Tag Archives: Larry Speight

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: 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: 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’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight:

Dominant views, cognitive dissonance and climate breakdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eco-Awareness 291

The Delusion of the Green Economy

The idea of success has always played an important role in human society; putting food on the table, finding a compatible mate, acquiring the means to protect one’s self from severe weather, maintaining good relations with one’s neighbours and receiving respect and admiration for attributes and accomplishments such as being a good tool-maker, weaver, story-teller, singer, artist, healer, planner or negotiator. An aspect of success that should be an integral part of our sense of what it is to live a meaningful life is the effort we make towards leaving the biosphere a more diverse and healthier place than it was when we each become a short-term resident.

Outside of sports and the arts the meaning of success that society most embraces is illustrated by the case of the CEOs of large corporations receiving millions in annual bonuses, in addition to high salaries, for increasing the financial wealth of their company whilst the environmental damage done and the impoverishment caused to communities whose livelihood is dependent on the health of these ecosystems is ignored. In this all too common facet of the international economic order the harm done to people and planet is called development and is celebrated. Reinforcing this perverse view of success the CEOs are more likely to receive a state honour than a school teacher or a nurse.

As measured by the success – failure scale used by society, people are hailed successful if they are prolific consumers as in living in a large house, drive an expensive vehicle, or two or three, and take more than a few aviation-based holidays a year. By way of contrast the person who by circumstance or choice lives in a small house, uses public transport and holidays in nearby locations is considered mediocre on the consumption scale. I am sure we have all observed that the mega consumer driving a luxury vehicle and wearing expensive brand clothes receives admiring looks but not the person wearing tatty clothes and cycling to their destination. That the latter person has a considerably less negative impact on the biosphere than the former is considered unworthy of comment. In a society living by an inverse set of values people who avoid causing irreversible harm to the environment and impoverishing others would be commended.

The prevailing widespread view of success has to change if we are to make the necessary rapid transition to an ecologically sustainable society. This not only means achieving zero net emissions of greenhouse warming gases but also zero emission of pollutants, the burning, dumping and landfilling of ‘waste’ as well as protecting what biodiversity remains and healing degraded habitat. Regardless of what governments say most of the above cannot be done without a major reduction in our consumption of meat and diary products.

It is a tragedy that in spite of more and more local councils and governments declaring a climate emergency there are no signs of a substantial shift in society’s understanding of success. Perhaps this is because the model of a “new green society” proffered is based on the norms and structures of our ecologically failed one. This is no better illustrated than the drive to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

Given climate breakdown there is no doubting the need to cease using fossil fuels as quickly as possible. What, however, is not questioned is consumerism and the enabling material infrastructure that the new forms of energy will fuel. In the utopia of non-fossil fuel electrification, for which corporations and governments have drawn-up a blueprint, adults will still have their own car, be able to fly to near and distant destinations, eat as much meat and dairy as they like and be encouraged to buy the latest technological devices not to mention clothes and beauty merchandise. Given that there are close to 7.9 billion people on the planet there are simply not enough resources to enable this to happen, certainly not enough to sustain unlimited consumption for an indefinite period of time. At present the rich world uses 50 per cent more bio- resources each year than the Earth produces. If the blueprint for the “green economy” were presented to early-year primary school pupils in the form of a story they would understand it as fantasy.

The fantasy nature of the new green society is underscored by the case that the materials essential for it such as cadmium, cobalt, copper, lead, lithium and platinum have to be mined and as Thea Riofrancos informs us in The Guardian, 14 June 2021, mining causes enormous environmental damage:

extractive activities like mining, are responsible for 90% of biodiversity loss and more than half of carbon emissions. One report estimates that the mining sector produces 100bn tons of waste every year. Extraction and processing are typically water-and energy-intensive, and contaminate waterways and soil. Alongside these dramatic changes to the natural environment, mining is linked to human rights abuses, respiratory ailments, dispossession of indigenous territory and labour exploitation. “

The “green society” as envisaged by governments and corporation, and which mainstream media accept without question, is incompatible with an equitable, ecologically sustainable society. Some of the reasons include the following:

– The environmental devastation that will be caused by mining on the gigantic scale necessary to fuel and sustain it.

– The additional trillions of litres of fresh water needed annually for the industrial processes in a period of increasing worldwide droughts.

– Mining of the minerals can emit more tons of carbon than the mined minerals. (*1)

– The environmental problems associated with disposing of trillions of defunct batteries. (*2)

– The industrialization of hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of land and sea.

– The plethora of economic injustices and human rights abuses that will underpin the drive for low costs.

With regard to the industrialization of the countryside The Economist, 12 June 2021, reports that in the United States the land occupied by solar and wind installations by 2030 might well measure 61,000 square miles. This is approximately twice the size of Ireland. Similar amounts of land and sea will be required in other parts of the world. (*3) In the envisaged clean energy utopia the idea of success will, as at present, be judged by how much we consume, the material wealth we have accumulated and the power and influence that goes with this. In other words the blueprint put forward by governments and corporations for an ecologically sustainable society is delusionary.

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(*1) Austin Price, The Rush for White Gold, Earth Island Journal, Summer 2021.

(*2) Millions of electric cars are coming. What happens to all the dead batteries? Ian Morse, Science, 20 May 2021.

(*3) Environmental minister rules huge renewable energy hub in WA ‘clearly unacceptable’, Adam Morton, Guardian, 21 June 2021.