Lords of the natural world we survey, there may soon be little left

Extinction Rebellion protestors lying down inside the Natural History Museum in London. Credit: Laura Parnaby/PA Wire

In every generation there is a new Frankenstein. He is always ourselves. Grotesqueness is behind the mask “everyman” wears.

The United Nations global assessment report is a new expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It foretells a fall from which there will be no redemption. Little in scripture adequately prepares in-scale for this new Hell on Earth. The destruction of nature, now well under way, is surely the “beast about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction”.

Beside Government Buildings on Dublin’s Merrion St is the Dead Zoo. That affectionate name for the Natural History Museum tells a specifically Victorian story. There was a mania for new museums to educate the industrial masses and burgeoning middle-class. Collecting, always a human passion, now had a moral purpose and a scientific underlay. Dublin, London, Vienna, and more built similar edifices on different scales, as new people’s palaces.

One cornerstone was a centuries-old belief in man’s conquest of nature. The Scientific Revolution in the 17th century was another, and beguilingly provided an unending vista of man’s progress. Colonialism gave that attitude of conquest a vast panorama to play out the fantasy on.

Outside our Natural History Museum standing on his plinth is Surgeon Major Thomas Parke. A doctor from Kilmore, Co Roscommon, he was the first Irish man to cross the African continent.

He accompanied the great Morton Stanley on his expedition. His friendship with a young pygmy girl raised eyebrows. But he had to leave her because her eyes could not adjust to sunlight outside the forest. Now now the forest is almost gone. We cannot now see clearly in the harshness of the sunlight.

The rainforest is becoming a savannah. Coral reefs are crumbling. Seas are filling with plastic we must have, but have only transient use for, before their final disposal. The biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%; natural ecosystems have lost about half their area; and a million species are at risk of extinction according to the UN report.

We are slowly asphyxiating in our own waste. More than 1,800 pages and based on 15,000 sources it is unwittingly an essay on Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, a triptych oil painting painted at the end of the 15th century.

That painting was created at the moment of an irrevocable sundering between reason and religion. What exactly you should have faith in, is your own business. The contrast between human will and its consequences, and its almost pornographic depiction of sensual delight amidst apparently endless plenty, ends in the pit, depicted on the last of three panels that comprise the whole work.

It has a specifically religious context. It is also the history of the past 500 years as catalogued in the UN report. Excess driven by pride and uncontrolled appetites ends in catastrophe. This is the story of humanity and nature. We had an Eden, soon we will have a Hell.

The elevation of science as an object in itself, as if means can ever be separated from the end, is the new God. In living off nature, instead of living with it, we are eating the seed potato. To better deny this is happening, ironically science itself must be denied now. The mass movement to cities is a new reverse-colonialism.

Today, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. As we leave the land the exploitation of what we left behind becomes rapidly less sustainable.

Our move-on isn’t simply physical, it is practical and psychological. Our hands never dig the soil. Animals are experienced only as domestic pets. Nature becomes contained in a flower pot. The real thing is uprooted and poisoned so that we can have supermarket aisles stocked with endless choices, wrapped in plastic. It is the sin of gluttony.

It is a childhood memory, from an era which historically is relatively recent, but now over. Fresh mackerel was brought up from Kilmore Quay to my grandmother’s house a few miles away. With a sprong and a bucket, I helped my uncle to dig potatoes for a dinner that was eaten in the middle of the day. No potatoes are now grown on that land. To survive, farmers focus on producing intensively.

Small shops with a limited range of necessities are now only seen as stage sets. Growing up in the 1970s saw the advent of the supermarket. The new Dunnes Stores in Cornellscourt was a “Mecca”.

Then air travel arrived for the masses. I had my first flight on a school tour in 1977. It seemed wonderful, and it was. But now excess must be controlled, or soon we will be the writhing figures in Bosch’s Eden.

Science, of course, is not bad. The Wright brothers should not, because they invented aviation, be blamed for fumigating the skies with pollution. Desalination, renewable energy, electric buses, energy efficient housing and are all part-solution.

In Ireland, we concreted our wetlands. We flooded our towns. On transport, our low-rise, car-dependent commuter belt is a permanent problem. Services from health to education are all more expensive to provide.

Delivering an alternative to cars is plainly more difficult. Then there is the hypocrisy of wanting a better natural environment but stopping anything that might deliver it.

Community is the most abused word in the English language. The recurring setting up of festivals and remembrance ceremonies is to create again something that was there once. Like childhood nostalgia, ‘community’ offers a safer place and the hope for a better future. Victorian museums were an earlier expression of modern festivial-ising. Like the public library,

they gave a sense of communal involvement and belonging. Civic pride was part of their mission. Ironically, they could soon be repositories not of works of art, or natural specimens that exhibit the world beyond our reach, but of a world that is gone. The Dead Zoo will not just be a picturesque exhibition hall, but the tomb of the natural world we live in.

As undertakers of that world, a highly-efficient mass transport metro will now inexplicably stop permanently before it comes to Ranelagh in south Dublin. In the North-East an electricity connector, exactly the same as that which has spanned the country from Moneypoint for decades, is held up, abetted by Government ministers, for years. It is essential for ensuring an effective all-island market for wind energy.

The psychodrama over BusConnects to deliver bus corridors in Dublin, is akin to protest over opencast mining in the Brazilian rain forest. That rain forest is being destroyed to subsidise the latte lives of those determined to stop buses, to better transport more people instead of cars. We are our own Frankenstein.

Lords of all we survey, there may soon be little left. The Wright brothers should not, because they invented aviation, be blamed for fumigating the skies with pollution

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