It is possible that we may be daunted, if not overawed, by the huge scale of the challenge involved if we are not to bequeath a limping, hideously scarred and far less productive world to our children, grandchildren and to those as yet unborn. Yet, we cannot afford the luxury of looking away, of keeping our heads buried in the warming sand and deluding ourselves that initiatives we blithely regard as progress — like increasing the national dairy herd by 30% or Sitka spruce monocultures from horizon to horizon say — are anything other than incremental steps towards a world tottering on the very cusp of unsustainability.
In recent days the story of unconscionable human depredation was told in several ways.
First, the World Wildlife Fund, in conjunction with the Zoological Society of London, reported that the populations of marine mammal, birds, fish and reptiles have almost halved since 1970. Some once-abundant species that have sustained man since the very dawn of time have, in less than half a modern lifetime, suffered an even greater decline. Once plentiful species like tuna and mackerel have fallen by almost three quarters — 74%.
The sobering study looked at how 5,829 populations of 1,234 species of marine creatures had fared in the past 45 years and found a 49% drop in numbers in the face of overfishing or habitat loss. Even the most eloquent defender of industrial-scale commercial fishing, and there are many, could not justify this war on nature — what else is it? — but they are not entirely to blame. Without consumer demand, our relentless appetite for everything from scallops to fish protein for pet food, fish farming or fertiliser — this decades-long blitzkrieg on marine life would not be so very destructive or lucrative.
The destruction was at its most violent in the 1970s and 1980s, due to a “gold rush” as technology improved and made commercial fishermen more effective. The pillage has largely stabilised since 1990, although there is evidence of new declines in the past few years, the WWF said. Despite declines slowing on a global level marine populations are not at the levels they should be and some populations show little signs that they might ever recover.
In another dire warning this week the Environmental Protection Agency used a different script but also identified our flagrant misuse of nature as a huge threat to our future security. The governmental agency warned that every one of us must place the environment’s health at the very heart of decisions and actions we take every single day. We need to build a new awareness of the consequences of our actions; everything from cutting down on plastic packaging to a less tolerant attitude towards water pollution or wastage.
The director general of the Environmental Protection Agency, Laura Burke, framed the crisis in startling terms: “We are all consumers — we need to eat, we need to work, and we need to travel but our challenge is to do this within the planet’s capacity. Recent WWF data shows that living like an average EU citizen requires 2.6 planet Earths to sustain us. And here in Ireland, that statistic is even worse — we live as though we had 3.2 planets at our disposal.”
That is a shocking indictment of a society that imagines itself civilised — and in some instances fervently pro-life. That indictment can be applied too to the fact that we need to take 11th-hour measures to try to save bees, the insects essential to agriculture and global food security. Motorways and rail lines are to be “rewilded” to create bee highways in an attempt to save them from extinction and their food supplies from devastation. That these areas may not be as exposed to toxic sprays as regularly as some farmland may have been another reason they were selected for the project.
In yet another indictment of our indifference to the environment Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, writing in this newspaper some days ago, said that though the majority of those trying to find refuge in Europe are fleeing from war very many are trying to escape poverty and unsustainable lives in sub-Saharan Africa caused or exacerbated by climate change. A precursor to the fate awaiting us all? This Government has hardly engaged with the issue but we cannot blame them for that. We treat the issue, one that may be a life-or-death one in the near future, as if it was less important than the Kerry-Dublin game on Sunday. There can hardly be a more damning example of our self-destructive stupidity.