Tag Archives: Larry Speight

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: President Biden’s visit and the power of myths

Humans need to plot their place on the existential map of the world in order to know where they stand in relation to others, especially to those who belong to a different community. We also need to have a sense of how we should relate to the life forms we share the planet with and the topography around us. The entirety of our sense of place in the web of life is called a worldview and surprisingly for something so important it is largely based on myth. Myths exist in the face of evidence to the contrary and all too often are used to bolster our sense of identity, importance and entitlement to things we have no right to on the basis of equity and ecological sustainability.

The power of myth, as a self-justifying narrative, was illustrated by President Joe Biden during his recent 4-day visit to Ireland. There is no doubting the pride he takes in his sense of Irish identity but as he could have made a visit to his ancestral home towns a private matter he almost certainly did it to bolster his standing with the electorate in the United States. His focus on family, religious faith and ancestral roots is something most of his fellow citizens can easily identify with and through extension have some empathy for Biden the man and presidential candidate.

What makes basing one’s identity and view of the world on myth dangerous is that it plays to our emotions and biases while completely sidestepping the facts of the subject in question. The primary myth President Biden used was his portrayal of the role the Irish played in the formation and economic prosperity of the United States as heroic and that many Irish immigrants and their descendants improved their economic and social circumstances beyond what their ancestors could ever have imagined as praise worthy. He used his own family story to give credence to this.

The collective history of the Irish in the United States is that they imposed a variant of the poverty and persecution they experienced in Ireland on the Indigenous people to further their own interests. The Irish immigrants, along with the immigrants from other European countries, stole the land of the Indigenous people, exterminated them by warfare, starvation and disease, forced them to move with little provision to parts of the country they had no connection with and was the home of other Indigenous people. The tragic forced removal of the Cherokee in the Appalachian region, where many Ulster-Scotts settled, is a case in point.

The European colonists also confined the Indigenous people to reservations, and from the 19th through to the late 20th century, Indigenous children were kidnapped by the public authorities and placed in residential schools in an attempt to eradicate their culture. Pope Francis, on completing his 2022 visit to Canada, named what happened to the kidnapped children as genocide.

The myth that lay behind the Irish and other European nationalities colonising what the Indigenous people called Turtle Island is that the Indigenous people were not human in the sense the colonisers felt themselves to be. The same view was held about the people kept as slaves whose ancestral home was west Africa.

In his remarks in Leinster House, President Biden said about the Irish in the United States that:

the values that sustained these people throughout their hardship in their lives – Freedom, Equality, Dignity, Family, Courage.”

Except for courage these values are what many Irish immigrants denied the Indigenous people. It was only in 1978, on the passage of The American Indian Religious Act, that the Indigenous people were free to practice their traditional religion. This was denied them by the 1883 Code of Indian Offences under which Indigenous people were liable to be imprisoned or denied food rations for 30 days for taking part in traditional ceremonies. It was only in 1994, five years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, that the American Indian Religious Act Amendments was passed giving the Indigenous people legal protections that were not contained in the 1978 Act.

Among the things this tells us is that most of the 23 U.S. presidents of Irish descent did little to advance the rights and dignity of Native Americans. President Ulysses S Grant, (1869-1873 and 1873-1877) is one such president but with reservations as his aim was assimilation, which is to say, eradicating their culture. It might surprise some readers that President Nixon, who was of Irish descent, empathised with the dire situation of Native Americans and signed the Indian Self-Determination and Self-Organization Act of 1975, which greatly enhanced their autonomy.

All of the following ecological catastrophes are due to the myths we have about our relationships with others and the Earth. This includes climate breakdown, the rapid loss of biodiversity which many biologists call the Sixth Mass Extinction, and the ever-increasing expanse of dead zones in the oceans caused by plastic pollution and the run-off of agricultural, industrial and urban waste. Myth has played its part in the creation of air pollution, which the World Health Organization says kills an estimated 7-million people a year, with 9 out of 10 of us breathing air containing high levels of pollution. And, as we in Ireland well know, myth plays an important role in communal conflict.

Much, if not all, of our ecologically destructive behaviour is based on the myth that we are separate from the rest of nature. The extent to which we consider this to be the case is the widespread and long held belief that out of all the species of life that have ever existed on Earth in the course of 4.5 billion years we are the only one that is immortal. The prevalence of this myth plays no small part in our viewing the incredibly beautiful bio-world we live in as expendable. That we regard it as such is something that Pope Francis touched upon in Laudato Si’ (2015) when he said that: “The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” This, our observations readily tell us, is fact rather than myth.

Eco-Awareness: Are we guilty of Lucifer’s sin?

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

According to the Bible, Lucifer was God’s archangel who was cast out of Heaven at the beginning of time, which is before the creation of the material world, because he thought that he was equal to God if not better that Him. (Him as in the non-gender sense of the word.) Lucifer figures in the Bible in the form of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Satan who tempts Jesus during his 40 days and nights of fasting in the Judaeo Desert and the dragon in the Book of Revelation. According to the Bible, Lucifer’s aim is to harm humankind by any means he can, including destroying the biosphere, the sustainer of every living thing which the Bible, the Quran and other religious texts say was created by God.

Given this the question we should reflect upon is whether in destroying the biosphere, in laying ruin to the handiwork of God, we are in fact doing exactly what Lucifer did which is think that we know better than God. One way it could be said we are doing this is through extinguishing species by the multitude and altering the very physicality of the Earth which the Bible on at least five occasions says God was pleased, if not delighted, with. Genesis: 12, for example, says:

The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind, and the trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God said that it was good.”

We are systematically and intentionally extinguishing other species through trophy hunting; an example is the widespread practice in S.E. Asia of taking song birds from their natural habitat and confining them for life in cages for people’s gratification. Another way we exterminate species is through turning habitat into farm land or using it to extend the radius of towns and cities. In countries such as Brazil and Indonesia this is done through the burning and felling of forest. In Ireland it is done through planting acre after acre of Sitka Spruce on bio-rich peatlands, extracting the peat to burn in the form of turf, and until recently to be sold as compost for gardens.

Human induced extinction is also caused by over fishing, the pollution of rivers, lakes and the seas by industrial waste, release of untreated sewage and the run-off of toxic chemicals used on farms including insecticides, pesticides and herbicides. Plastic pollution, the causes and impact of which is well documented, leads to the death of a whole range of terrestrial and marine animals. And as is regularly reported in the news and expounded upon in documentaries, the demise of wildlife is caused by the warming of the planet through the burning of fossil fuels and the release of methane from various sources including landfill sites, paddy fields, farm animals and the extraction of oil and gas.

Human induced extinction is also caused by invasive species, an example is the extinction of 28 species of sea birds on Marion Island in the Indian Ocean brought about by mice devouring chicks of ground and burrow nesting birds. As reported in The Irish Times, Weekend Review, 25 March 2023, the mice were unintentionally brought to the island by seal hunters in the 19th century. Such in the extent and rapidity with which we our terminating nonhuman life we are now living through what is called the sixth mass extinction.

Scientists tell us that there were at least five mass extinctions during the last 540 million years. The last one occurred 66 million years ago and led to the demise of 76% of life forms. This was caused by the impact of an asteroid on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, which as most school children know led to the extinctions of the dinosaurs.

It should be borne in mind that extinctions are an integral part of evolution, with the demise of some species leading to the emergence of others. Scientists, such as those who work in the Natural History Museum in London, estimate that between 0.1% and 1% of species become extinct every ten thousand years. This is called the background rate, A mass extinction occurs when species go extinct faster than they are replaced, with at least 75% going extinct in a relatively short period of time, which in geological terms, is two million years.

Although we have extinguished species since the end of the last ice age we have over the past 500 years being doing so at an ever-increasing rate, turning whole areas of the planet, including parts of the Irish – UK archipelago, into dead zones. We were reminded of this in March when the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland published Plant Atlas 2020, available online, which is based on 20 years of data collected by 2,500 botanists, scientists and trained volunteers, and shows that there has been a 56% decline of native plant species in Ireland since 1987 and that in both Ireland and Britain non-native species of plants now outnumber native ones.

Given the role we knowingly play in extinguishing life on Earth, which diminishes the chances of our survival, it is understandable that one might conclude that we are guilty of committing Lucifer’s sin. Are we, to borrow a common phrase, playing God, when we decide which species we want to continue to exist and which not, which mountains to level, which rivers to allow to flow freely and which habitat to remain intact or turn to ash?

The Biblical Lucifer must be very pleased with us as unless we change our attitude towards nonhuman nature there will soon be nothing left of God’s handiwork to destroy and the last human might well hear Lucifer declare checkmate with God.

Eco-Awareness: Caring for the countryside

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Caring for the countryside

When I was a boy growing up in Belfast the countryside was considered an exotic place. While the city was concrete, tarmac, factories, warehouses, office blocks, shops, expansive residential areas, litter on the streets, motor traffic congestion and foul air, particularly during the winter when burning coal to keep homes warm and heat water for the family weekly bath was the norm, the countryside, by comparison, was regarded as a place of purity and wildness

When on cycling tours through the countryside I particularly enjoyed the hedgerow lined roads aware that they were a source of autumn nutrition for people and wildlife in the form of various berries, seeds and nuts. Springtime was a celebration of colours when wildflowers and grasses appeared. In comparison to the city the countryside was replete with a rich variety of birds, mammals and insects. Rabbits were a common sight, part of a food web and the rivers and streams ran clear, many lined with trees and filled with aquatic life. There was heather, hills, lakes and woods with a mystic attached to them. The smells, sounds and the quiet were of a quality not found on the noisy city streets.

Another thing which at that time made the countryside alluring is that the stories country people told, their common phrases, the rhyme and cadence of their voices were markedly different from those heard in the city. These differences have long been diluted by the broadcasting media and a commuter lifestyle. Nevertheless, many city folk still visit the countryside as a tonic, somewhere to go to ‘get away from it all’, replenish themselves, touch base and in general have an enjoyable time.

Although in days gone by the countryside was considered by urbanities as a place apart we knew that there was an interdependency in that much of what we ate came from the local farms as their smell, flavors and the soil that clung to the root vegetables confirmed. Lettuce and tomatoes, gooseberries and strawberries meant that it was summer time and their taste was, as anyone who has a kitchen garden will know, incomparable to those grown in the mega polytunnels so prevalent across Europe today.

Much of what defined the countryside up until about the late 1970s has largely gone and few mourn this as few realise it. I was recently reminded when journeying through west Fermanagh of the increasing homogeneity and consequent bio-poverty of the countryside when I saw a large segment of a hedgerow that had been bulldozed and set alight. In the aftermath of persistent rain there were no flames amongst the carcass of recent habitat but rather the dismal sight of grey smoke rising and spreading which road users, birds and mammals, could only pass through with mouth and nostrils tightly shut. The word ‘harm’ came to mind to describe what I saw.

The hedgerows in County Fermanagh, and in fact across the whole of the island, are uprooted and burnt at a tremendous rate and replaced by desolate barbed wire fencing. There are no recent figures for the annual loss of hedgerows in Northern Ireland but in the Irish Republic, as reported by RTE News, 6,000 kilometers are destroyed every year. It is not only bio-rich hedgerows that are lost but broadleaf trees are regularly felled and are variously left to decay, set on fire or sawn-up for firewood. For those who care about the wondrous flora and fauna that is disappearing before our eyes, not to mention the fish kills caused by slurry, fertiliser, herbicide and pesticide run-off, this is desecration. In regard to the state of rivers in Northern Ireland the Belfast Telegraph, 11 December 2021, reports that “in 2021, zero river bodies achieved good or high overall status” and that the lakes were rated no better. The rivers, lakes and coastal waters in the Irish Republic have a similar rating.

Replacing hedgerows with a fence might be done to eliminate the need for regular hedge trimming and thus save time and money, it might also be done to prevent cattle and horses escaping onto the roads which can result in serious accidents, and bulldozing a stand of mature broadleaf trees might be a way to increase grazing land or grow more grass for silage. The agricultural economy has changed during my life-time and many will say that the efficiency achieved is for the better as prior to Putin’s war on Ukraine the price of food was the cheapest in living memory. If, however, I were a kingfisher, a curlew, a corncrake, a barn owl, a snipe, a sparrow hawk, an otter, a salmon, a trout, a hare, an orchid, a bee, a bluebell, an oak tree or a stream, I would think that the change has been disastrous.

One thing that our economic system is blind to is that there can be no economy without ecology. Unless we put the welfare of nonhuman nature at the heart of our economic decisions then it and us, especially our descendants, really do have a bleak future. The point we need to keep in mind is that the future is not prescribed as we are the authors of the type of society and countryside we want to live in.

To leave our descendants a countryside that is a repository of biodiversity and a place where farmers earn a good living producing tasty nutritious food we need to exercise our agency and refuse to be cogs in the giant nature-eating machine which is the international economic order. There are a number of ways we can do about this. We can take the baby step of planting and nurturing a variety of vegetable seeds this spring, and a toddler step would be to petition our Local Council to provide community allotments as well as regularly monitor the quality of the water in rivers and lakes and ensure the hedgerows are not trimmed out of season. The contact details of your local councilors are available on the internet.

As there are Local Council elections this May in Northern Ireland and next year in the Irish Republic voters have leverage through asking candidates in their ward what they have done, and will do if elected, to protect and enhance the ecological health of our countryside as well as provide their constituents with a resilient, bio-enhancing agricultural system. This is a urgent matter given that a 2020 survey by the UK Natural History Museum and the RSPB ranked Northern Ireland as the 12th worst country in the world for biodiversity, the Republic of Ireland was ranked 13th. Will the candidates, if elected, work to ensure that the Council increases biodiversity within the electoral boundary by 30 % by 2030, which is the target set by the COP15 biodiversity conference held last December in Montreal?

We can hardly expect our descendants to think well of us if our legacy to them is a countryside in which poisoned rivers flow, the soil is kept on life-support through expensive artificial chemicals and there is not a butterfly, bee or bird to be seen across the bland lines of fencing where bio-rich, sheltering, shadow casting, food providing, story inspiring hedgerows used to grow.

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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’.