmos, operates within the confines of measurable constraints.

Breaking these constraints means that ecological systems collapse with wide-ranging long-term negative consequences for the greater ecology including ourselves. We see this in stark terms with the pollution of Lough Neagh and Lough Erne as a result of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s ‘Going for Growth Action Plan’ launched at the 2013 Balmoral Show. The poisoning of our aquatic gems is also due to the failure of the N.I. Assembly to ensure that raw sewage does not enter our rivers and lakes which are our biome’s bloodstream.

As far as I am aware none of the N.I. election contenders, other than the Green Party and the Alliance Party, has mentioned restoring our intricate system of water ways to a state that allows the rich array of biodiversity they are capable of supporting to thrive. Doing so would mean eliminating the flow of nitrogen-based fertilizers and synthetic pesticides from agricultural land into our waterways which is something only a moderate number of farmers would vote for. Tackling water pollution would also mean raising money to pay for an effective water treatment and distribution system. As in Northern Ireland so on the whole island.

Further, little mention has been made by the N.I. candidates of the need to establish a fully independent and adequately funded environmental protection agency. That this is the case is not surprising given that “Fish Don’t Vote”. This is how Ian Knox in a recent cartoon in The Irish News succinctly explains why those contesting the election rarely, if ever, concern themselves with the harm we inflict upon the biome and by extension ourselves.

The naturalist and broadcaster Chris Packham expressed the deep dismay of many voters at the lack of attention the main political parties and mainstream media are giving to the critical issue of how we conduct our relationship with nonhuman nature when he said.

I’m devastated by the lack of foresight, intelligence, commitment, understanding and determination to do anything about the single biggest issue in our species’ history. At a time when we need bold and brave leadership, we’re not seeing any sign from any of the manifestos that this might materialize.

In Northern Ireland elections are not about how we can transition to live a rewarding life in an ecologically sustainable way but about people reaffirming their sense of Irish or British identity. Thankfully this obsession has started to erode with the addition to the electoral register of people who did not grow up with a sense of either identity as well as the increasing number who were born here for whom national identity is not an issue.

Northern Ireland is not the only place where sense of national identity plays a major part in the political discourse. In the Republic we saw this in the local and EU elections and in the sometimes-violent street protests against the arrival of people seeking asylum. In Britain the Reform Party wants to immediately deport undocumented people seeking asylum. Fear of losing votes has pushed the Conservative Party to promise more restrictive but probably unenforceable measures to prevent asylum seekers staying in the UK.

Amidst the noise and heat of the debate about undocumented immigrants the reason why many seek a new home on these islands is because of the severe weather events across the globe caused by the very thing the large political parties are obsessed about, namely continual economic growth. The obsession is in denial of the equation that 1 + 1 = 2, which is to say, there can be no economy without ecology.

Even if infinite economic growth were possible in a finite world there is no reason to think that this would mean economic wellbeing for all. The evidence for this is in plain sight in the form of widespread poverty, the high level of mental ill-health, sense of alienation and purposelessness that is prevalent in the most economically prosperous countries.

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

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eco-Awareness: Locked-in poverty syndrome

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eco-Awareness: The Paradox

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Paradox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is ecocide a sin?

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

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

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

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

It is a rare occasion that a Northern Ireland non-party political issue is aired on RTÉ 1’s evening news and even rarer on BBC Radio 4’s The World at One as well as their early morning programme Farming Today.

This happened recently and readers won’t be surprised to learn that the item brought to the attention of listeners and viewers is the deplorable biological state of Lough Neagh. As has been well documented it is polluted with blue-green algae as are Lough Ross in County Armagh and parts of Lough Erne.

The algae is a bacteria called cyanobacteria, is the result of human behaviour which includes the rise of the water temperature due to global warming, the dumping of sewage into the loughs, leaking septic tanks, the run-off of nitrogen and phosphorus from fields in the form of slurry and fertilizer and the presence of invasive zebra mussels which filter the water enabling sunlight to reach into their depths hastening the growth of the algae.

Unfortunately, it is not a case of problem understood, problem solved as is often the case with a mechanical breakdown; once a malfunction is understood it can be put right by a skilled technician.

One reason for the absence of effective eco-management of Lough Neagh is that it lies within the jurisdiction of five local councils, is overseen by five government departments and is managed by the Lough Neagh Partnership. It receives its funding from the five local councils. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is conflicted: it is simultaneously responsible for promoting the interests of a sector of the economy that helped cause the problem i.e., intensive agriculture, while at the same time it is responsible for tackling the problem by virtue of its environmental mandate.

Another complication is the legacy of colonialism. The bed, the eels and banks of the lough are not owned by the people of Northern Ireland but by the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury who inherited this ecosystem of approximately 153 sq miles at the age of 26. His family came into possession of it in 1857 when the 8th Earl married into the Chichester family who inherited it from Sir Arthur Chichester who was gifted it by King James1st in the mid-1660s.

On the basis of the precept that possession is not the same as justified ownership the question some will ask is what right did King James 1st have to dispose of the lough, a collective asset availed of by families bordering it for untold millennia and a moral entity in its own right? The question is relevant to restoring the health of Lough Neagh as Nichols Ashley-Cooper, the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, could return his inheritance to the people of Northern Ireland placing it in the trust of a single authority.

In doing this the Earl would be following a precedent set by museums who recognize that they have a moral obligation to return to Indigenous communities artefacts stolen from their ancestors. The Horniman Museum in London did this in November 2022 when it returned to Nigeria 72 bronze artefacts looted by British soldiers in 1897 from Benin City, now southwest Nigeria.

More recently Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of returning 9,300 sq miles of land to the Xokleng people who were evicted from it in the late 19th and early 20th century by colonialists who hailed mainly from Germany. In the view of the court the passage of time did not erase the rights of the Xokleng people to their ancestral lands. This is something the Earl of Shaftesbury should ponder in regard to his presumed entitlement to the bed, eels and banks of Lough Neagh.

Aside from the administrative complexities, the algae problem that afflicts the three loughs is emblematic of how we treat the entire biosphere. We act as if we are sitting at a table laden with food and water for innumerable shifts of people. Instead of leaving nourishment for these diners we gobble everything up leaving the table empty and in a disgusting mess.

I hypothesis that the reason why we behave like this is because we are shackled by the straps of our enculturation. A cardinal edict of this is that we are only responsible for ourselves and family, and to a lesser extent our neighbours and community, and that the people beyond the circumference of our vision in place and time, and the nonhuman beings and natural systems that sustain us are simply of no account.

We think of the natural world beyond our skin as things rather than living entities many of whom are thinking, feeling beings with preferences and foresight and part of a complex network of relationships. The Abrahamic religions have played no small part in people viewing nonhuman life in this way, after all, they are not held to be immortal like us and have no special status in the eyes of God.

Thus, while our moral code tells us that it is wrong to willfully harm someone in close proximity to us, we think that poisoning our ecosystem by pouring sewage into rivers and loughs, unnecessarily emitting global warming gases and buying merchandise composed of materials that have been mined by indentured labour as morally neutral. The ecological catastrophe taking place in our loughs, and the elimination of much of the biodiversity of our island, are a direct consequence of how we see our place in the living world and our sense of entitlement in regard to others including future generations.

Fortunately, we can extricate ourselves from our enculturation. One way is through what is called transformational learning as conceptualized by Jack Mezirow in the late 1970s. This involves critically reflecting on our received wisdoms, cultural imperatives, worldviews and assumptions; testing them to see if they accord with scientific evidence. It involves comparing, contrasting and exploring alternatives. It is a collaborative on-going process which takes place in a trusting, noncoercive setting. This can happen over a cup of tea, a pint, during a meal, a long walk or in a classroom.

An outcome of transformational learning that is focused on living in an ecologically sustainable way is recognizing that we live in an interconnected, interdependent, multi-generational, multi-species, sentient world. Our place within this cosmology is to do what we can, with justice issues in mind, to restore the bio-world to health. This life-long work is done for the sake of nonhuman nature and ourselves including those who will sit at the table after we are gone.

In summary, we need to change the prevailing view of our place in nonhuman nature if we are to find a sustainable resolution to our ecological problems including restoring our loughs and rivers to good health.

Photos by Larry Speight of the wake for Lough Neagh held on its shores on 17/9/23 can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/53218375754/in/dateposted/ and accompanying pictures.

Eco-Awareness: The fires in North America

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: The Seventh Generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: Keeping our dogs on a lead

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

On a recent early morning run through one of Fermanagh’s Global Geoparks I was reminded of the extent to which we are immersed in a human-centric view of the world when I met a middle-aged woman taking a walk with her two dogs which were not on a lead.

My first encounter with the woman and the dogs was when I rounded a bend and saw a four-legged creature dash into the undergrowth and was wondering what I had seen when I realized with dismay that it was a dog. On seeing a woman on the path ahead I called out to her to bring her dog to heal, at this stage, it was dancing frantically around me. She did not hear me for some moments as she was wearing headphones.

When she was close and had removed the headphones I told her that her dogs should be on a lead, which I feel is as obvious as not driving through red lights. Her immediate response was to talk about her dogs in relation to people. When I remarked out that I was concerned about the threat her dogs posed to the red squirrels, hares, pine martens and birds she replied “we love nature”. I silently pondered if the ‘we’ referred to her dogs. Before I could say anything more she issued an insult, put on her headphones and walked away with her dogs still free to harass the wildlife.

With miles to run before I reached home I had time to reflect on the values and perspective that might underlie the woman’s behaviour and consider if they were unique to her or common to society. Her words “we love nature” stuck me as peculiar as if this was the case she would not have let her dogs terrify the wildlife, poo wherever they wanted with the potential of spreading pathogens, and would not have blocked out the dawn chorus with her headphone, including the captivating call of the cuckoos who live in the locality at this time of the year.

By the time I reached the end of my run I had concluded that how this woman interacts with the natural world aligns with the predominating attitude towards it, which can be summed up in a single word, narcissistic. This is to say that society values nonhuman nature in terms of the benefits it provides us rather in terms of it having intrinsic value and self-interests.

In this context what the woman meant when she said “we love nature” is that she values having a place where her dogs can run free without the danger of getting run-over by a motor vehicle or people complaining about the danger her dogs posed to them and others. Also, when her dogs inevitably pooed she was free from the social pressure that in a busy place would compel her to clean the poo up and dispose of it properly. The same narcissistic love of nature is held by many of those who fish in rivers and lakes and picnic on the beach on sunny days. If asked, they would likely say that they loved nature, that the sea and sand are wonderful, and there are pleasant views to be enjoyed by a lakeside. Yet, as any local council and concerned citizen will verify many of these self-proclaimed nature lovers leave an enormous amount of litter when they depart from the places they say they love.

This narcissistic relationship with nonhuman nature is imbedded in our economic system and is in fact supported by many a religious text. In the Christian tradition people will refer to Genesis 1:28 in which God tells humankind to subdue the Earth, “and have domination over the fish of the seas and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” The woman’s insult may well have arisen out of her perception that I was challenging her God-given right, as she saw it, to dominate the Earth through letting her dogs scare the living-daylights out of “every living thing that moves” within the confines of the Global Geopark.

On a different scale on the narcissistic spectrum Global Witness report that between 2012 and 2021, 1,733 land and environmental defenders were murdered worldwide. Most of these people were murdered by miners, poachers and farmers who were destroying forests, polluting rivers and extinguishing species in exercise, as the killers would likely have seen it, of their right to subdue the Earth. A recent well publicized case was the murder of British journalist Dom Philips and Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira in the Brazilian Amazon in June 2022 who were investigating illegal fishing in the area.

The challenge for humankind is to see ourselves as an integral part of nature rather than outside of it and to live in partnership with it rather than dominating it. The evidence is clear on this point, our narcissistic relationship with nonhuman nature has resulted in climate breakdown and the sixth mass extinction, from which a cascade of ecological disasters have occurred and are unfolding.

As we need to keep dogs on a lead when in the public domain we also need to keep our appetite for things and experiences on a lead otherwise much of the biosphere will expire and most of humanity with it. This likely outcome is supported by a study in Nature Sustainability, 22 May 2023, which found that the planet is on course to warm to a degree that will drive billions of people out of the “climate niche” in which humanity has flourished for millennia. The climate niche is a mean annual temperature of between 13C and 25C. If the warming trajectory continues the average annual temperature outside the niche will reach 29C by 2030 making life barely livable for two billion people. Of this number up to one billion are expected to migrate to a cooler climate, which, among other places, means northern Europe including the Irish – UK archipelago.

The authors of the study say that human suffering and migration on a scale never seen before caused by climate breakdown does not have to be. It depends on whether we continue to subdue nonhuman nature or live in partnership with it. Our responsibility for ourselves, family, friends and neighbours extend to caring about other life-forms and the generations yet to be born. As Tad Friend writes in The New Yorker, 22 May 2023:

wildlife has a right to exist regardless of its economic value, regardless of its usefulness to us in any way. … Animals are our family..

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.