“What is your trouble?” the gentle queen asked.
“During a year”, Conn replied, “there has been neither corn nor milk in Ireland. The land is parched, the trees are withered, the birds do not sing in Ireland, and the bees do not make honey.”
“You are certainly in trouble”, the queen assented.
From the tale of Becuma of the White Skin
How did we get to this point? How is that we have seen the destruction of nature as not only an unfortunate side effect of development but even a necessary prerequisite for maintain our economy? How can it be that we are seemingly oblivious to the fact that we are surrounded by collapsed ecosystems?
Trying to answer this question is a bit like trying to unravel yesterday’s cold spaghetti; lines of enquiry break off in your hands, while tracing the roots of diverse disciplines leads to a congealed mass of indistinguishable stodge.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to separate out any one thread from the now solidified mass. This is a problem.
I trained as a scientist – studying biology, chemistry, physics and maths in broad strokes. I later trained in geography and environmental science, later still in ecology. This didn’t prepare me for tackling politicians for not taking action to protect the environment, and I still think that political leadership is the most important factor in making the changes we need.
But politicians I speak to will say that the environment is rarely, if ever, an issue that comes up on doorsteps. One Green Party councillor told me that in his time in office in a rural Irish county, never once did he receive a phone call or an email of concern about climate change or pollution, never mind vanishing birdlife. There is no reward for politicians who stick their neck out for an issue that clearly their constituents don’t care about.
But surveys have shown that people do care, so presumably they are just not aware that nature is in such trouble or cannot see how this affects their daily lives. But how would they know nature is in trouble when newspapers, TV and radio are filled with headlines about politics, hospital waiting lists, Brexit or the Coronavirus, while, at best, nature is relegated to the ‘soft’ spot on the evening news to lift the mood after all the serious stuff has been dealt with? The slow unravelling of the natural world rarely provides the punchy headlines to feed our short attention spans. Journalists will say that science reporting requires time and effort, and people are no longer willing to pay for good journalism.
Yes, we all live within the natural world but we also live in an economy and a community. The messages coming from environmentalists are often at odds with the values we hold in these other areas. So, for instance, we’re all in favour of a healthier environment but not if it means harming valued economic sectors – particularly when our neighbours or family members work in those industries.
Our lack of knowledge about nature – few now know the names of everyday plants or animals – leaves us uncertain as to how to think about ecological issues. How then can we express nagging concerns when the language is not available to us?
We have lost our personal connections with nature but how did this come about, and what can be done to restore these connections? These are not easy questions to answer, and certainly not by just one person. Luckily there are lots of people in Ireland thinking about these issues so, in a collective way, we can draw on shared knowledge and experience. In Shaping New Mountains we will meet some of these people.
But first things first – it’s time to bust some myths about protecting nature.
The late 1960s and into the 1970s are considered to be the dawn of a modern eco-awakening which spawned the birth of the environmental movement. This period saw the rise of organisations like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund (as well as smaller groups in Ireland such as the Irish Wildlife Trust). It also saw the enacting of a whole body of environmental law such as the Endangered Species Act in the USA or the Birds Directive in the European Union. Irelands’ Wildlife Act dates from 1976.
Yet this was all a very Western phenomenon. This has led to a generally held view that rich countries, including our own, are more ‘advanced’ and that environmental protection is part of this supposed enlightenment. Poor countries have bigger priorities, like poverty, but as they get richer they’ll catch up.
This is patently nonsense. In fact, throughout the world it is European colonialism that is responsible for a wave of extinction and habitat destruction from the 16th century onwards. It was not indigenous peoples who butchered the last of the Steller’s sea cows or the Dodos.
Even today some of the worst environmental destruction is happening in rich countries. As recently as 2018 Australia was not only accused of being one of the worst places on Earth for deforestation but also for allowing the death of the Great Barrier Reef due to a combination of agricultural run-off and political-level climate denial.
Canada continues to log old-growth forests in British Columbia – utterly irreplaceable habitats, the loss of which impacts upon local salmon populations and the native Nuu-chah-nulth tribal community which holds great spiritual value in the ancient trees. That’s on top of the great swathes of boreal pine forest that have been cleared to mine tar sands in Alberta, surely one of the filthiest forms of energy production known.
Even in Germany, frequently seen as being genuinely an advanced nation in its environmental approach, a 12,000-year-old forest in the region of Hambach is being cleared for an open-pit lignite mine which is already 85km2 in extent, considered to be one of the largest manmade holes on Earth.
Norway, one of the richest countries in the world, cannot bring itself to sharing its enormous tracts of mountain forest with wolves despite the great progress being made in places like (much poorer) Romania, where traditional farmers have learned to coexist with large predators. A mere 94 wolves are permitted to live along the Norwegian borderlands with Sweden while in 2019 Norwegian authorities shot 55 lynx out of an estimated population of only 340.
Contrast that with India, population 1.3 billion and a lowly 130th on the United Nations’ Human Development Index. This is a county where 42% of children are malnourished according to UNICEF and yet it managed to increase the population of wild tigers by 30% between 2010 and 2014. That there are tigers in the wild at all today is in large thanks to the efforts of India and its people, who evidently hold its wildlife in great esteem, while also benefiting from nature tourism.
In Ireland there’s consternation when pine martens attack chickens or pheasants which have been reared to be shot by gun clubs, yet we expect people in poverty-stricken countries to live alongside large, dangerous animals like lions and hippos.
In Sri Lanka, a country of similar size to Ireland but with four times our population and a quarter of our wealth, there is an impressive network of national parks with wild elephants, bears, leopards and crocodiles.
In Rwanda, with one of the highest population densities of any country, its government is working with conservation organisations to increase wildlife populations and re-introduce animals that had disappeared from some areas, including rhinos. In 2017 alone, there were projects to reintroduce cheetahs to Malawi and, after Herculean efforts to eliminate poaching from Chad, a record 81 elephant calves were counted, increasing the wild elephant population for the first time in more than a decade.
It is countries like these that make conservation look easy, but it isn’t. According to Global Witness, an organisation dedicated to protecting human rights and the environment, a record 212 environmental activists were murdered in 2019, with Columbia and the Philippines among the most dangerous places for those defending nature. From the perspective of these poor, so-called underdeveloped countries it is the rich that have destroyed their own environment and, in a 21st century twist on the continuing colonial drama, are now happy to export ecological ruin to the four corners of the globe to feed their insatiable appetite for consumer goods.
Whatever it is about our domineering Western culture, we are the ones who are far behind the other peoples of the world. We are already heavily indebted to them for holding on to the great riches of biodiversity that still remain. So, for starters, we need a dollop of humility to realise the we need to start learning from those countries which are doing it right against the odds.
Perhaps we could invite African ecological missionaries to come to Ireland to spread their gospel? I can envisage schoolchildren in Nairobi or Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon being sent home with money boxes adorned with pictures of our impoverished landscapes.
Why on earth would we prioritise spending money on saving a snail or a bird of prey over much-needed funds for hospitals or schools? Yes, saving the environment is important, but first things first.
There’s no doubt about it – conservation costs money. Sometimes this means buying land or paying for compensation schemes, e.g. to turf-cutters for staying away from sensitive bog habitats. Much of conservation is boots on the ground involved in education and enforcing wildlife law, and that requires investment.
According to the Annual Report of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht taxpayers gave €17,104,00 for running the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) in 2017 while a report commissioned by the aforementioned department and University College Dublin highlighted that between 2010 and 2015 a decent €250 million was spent on biodiversity annually, across all aspects of the economy (chiefly agricultural and fisheries subsidies).
So where is the problem? Why do we have no management plans for any of our National Parks? Why does the National Biodiversity Data Centre have to stagger from one year to the next with no guarantee that funding will be available to keep their work going?
€250 million is indeed a lot of money and were it to be spent wisely it would go a long way in implementing much-needed conservation programmes and initiatives. There are two issues with this.
Firstly, the NPWS is grossly underfunded for what is expected of it. While the NPWS’s allocation of €17 million sounds like a lot, in fact it is pretty much the same as what we gave to Bord na gCon, the Greyhound Racing Board in that year. This is an institute which spent €47,000 of public money on public relations advice in 2017 despite having accumulated €20 million in debt.
In fact, even this lavish expenditure on dog racing is dwarfed by the €64 million we gave to Horse Racing Ireland or even the €41 million we gave to An Bord Bia, for marketing Irish food as ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’.
The NPWS is currently understaffed without even rangers on the ground in some areas and has no money to advance management plans for protected areas or education programmes. Their workload is strictly confined to meeting minimum legal requirements to keep Ireland out of the dock of the European Court of Justice – something they’re not particularly successful at – and anything beyond that is ignored due to ‘lack of resources’. In 2019 then-Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan, welcomed funding of €5 million for upgrading infrastructure at our National Parks and Nature Reserves, which she described as “part of the economic engine that drives local economies”.
The lack of understanding of what’s happening in nature is palpable. In 2020, following the election of the Green Party to government, the NPWS got a much needed increase in its funding but, greyhound racing also got an increase, so we still spend less on our nature reserves than we do on the dogs.
A meagre 1.3% of total spending is on biodiversity in the sea. Meanwhile the great bulk of the €250 million (80% of it according to the NPWS/UCD report) went on subsidies to farmers. And there is no audit body or requirement to analyse what benefits accrue from these agricultural subsidies.
We do know that over 14,000 farmers are in receipt of subsidies for putting a heap of sand in their yard, ostensibly to create new habitat for bees even though there is no scientific basis for thinking that heaps of sand can save our bees from extinction. Farmers are given money to put up bat boxes (even though our most highly protected bat species – the lesser horseshoe bat – doesn’t use bat boxes) and bird boxes (even though out of 37 species of our most threatened birds in Ireland, perhaps one – the barn owl – will use an artificial nestbox). At the end of the day very little of this money is used for meaningful conservation and the public gets terrible value for money.
As well as the millions spent (ineffectively) on biodiversity, there’s also the public money spent on actively destroying the environment. This would include the approximately €100 million per year towards subsidising plantations of non-native conifers, or the €100 million we have until recently been giving to Bord na Mona every year to keep burning peat, an even dirtier fuel than coal.
Writing in The Irish Times in 2018, John Fitzgerald, then-chair of Ireland’s Climate Change Advisory Council noted that “if the peat-fired power stations were closed tomorrow, and the workers involved continued to be employed on their current wages, subsidising these jobs would only cost €50 million, not €100 million. Electricity consumers would pay less to subsidise these jobs, and Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions would fall substantially as a result of discontinuing this polluting fuel use.” He charitably referred to it as a ‘misguided policy’, emphasising that when it came to the economy, the direct emissions of greenhouse gases and the forgone benefits of restored boglands this was a “lose-lose-lose” situation. Even Coillte, the state-forestry company and the largest land-owner in Ireland, is estimated to be losing money on one third of its estate, largely on high scenic and biodiversity-potential land in the west of Ireland which was inappropriately planted with conifers in the 1950s and 60s. Remember, this is public land we’re talking about.
So all in all there’s lots of money sloshing around that could be helping to reverse extinction, restore habitats and improve water quality. Is it enough? That question has never been asked. Certainly, looking at conservation as only a cost is not appropriate. There are enormous benefits to restoring nature that dwarf the economic layouts. As the sixth wealthiest country on Earth in 2020 we really have no excuses.
This is an accusation that was levelled at me by a West Cork TD at the end of 2017 when I appeared before a parliamentary committee examining changes to the Wildlife Act. It’s an old chestnut really, and one which is up there with ‘environmentalists care more about birds than people’; (an accusation also levelled at me when I tried to defend our rivers from dredging schemes in the wake of flooding earlier that year).
At the root of this criticism is the widely held belief that farmers and environmentalists are at cross-purposes. It is also founded in genuine concerns about rural depopulation and the perception that environmental designations are overly restrictive. We reinforce this view when we talk about ‘compensating’ farmers for having nature on their land. More recent talk of ‘rewilding’ and bringing large carnivores like wolves back to Ireland – something I am very much in favour of – has led people to believe that environmental groups are happy to see depopulation and the disappearance of farming from the landscape in particular.
This argument has suited certain groups, particularly the big farming organisations, who are content to see environmentalists painted as ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’. Their default response to measures such as new regulations on water quality or land designations has been to call for ‘balance’ – which in reality means derogations from legislation, special pleading to politicians or watering down of the aforementioned schemes to the point where they don’t do what they were intended to do.
Up to now this has worked wonderfully and goes a long way in explaining why we spend so much money on biodiversity but get so little in return. In reality, however, this has only bought time.
Farming now is composed of splintered factions – not because of environmental concerns but because the big farm lobby groups have failed to deliver stable and decent incomes for their members. Many of these ordinary farmers are beginning to see the mirage that industrial farming really is: more inputs, more mechanisation, more debt, more stress and at the end of the month not much to show for it all.
And so many farmers are looking again at environmental arguments and seeing that maybe there is something in it for them after all.
Fed-up with rising inequality and a wave of intense scrutiny from climate campaigners to vegans on one side, and the threat of tighter financial margins on the other, not to mention how the young are simply not entering the profession anymore, farmers are looking at their options.
As Saoirse McHugh, a former-Green Party election candidate from Achill Island in Co. Mayo, and someone whose impressive electoral results showed that there is a growing appetite in rural areas for green issues, put it: “the big farm lobby needs desperately to keep small farmers onside as it is their image that is sold worldwide. It is a picture of a farmer and his dog on a windswept hill with 40 sheep, a farmer walking through a lush meadow with a few browsing cows, or a farmer leaning on an old Massy 135 that we see on adverts for Irish food, on milk cartons, and on government documents… The small farmers should reclaim their image, the image that is used to win big trade deals, to ensure enormous profits for the few, and to thwart any conversation around environmental impacts of farming in Ireland”.
As for environmentalists being ‘anti-farming’, in my time working for an environmental organisation I’ve always been astounded at how ecologists bend over backwards to emphasise their farmer-friendly credentials – almost to the point where it is an article of faith that must be recited before having an opinion on what’s happening to the natural world.
But environmentalists are not off the hook either. We have been slow to realise that the ecosystems we have learned about from university textbooks don’t actually exist in Ireland. Instead of a food chain with apex predators lording it over herbivores and plant life, in this country at least, we have a dominant primate with all other life under its yoke. People, therefore, need to be central to any debate about ecology. One of our failings has been to overlook this. So while no ecologist I know has ever promoted clearing land of its human inhabitants, I can see why it might look like we have.
The changing debate on environmental impacts hopefully allows an opportunity for us all to reassess these roles.
This may be the most frequent complaint I hear from nature-lovers in explaining why so little action is taken to protect the planet. Sometimes I wonder, could it be true? Could it really be that people are not bothered that the creatures with which we share our countryside are being exterminated? I can’t believe this. After all, polling of public opinion has consistently shown that very high numbers of respondents say that nature is important and that we have a duty to protect it.
For 10 years I was an adjudicator in the national ‘Tidy Towns’ contest and, in that time, I had the pleasure of visiting hundreds of towns and villages across Ireland. The Tidy Towns contest started life as a beauty contest and in the over 50 years of its existence in many ways it has been burdened by its name. Originally focused on litter and flower displays, in recent decades it has developed into a model of community engagement with environmental issues.
Yes, there’s still plenty of hanging baskets but communities are digging deep into wider issues such as sustainable transport, waste and energy use. Many are enthusiastic participants in the all-Ireland Pollinator Plan designed to halt the slide to extinction of our bees and other pollinators. Groups are putting up nest boxes for swifts and bats or working with their local schools on progressing the ‘Green Flag’ initiative whereby participants address their environmental impacts.
What’s remarkable about the contest is that it is entirely voluntary, and hundreds of communities take part every year. It has been going on in Ireland for so long that in some ways it is taken for granted – but explaining its working to a French guest recently I was greeted with astonishment that such a phenomenal amount of work could be done on a voluntary basis. I have yet to encounter anything like it in any other country. We can’t look at these people and tell them they don’t care about their environment.
If I look back over the past 10 or so years of environmental activism I might instinctively look at my own work for the Irish Wildlife Trust, or the work of our sister organisations across the spectrum of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
But that would be a mistake. Some of the really big wins have come about not because of NGOs but because of the energy and passion of local people who love the nature around them. In 2017 Ireland banned the practice of ‘fracking’, a technique of extracting gas from rock formations that is associated with contaminating water supplies. In 2015 a mega-salmon farm planned for Galway Bay, and aggressively pushed by state agencies, was ditched due to concerns for wild salmon. At the end of 2018 Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed announced that trawling by large boats within six nautical miles of the coast would be banned from 2022 – this followed lobbying from small-boat fishermen who rely on the waters close to shore for their livelihoods (a decision which was sadly overturned in the High Court in 2020). These campaigns were backed by NGOs but what really got them over the line was active, vocal and organised local people who care about their environment.
Maybe the question needs to be re-phrased: in the face of impending ecological meltdown from climate change, species extinction and pollution, do people care enough?
The answer is not yet, but this is changing as the scientific evidence becomes more alarming and this, in turn, is better communicated through the media. At the end of 2018 I took part in a rally in Dublin City centre by an impromptu band under the banner ‘Extinction Rebellion’. Despite the short notice, several hundred people turned up and for the first time we heard speakers talk about climate breakdown, extinction, human rights and equality all on the same stage.
By early 2019 school strikes, inspired by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, were being held across the world, including here in Ireland. In March 2019 tens of thousands of school students took to the streets in countries around the world in what The Guardian referred to as “a global movement challenging politicians to act”.
“I think enough people have realised just how absurd the situation is. We are in the middle of the biggest crisis in human history and basically nothing is being done to prevent it. I think what we are seeing is the beginning of great changes and that is very hopeful” Thunberg told the newspaper.
There are signs that, even through the ravages of the Coronavirus pandemic, with its roots in habitat destruction and trafficking of wild animals, there is a realisation that we must act urgently to reverse the damage being done to the natural world.
For 30 years we’ve been told that small, individual choices would make the big difference. People dutifully separated their rubbish, changed their light bulbs and turned off the tap when brushing their teeth. But now we know that those small actions are not going to be enough.
We need transformative changes and if there is individual action that matters, it is when we use our voices – and votes – to demand those changes. The best thing we can do as individuals is to stop thinking like individuals.
The media have been painfully slow in communicating the realities of the ecological crises but as that slowly changes we see ordinary people standing up to demand a lot more of our politicians. This brings hope, because people do care – they care deeply.
In 2000 the Marine Institute, the state body which produces scientific data on our marine environment, published its annual Stock Book outlining the state of commercially important fish populations.
One of their headings concerned the crawfish, a large crustacean resembling a lobster but without the large pincer claws. Crawfish were, and are, highly prized among fine diners and back in the 1990s they fetched prices up to £30 a kilo (over €50 in today’s money). As fishermen sought to maximise their profits they switched from trapping the crawfish in pots to a much more efficient mode of capture known as tangle nets.
The tangle nets were so successful that the population of crawfish soon took a nosedive, such that the Marine Institute highlighted how catches fell by over 70% over the 10-year period and the scientists were clearly not impressed:
“The cause of this decline is widely regarded as the use of ‘cray nets’ – tangle netting which causes considerable destruction to crustacean and fish stocks.” They added: “many, possibly the vast majority, of fishermen would like to see its use prohibited but it is still legal”.
And as of 2021, over twenty years later, that had not changed. The use of tangle nets is controversial not only because of its impact to crawfish (now recognised as an endangered species), but also due to the many other creatures that meet their end suffocating in the nets or falling easy prey to hungry seals.
The angel shark (now critically endangered) was particularly vulnerable. In 2006 the government passed a regulation prohibiting the use of nets for the capture of crawfish but this has had no effect because nets continue to be used for other species.
In 2018 the Marine Institute, using funds from the European Union, initiated a tagging programme for endangered rays and the angel shark in the Tralee Bay area of County Kerry, the last holdout for many of these species. The purpose of the survey was to gather more information on the status of the remaining animals and, happily, they found that the angel shark is not extinct, but the population may consist of fewer than 10 animals. This is great news (of a sort) but we’re still waiting on actual protection measures so that the sharks and rays can recover in population without falling victim to tangle nets.
The solution to this issue has been obvious to everyone for decades: come to an arrangement with the local fishermen to help them transition to lower impact fishing gear and establish Tralee Bay as a Marine Protected Area. Yet we are still waiting for this to happen. Knowledge does not translate into action.
This has come as a surprise and source of despair to many scientists. Marine biologists in particular see their data routinely ignored by their political masters who persist in believing that that data needs to compromise with lobbying pressure they’re feeling from industry interests.
In 2007 the National Biodiversity Data Centre was established in Ireland, bringing together monitoring and recording schemes into one database where its director, Dr Liam Lysaght, hoped it would make biodiversity ‘visible’ to policy makers. Heretofore the information was scattered and hard to access – now there would be no excuses. Trends and projections could be accessed at a click of a mouse. The hard scientific facts of mass extinction would be ‘mainstreamed’ into public policy, ministers could wield the sword of reason in their duels with the lobbyists. Yet this has not happened. “I thought it very important to establish the National Biodiversity Data Centre in order to collect evidence on how wildlife was faring in Ireland, so that decision-makers would respond to what the evidence was showing” Dr Lysaght told me dolefully. “As it turned out, I now appreciate that evidence alone is inadequate for the formulation of public policy; decisions seem to be taken primarily on lobbying by vested interests.”
Asking for more data, when the facts are already blindingly obvious, is the same as asking for more time to consider your options as flames consume your home. Had there been leadership in the 1990s not only would it be unlikely that the angel shark would today be critically endangered, but the fishermen might still be earning an income for their crawfish.
We have lost our connections with nature. Despite our love for it, most people don’t really know what it looks like, feels like or smells like. Glued to the glorious footage of David Attenborough documentaries we think nature is far away and has somehow joined the mythology of our ancestors. Like unicorns, Barney the Dinosaur and the Salmon of Knowledge we somehow know that the people-less vistas of virgin nature don’t really exist and, somehow perversely, feel that the nature we see around us every day is somehow not real, not authentic.
For older generations nature was a barrier to progress and modernity – see the pride in reclaiming land or finding a use for the bogs. For my generation (I am now 47) the alarm-bells were ringing when we were in primary school. We could see the clearing of the rain forest and the destruction of the bogs on TV along with a rising chorus of scientists and activists demanding the end to whale hunting and unfettered pollution.
I remember my teachers in the early 1980s (when I was around 10 years old) telling us that we would be the generation to protect the Earth. And yet my generation has proven to be the greatest threat to life on this planet since the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.
In 2018, most of the leaders of the government, including the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, were younger than me. I have met with some of these politicians and have found myself trying to explain some of the most basic concepts of ecology such why monocultures don’t have wildlife in them, why pollution in our rivers is bad or how state-sponsored overfishing has plundered our seas for over a century.
These are educated and clever people but what does it say about the education system they have been through? How far does this permeate? The popular farming TV programme, Ear To the Ground is known for its progressive views on the environment and in December 2018 featured an interview with journalist Ella McSweeney and a group of young farmers. She was greeted with blank faces when she asked about their level of concern for climate change and biodiversity loss. “It’s all about production” replied one.
I have two children, one in the early years of secondary school and one in college. They tell me that nature studies (or even science more broadly) is not a regular theme of discussion. The schools themselves have little by way of green space due to poor planning for expansion when they were built originally.
Teachers and students have virtually no ability to name even the common birds or trees that do appear. The science behind climate change is not understood and perhaps only confined to those who end up doing one of the science subjects for the Leaving Cert. So it is quite possible for a student to enter the world as young adult, after 14 years of state education with no level of ecological or scientific literacy whatever.
Yet some young people are taking notice. Around the world increasingly they are taking to the streets. The penny is beginning to drop that my generation are hanging them out to dry and that our political servants cater only to the here and the now and the few. Time is not on our side. I still hear from adults that we need to get these issues into schools – and they’re right. But I worry this is also used as a cop-out on their behalf. Maybe we need to get the grown-ups back into school as well?
Dara McAnulty is a teenaged Fermanagh native who has drawn wide attention for his passion and unabashed love of nature. Like many of his generation he is finding his political voice and venting his frustrations. In 2018 he told Belfast Live that “people aren’t taught about nature. In primary school we had work sheets that we were doing and my teacher crossed out the nature bit and said ‘you don’t need to know about that’…I’ve spoken at events with thousands of people – my MP, leaders, politicians, teachers, students – the lot. It hasn’t made an ounce of difference”.
Jenny Quinn is an educator and researcher who has contributed for many years to Irish Wildlife magazine (the publication of the Irish Wildlife Trust of which I have been editor on and off for over 10 years).
She has written about nature and education and how one is vital to the other but is concerned that not enough is being done to join the dots. Now working in Bristol in the UK she says that “sustainability ideas are fragmented and programmes aimed at promoting positive environmental behaviours (such as Green-Schools) are promoted as extra-curricular, as opposed to being embedded in curricula. This can lead to students feeling detached from sustainability issues. Much of this stems from insufficient knowledge about environmental sustainability amongst teachers. To be effective, education for sustainable development should be embedded across the curricula and involve experiential place-based learning. Students can then truly appreciate the importance of place and in turn the value of sustaining healthy ecological, social and economic interconnections. In other words, students should be experiencing issues relating to sustainability instead of just learning about them.”
In reality, we have an enormous job of education ahead of, across all ages, professions and sectors of society. In third level colleges, some level of ecological training is essential; whether you’re studying to be a chef, and engineer or an accountant.
The Coronavirus pandemic gives us an idea of the kind of public awareness that is needed in an emergency while the current government has committed to holding a citizens’ assembly on biodiversity loss in 2021. I have high hopes that that can help to engage and empower people for the task ahead.
Although it’s not really a widespread belief that our laws are not up to scratch I think few people fully realise just how much environmental legislation has stacked up in the last four decades, and that much of this is actually quite powerful. Here is a non-exhaustive list of nature protection laws which have been enacted or ratified in Ireland to date including national, EU and international treaties:
Ireland produced its first plan in 2002. That year, 190 signatories (all bar the USA) to the convention (including Ireland) committed to a ‘significant reduction’ in the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010. In 2006 the European Union committed to halting biodiversity loss by 2010. By 2010 it was clear that this had not happened. In an article entitled ‘Biodiversity: It’s Now or Never’ the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) implored governments to do more in the face of mass extinction and habitat loss. “If a third of your family were threatened with extinction, or if only one third of your business was productive, or if you were losing trillions of dollars a year, would you be worried? Would you do something about it?”.
In 2011, in Aichi, Japan, signatories reaffirmed their commitment by agreeing to end biodiversity loss by 2020. In 2011 Ireland published its second Biodiversity Action Plan and its third plan in 2017. Biodiversity loss has accelerated in this time, and in 2020 we learned that not a single one of the Aichi targets had been completely met. With this mind there are now calls for yet another global treaty to be agreed in China in 2021. This time they really mean it… apparently.
You would be forgiven, after reading this list, for thinking that by now we should have a clean, healthy environment where nature is flourishing within networks of protected areas and carefully managed human activities steered by the principles of wise use.
Yet we all know this is not the case. International treaties are criticised for ‘lacking teeth’ yet European laws are backed by the European Court of Justice while our own laws are enforced within our national judicial system and these haven’t achieved much either.
In the four decades during which this hefty body of ecological legislation has unfolded we have had governments of all political stripes and colour (including Green) so there’s no point in blaming ideologies of left and right. The next time you hear a politician crowing about the salience of rule of law bear this in mind.
At the end of 2017 the High Court in Dublin ruled that “a right to an environment that is consistent with the human dignity and wellbeing of citizens at large is an essential condition for the fulfilment of all human rights”. Although this was not upheld, such a ruling would be a game-changer and may force the state, through the courts, to properly enforce the laws and treaties it has put its name to.
Elsewhere, the law has been used to great effect by environmental groups over the years most notably in highlighting that whole industries like forestry and peat extraction have not been compliant with the law. In 2020, a landmark case led by Friends of the Irish Environment was successful in the High Court in demonstrating that the government’s plans to meet legally-binding greenhouse gas reduction targets were inadequate. Yet, these campaigns take many years to reach fruition while state agencies have shown themselves to be remarkably creative in their quest to avoid meeting legal environmental obligations.
I would not go so far as to say that the existing body of legislation is sufficient: we still need instruments for the designation of Marine Protected Areas and to legally protect marine species, such as sharks. Our vitally important hedgerow network enjoys very little legal status. But these will not be enough.
I struggle to explain to my children how it is that governments can bring in laws only to invest great energy is trying to wriggle free of them. In January 2021 a senior judge, Anthony Collins, told the Irish Independent newspaper, that the state displayed an “astonishing reluctance” to comply with EU environmental law including on septic tanks, habitats, nitrates and phosphate pollution, urban wastewater treatment and environmental impact assessments. “The state willingly went along with all of them and yet when it came to implementing them and applying them, dragged its heels” he told the paper.
Why is it left to small and poorly-funded environmental groups, frequently with lawyers working pro-bono, to drag the government kicking and screaming into court? What is missing? Paradoxically, the answer might be another law – but I’ll come to that in the next episode.
The Dark Mountain Project was established following the publication of a manifesto by two English writers in 2009, proclaiming:
“We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’”.
It dwells on our over-confidence in the civilisations in which we live, quoting Bertrand Russell on the work of novelist Joseph Conrad, suggesting he ‘thought of civilised and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths’, and declaring that “human civilisation is an intensely fragile construction […] built on little more than belief: belief in the rightness of its values; belief in the strength of its system of law and order; belief in its currency; above all, perhaps, belief in its future.”
The hard copy of the manifesto, slim, brooding and potent, bound in blood-red and titled Uncivilisation – The Dark Mountain Manifesto, reminds me of the vial of liquid labelled ‘drink me’ in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It is a dark vision (the title of the project suggests they’re not pretending otherwise) but one which sits too easily within dark corners of my own thoughts. Drink it in and prepare to descend to the abyss.
Yet anyone who has spent any length of time reading history or learning the fundamental laws of science knows that civilisations end and continual growth of anything, let alone an economy, is a physical impossibility. We know that what we see as immutable foundations of societies, such as national borders, government institutions, currencies and laws, are merely figments of our collective imagination and could all evaporate like ether.
In recent times, technology has come to represent one of these foundations. Unlike bank notes or laws signed by politicians, which are just pieces of paper after all, technology is real and tangible. It has transformed our lives, particularly since the 1950s, so that I can spend a Monday morning typing thoughts onto a screen instead of hand-washing bedsheets or toiling in a field. Technology has progressed so rapidly in this time that there are now well-founded concerns that the balance of power between people and machines is being inverted.
Our blind-spot is our doe-eyed infatuation with these shiny, beautifully designed gizmos which risks sucking us into a trance-like torpor and which is already undermining our democracies and sense of individuality.
Paul Kingsnorth, one of the authors of the Dark Mountain Manifesto, wrote an article for Orion magazine in 2012 about the seductive nature of technology and specifically how it relates to the classes he gives on how to use a scythe: What he describes as “an ancient piece of technology; tried and tested, improved and honed, literally and metaphorically, over centuries”:
Using a scythe properly is a meditation: your body in tune with the tool, your tool in tune with the land. You concentrate without thinking, you follow the lay of the ground with the face of your blade, you are aware of the keenness of its edge, you can hear the birds, see things moving through the grass ahead of you. Everything is connected to everything else, and if it isn’t, it doesn’t work.
But the scythe has been cast aside in favour of lawnmowers and brush-cutters which “roar like a motorbike”, belch out toxic fumes, guzzle fossil fuels, and require the user to ‘dress up like Darth Vader’. “No”, Kingsnorth says in anticipation of the thought running through your head right now, the brush-cutter is not more efficient than a scythe. So why do we never see anyone using a scythe? Why are these tools which were used for so many centuries now relegated to museums and heritage parks? The answer, says Kingsnorth, is our ‘religion of complexity’ bound up in the ‘myth of progress’:
Plastic is better than wood. Moving parts are better than fixed parts. Noisy things are better than quiet things. Complicated things are better than simple things. New things are better than old things.
It reminds me of the apocryphal story about how NASA spent millions on developing a pen which could work in space, while the Russians simply brought pencils. Google Maps has done away with paper maps, on occasion leading people to their death. Able-bodied people stand waiting for a lift to shunt them up a single floor. We upgrade our phones even though the one we had worked perfectly well. We’re carried along in the cyclone of what we have assumed to be ‘progress’ but in reality we have no idea where it’s headed. And there’s no end to it. Sensible voices from policy and scientific communities have articulated what needs to be done to address the ecological crises: move away from fossil fuels; rein in unfettered capitalism so that it works for people and planet; reduce consumption levels among the wealthy within a waste-free economy; people and corporations should pay their fair share of tax; oceans, forests and wetlands should be protected.
Yet these proposals are met with howls of indignation as if it were simply not possible to live full and happy lives within these parameters. And within this is the continual allure that new technologies will be found which will allow us to carry on as we are. In March 2019 the Economist reported on the UN Environment Assembly which was meeting in Nairobi, Kenya (and which opened with a warning that humanity was in ‘dire straits’ due to eco-degradation).
The Swiss delegation tabled a motion calling for an expert review of ‘the science of geoengineering, including studies on the suite of available technologies, how each might be deployed and how well they would or would not work, as well as any possible negative consequences’. The Economist suggested that:
Among the most controversial but also effective and affordable geoengineering options are planetary sunshades. By using high-flying aircraft, for instance, to spray a fine mist of mineral or man-made particles into the upper stratosphere, a portion of the sun’s incoming energy could be bounced back out into space before it gets a chance to warm the planet.
Even in the unlikely eventuality that proposals such as these work without disastrous unforeseen consequences, they would do nothing to halt the sixth mass extinction, reverse ocean acidification, feed the hungry or clean up dirty waterways. Yet, for some, the thought of living on a dead and divided planet is easier to assimilate than changing our behaviour or curtailing our lust for unfettered wealth.
In 1972 a group of scientists created a computer model to predict how long it would take for our civilisation to collapse. The book, The Limits to Growth, asserted that exponential growth of the economy, population and pollution would inevitably lead to collapse. The book was widely ridiculed, not least by those who saw technology as keeping pace with these demands, an argument which initially seemed rational – for instance in the face of developments in agricultural production or artificial birth control.
However, nearly 50 years on, the predictions are bearing out. They wrote at the time that “the hopes of the technological optimists centre on the ability of technology to remove or extend the limits to growth of population and capital”. Among the models run by the computer, and described in the book, are those where technology advances exponentially alongside resource consumption, pollution and population – and under every scenario a collapse of population by the year 2100 is forecast.
It pointed out that although technology has kept pace with population and pollution there had been no exponential increase in social change (political, ethical or cultural) and that is as true today as it was in 1972. “Faith in technology as the ultimate solution to all problems can thus divert our attention from the most fundamental problem – the problem of growth in a finite system – and prevent us from taking effective action to solve it” they concluded[i].
What is the connection between the extinction of the curlew and epidemics in mental health issues or obesity?
What does drinking water quality in Co. Roscommon have to do with the incomes of beef or sheep farmers across the west of Ireland?
How are melting Antarctic glaciers, Middle Eastern conflicts and depopulation in parts of rural Ireland interconnected?
What has the illegal trade in endangered pangolins have to do with the Coronavirus pandemic?
For many, these issues are discrete topics that occupy different parts of our brain, different pages of the newspaper and to varying degrees, require different levels of urgency and attention. Yet they are all fundamentally linked in ways that should be obvious to us but are not.
In ways, we have learned from nature that everything is connected but, in another way, we feel that this only applies to nature, and since we humans have divorced ourselves from nature, the maxim no longer applies to us.
But it does. Everything around us, from the components of your smart phone, the water from your tap to the asphalt on the road under your feet has come from nature. And it is a zero sum game – if it has appeared here, then it is no longer over there. In fact, since we all share the one planet – there isn’t really any ‘over there’.
This can seem daunting at first, paralysing even, especially if you are one of those people (like me and my family) who try to make small changes in our consumption patterns.
Those haddock fillets which I bought for dinner, are they somehow connected to human trafficking and allegations of slavery on poorly-regulated fishing trawlers?
Are the carbon emissions from my trip to see pristine nature contributing to the collapse of that very ecosystem?
Am I happy to vote for political parties who defend Ireland’s corporate tax regime so that we can attract foreign investment? Am I, at the same time, eager for Ireland to meet international commitments on overseas aid? Perhaps I would not have been aware that Christian Aid, a charity, has calculated that Zambia, one of Ireland’s chief recipients of overseas aid, has lost tax revenues equivalent to 40% of the aid we gave them thanks to the tax treaty between our two nations until 2015.
Or that Ireland has consistently opposed a financial transaction tax or EU moves to harmonise tax laws and improve tax transparency, something which directly affects the budgets available for social programmes, public infrastructure and environmental protection.
According to the Coalition 2030 group of Irish civil society organisations, Ireland’s “facilitation of abusive international tax planning results in billions of dollars, which might otherwise be used to fund sustainable development, being funnelled away from state Treasuries in those countries”[ii].
Perhaps you are among the 22.5% of people in Ireland on a low wage (the second highest rate in the OECD group of countries) and have no choice but to buy low-cost clothing for your children, which in turn may come from sweatshops in east Asia using child labour and discharging toxic effluent into local water courses.
Unravelling these issues is an impossible task for most of us. But the flipside of this approach is considerably more cheery. What if we could tackle all of these overlapping issues at once? What if, by adopting more thoughtful policies, we could address climate breakdown, mass extinction, poverty and inequality all at the same time? After all, what’s the point of clean air and healthy cities if the people in them don’t have decent housing or if rising sea levels will inundate them? Why would we fight to reduce ever-rising global temperatures if ecosystems are collapsing to the point where we don’t have a secure supply of food and clean water?
The idea of bringing the seemingly disparate challenges together is encapsulated in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 in all, ranging from achieving gender equality, ending hunger and ensuring quality education to protecting life on land and in the oceans, taking action on climate change and providing clean water and sanitation. The beauty of the approach is in their interconnectedness. Governments cannot pick and choose which areas they’d like to target but must develop strategies to tackle them all together.
Ireland already scores well in some areas, such as education and health, but with significant challenges in meeting environmental targets, reducing poverty (especially among children) and creating a fairer tax system.
Seen in this way, the bewildering parade of challenges can be tackled as a once-in-an-epoch opportunity.
Thriving nature, peaceful and healthy communities, a fair economy that is the servant of society. To get there, we need to change everything. It is why one of the chants from the school climate strikers is: ‘system change – not climate change!’.
It is these ideas which are at the heart of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, a book whose central idea is that we must find a way of living within the limits imposed by nature (the planetary boundaries and the outer ring of the doughnut) while meeting human needs (the inner ring of the doughnut).
The debate required to achieve this is far more than the socialist versus capitalist slugfest which has re-emerged as a theme of social media tropes. There is no -ism which we can take down off a shelf like a recipe to address our current predicament. Market capitalism has been wonderful for providing us with consumer goods but is making our planet unliveable and is leaving millions in a cloud of dirt as the few speed off with fantastical wealth and technology.
For Raworth, “for those who are willing to rebel, look sideways, to question and think again, these are exciting times”. It’s time to ditch our standard measure of economic success, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as the ‘cuckoo in the nest’ – an idea which has outgrown its purpose and which threatens to exhaust those trying to feed it. It’s time to bring in new metaphors, new pictures and to give our economies new purpose. It’s time to get inside the doughnut.
So, if we have the wealth and the ideas, if people really care and are motivated, if we have all the science and data we need to make good decisions, all (or at least most) of the laws required, if we can start to see the interconnectedness of everything, what is it going to take break the logjam. How exactly are we going to save nature and, by extension, ourselves?
[i] Meadows D.H., Meadows D.L., Randers J. & Behrens W.W. 1972. New American Library.
[ii] Coalition 2030 report. July 2018.