Has the planet declared war on humanity over the last year? It certainly seems so as we witness one destructive storm after another in Ireland, heatwaves across Europe and southern Africa, hurricanes leaving trails of destruction from the Bahamas to Mexico, wildfires from Greenland and Siberia to Australia, melting ice from Antarctica to the Arctic, droughts in India, locust swarms in east Africa, increasing acidification of the oceans leading to the loss of a third of the largest structure on earth (Great Barrier Reef ), city dwellers dying from poisonous air, flooding at crisis levels on every continent, soils becoming less fertile, and birds disappearing from the skies, insects from the fields and fish from the oceans.
The current coronavirus pandemic emanating from the wildlife food markets of China has had the greatest destructive impact on global society since World War Two. As the science though clearly shows, it is humanity that is the culprit for these extraordinary malign changes and it is the Earth and its diverse occupants that are the victims.
Our consumer lifestyle is the cause of Climate Change, of biodiversity loss and of the growing number of pandemics. All are interconnected. COVID-19 should be humanity’s Reality Check moment, a gamechanger allowing us to finally wake up to the fact that it can no longer be ‘Business As Usual’. For there is a reason why it is now that as mankind’s activities are reduced polluted air over China is disappearing, why cougars are walking the streets of Santiago and why in Galway city we can hear, for what seems to many of us the first time, the sounds of birds everywhere.
Take, make, and waste
The present (linear ) economic model is based on ‘take, make and waste’. Technological advances in equipment, machinery and computing is allowing us to do so at unprecedented speeds in bigger and bigger volumes dramatically reshaping the surface of the planet. We ignore the facts that our cheap clothes, food, vehicles and mobile phones come at an enormous price to global health.
Homo sapiens is the only species that does not return what it extracts from the planet. In defying the laws of nature we are breaking the circle of life. For instance in covering our farmlands with chemicals to secure short term high crop yields, we view the soil as if it is only inanimate clay, slit or sand rather than a living ecosystem containing uncountable numbers of interlinked bacteria, insects, fungi, invertebrates which are eliminated by our herbicides and pesticides (‘cides’=’kill’ in Latin ).
'Once we come out of this pandemic there will unfortunately be job losses, but we can create a sustainable planet-friendly economy that will provide a huge amount of new career opportunities in renewable energies'
Our solution to the infertile soils resulting from our actions is to cut down ever more rainforests, drain more peatlands and fill more waters with contaminant runoffs from our fields in order to make more farmlands to poison as we repeat the circle of death all over again. 80% of rainforest deforestation is caused by agriculture primarily in the form of pasture for livestock and plantations for soya beans and palm oil.
The natural world is shrinking at an alarming rate. Today only four per cent of the world’s mammal population is wild; the remainder comprises domesticated animals and humans. By destroying these natural spaces, we are ripping apart the lungs that take in the carbon dioxide and provide us with the oxygen that sustains the biosphere (ourselves included ). The lessons are there in history. The great ancient Khmer, Maya and Sumerian civilisations were dealt mortal blows caused by their damage to the environment; the Roman Byzantines, Aztecs and Persians were so gravely weakened by pandemics which eliminated so much of their populations that they soon succumbed to invasion and conquest.
Today it is usage of fossils fuels that is the cornerstone of every country’s economy that leads to Climate Chaos in the form of global warming, unstable weather and ocean acidification. But just when humanity needs a united front of able visionary political leaders to reverse this manmade apocalypse of global proportions, sadly we have too many on every continent who are either climate change deniers and/or are continuing to promote habitat destruction and fossil fuel production.
We cannot be smug
We Irish should not get too smug about the failures of others. By our lifestyle we are an integral part of this unsustainable global model, with so many products having a ‘Made in China’ label that carries with it a significant carbon footprint. We blame Brazil, Congo, Indonesia or Malaysia for destroying the rainforests or look down on continental Europe and Japan for keeping livestock indoors all year round or the USA for its use of GM crops, while giving ourselves a clap-on-the-back for having grassland-fed ‘free range’ cattle and sheep and home grown carrots.
Ireland’s energy needs rely heavily on fossil fuels (90% ) most of it imported and it is the worst offender (per capita ) in the EU for generating plastic waste. Almost one million tonnes of Irish food ends up in the rubbish bin every year. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC ) recommends that, in a time of climate change, there must be a major shift towards vegetarian and vegan diets. However Irish government policies for decades supported an export-driven milk/beef food production that has led to a huge decline in farming numbers and the depopulation of rural Ireland.
Over a quarter of farmers are in their late 60s, the average age is in the late 50s, c30% of farms are unsustainable with only about 35% viable. We imported €7.7 billion of food and drink in 2017. Approximately 1% of Irish farms grow vegetables which is the lowest in Europe (12.4% is EU average ). Less than 1% of our farms have orchards compared to an EU average of 14.6%.
Whilst organic food production is the best way to protect biodiversity and soil fertility, only 2% of Irish farmers are land certified organic compared to countries such as Austria and Sweden where it is c20%. There is no doubt that most of our sheep and cattle are ‘free range’. But they use animal feeds, c66% (2017 ) of which are imported compared to 27% in France and 26% in Germany.
Nearly 90% of our primary feeds, namely soya bean and maize come from Argentina, Brazil, and the USA with almost 50% of feed for poultry, pig and dairy being genetically modified (GM ). Agriculture is the country’s biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (c33% ). Whilst peatlands store twice as much carbon as all of the Earth’s forests combined and are also home to a precious variety of flora and fauna, we in Ireland still drain, build, dump and harvest them. But let us learn the correct lessons from COVID-19.
We should not return to the economic model we have all lived under and indeed often unknowingly suffered from as we spent so much of our precious mortal time striving to make ends meet. The lockdown has made us realise the importance of family and community, of cooking and eating together, of going for relaxed walks in the local park, of upskilling ourselves in crafts and arts, of realising the benefits that online technology can play in bringing so many of us together on one call and in coming up with exciting quirky ways to overcome isolation and put a smile on so many faces.
New career opportunities
The environment has briefly recovered from decades of slaughter, pillaging and dumping. Once we come out of this pandemic there will unfortunately be job losses, but we can create a sustainable planet-friendly economy that will provide a huge amount of new career opportunities in renewable energies; organic fruit, vegetable, tillage and meat production; communications and smart technologies; biomimicry, health care; wildlife protection and natural habitat enhancements; rewetting the bogs; insulating buildings; outdoor activities; promoting the Outdoor Classroom and eco-studies in schools; developing a non-fossil public transport infrastructure; and repair shops, arts, crafts and green tourism.
In this new Circular Economy we have to find local sustainable sources of materials, to treat waste as a resource, to design products to be upgraded, recycled and upcycled. So could such a bright new world order be possible and emerge out of the dark shadows of this present crisis? In my opinion we have no choice as the survival of so much life on Earth depends on it.
I draw inspiration not only from state-of-the art benign technologies of the present but also from my experiences of another Ireland that I was born into. The country of six decades ago suffered from poverty and high emigration. It was often dogmatic, socially conservative, and where women were treated as second class citizens. Young people like me rebelled against these prejudices, but there were still attitudes and ways of life then that we undoubtedly could learn from today.
'It is time to return to our roots and fall in love with Nature. Once you love something, you will want to nurture it and protect it'
Farm animals lived longer healthier lives and many were kept for a continuous supply of wool, milk, cheese or farm work rather than for slaughter. The individual dairy cows had names such as Primrose, Betsy and Daisy. The fields were meadows covered in summertime with carpets of flowers of many colours and enriched by bees, butterflies and birds where children made daisy-chains, climbed trees and tumbled in the long grass. Farms were mixed and families even in the cities tried to maintain fruit and vegetable home gardens using pest controls in the form of scarecrows. Bike lights were lit by pedal power. Waste both in city and countryside was treated as a resource to be reused, recycled and upcycled.
The main streets were populated with cobblers, bakeries, and electrical repair stores, where it was trendy for youth to wear enhanced second-hand clothes emulating their musical heroes of the Flower Power era. As children we enjoyed the fairy tales of Walt Disney, Hans Christen Anderson, and the Brothers Grimm and the animal stories of Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame. In religion we learnt of the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, the wolf and birds of St Francis.
As adults we were enthralled by the mystical natural world of our Celtic heroes of the Fianna and the Taín or the nature themed poetry of Pearse, Keats, Woodsworth, and Hopkins. We decorated our house with native vegetation – primrose and cross made of reeds for St Bridget’s Day, the shamrock for St. Patrick’s Day, the holly for Christmas and the apple at Halloween. So it is time to return to our roots and fall in love with Nature. Once you love something, you will want to nurture it and protect it.