The Cost of a Disappearing Ireland?
After three years as President of Europe’s largest NGO dealing with the management and development of nature conservation in 32 European countries, Michael Starrett offers his views on how Ireland is preparing for new challenges on biodiversity.
Two years ago, biodiversity in media terms was a dead duck. Nobody was interested. Nobody knew what it was about. Attempts to communicate its significance fell on deaf ears. The public, now so reliant on the media for accurate and up-to-date information, were totally unaware of its significance. No connection was made between biodiversity and people and their quality of life. Biodiversity was for the birds and bees.
And yet Ireland’s biodiversity, when rich and thriving, provides us with the healthy, quality and economically attractive environment in which we live. The diversity of plants and animals with which we share this island provides us (on land, sea and in the air) with a natural heritage that indicates just how well we are treating that environment. When those plants and animals start disappearing we can assume all is not well with where we live.
Now however, and following a sustained campaign, public levels of interest and understanding are changing attitudes in a positive manner. Aided by journalists and writers such as Michael Viney, radio programmes such as Mooney Goes Wild, and the unstinting efforts of numerous committed and enthusiastic individuals, biodiversity (our natural heritage) has been made relevant. Its importance has been brought into our homes. As a result we are all better equipped to understand the connections between the quality of our lives and that of the natural environment where we build our houses and do our work.
Whether that relevance and the positive changes in attitudes are sufficient to meet a government target to halt biodiversity loss by 2010 remains to be seen. To build on what is, in fairness, a much more strategic approach than hitherto some fairly hard political decisions and structural changes still need to be made if that 2010 target is to be reached. Politicians do, however, need to take account of shifts in public attitude more than most professions.
Prevaricate or disappear?
Whilst considering those decisions our orchids are disappearing, our butterflies are disappearing, our native Irish hare is disappearing and our water quality has shown continued deterioration. All therefore is not well with our environment. Ultimately we are the ones who will suffer if the current trend continues, but before we can make real progress questions have to be answered.
The fundamental question of course is do we care. The optimistic (but not the only) answer to that question is of course yes, if only for purely selfish reasons. Our children are going to have to live in this environment and we have to continue to do so. We want that to be as pleasant an experience as possible, an experience which helps us to maintain fitness, remain healthy and continue our economic growth.
For those who do not care substantial steps have been taken both in terms of raising public awareness of just how significant biodiversity is to our everyday lives and also in putting financial and legislative obstacles in the way of those who really don’t care. Races against waste, licensing by our EPA, preventing pollution, implementing EU directives all have their part to play. It has to date been very much a question of.. get your house in order or else.
What we now need is the necessary proactive structures in place to maintain the current momentum in the long run. When compared to other countries my experience tells me we are not very well equipped in this regard. National Park, Regional Park, Nature Park, Landscape Area, Conservation Area, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, call it what you like, but other countries are much better placed to integrate nature conservation in to mainstream economic activities such as agriculture, tourism and sustainable development as a whole.
It would be a bit naïve even on my part to think that the current positive shift in public attitudes and awareness will be maintained and everything will be all right in the end.
As a society we work through legislation (which we elect governments to provide) and structures to effect implementation of that legislation. Without meaningful legislation and structures, human and financial resources are very hard to attract and even harder to focus in a particular direction.
So we need to continue to make biodiversity relevant and meaningful. We need to continue to share information and shift attitudes within existing structures and to take biodiversity seriously at all levels. If we don’t the evidence is all around us to show that our natural heritage, which makes Ireland such an inviting and enjoyable place to live in, work in and visit, is going to keep on disappearing.
And we all know who will pay the ultimate price if that happens. Don’t we?
Michael Starrett is Chief Executive of the Heritage Council.