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Opinion: This planet is not one we 'own' - it's a resource we share

Environmental campaigner Jamie Rohu says we must rethink our relationship with the natural world.

Jamie Rohu

Updated Oct 1st 2022, 1:00 PM

THERE IS MOUNTING public awareness that the natural world is in crisis. Legislative steps are being taken at the international level to meet this challenge.

Here in Ireland, the ongoing Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss has acknowledged the need for ecological restoration. Yet populations of wild flora and fauna continue to decline.

Nature, and natural, are words we are all familiar with. They are used to market a diverse range of products seemingly untainted by us, including cosmetics, dairy, mineral water, and fossil fuel gas.

alakeintheshapeoftheworldscontinentsin Source: Shutterstock/petrmalinak

Dictionary definitions describe nature as phenomena which people have not produced. In so doing, humans are depicted as existing outside nature. This assumption is incorrect as this article will illustrate.

Our place on this planet

The socially-constructed binary of nature/society has real-world ramifications. Humans continue to pollute the earth’s oceans, clear its forests, drain its wetlands and emit greenhouse gases into its atmosphere due to the sense that these places are disconnected from our civilisation.

So what exactly is nature? Let us first examine the term from an ecological perspective.

Novelist and critic Raymond Williams famously described the noun ‘nature’ as amongst the most complex words in the English language. This is reflected in the ecological systems it attempts to identify.

Intact natural environments are intricate and often difficult to fully comprehend. Humans often meddle in these inter-species networks unknowingly, often with the best of intentions.

The removal of one species from an environment can have profound consequences for the wider web of life. Those unfamiliar with the sophistication of functioning ecosystems often believe that tidiness and order are desirable. This notion is fuelled by discourses on manicured greens and potted plants in lifestyle television programs and gardening magazines.

‘Neat and tidy gardens’

Overzealous human interference can have significant consequences for the creatures living around us. In Ireland trees and hedgerows are cut every spring and summer. Our uplands are burned to clear vegetation.

varietyofspringflowersbloominginbeautifulgarden Source: Shutterstock/Anna Hoychuk

Habitat destruction like this impinges on birdlife breeding cycles in particular as nests, eggs and chicks are destroyed. The Wildlife Act is in place to curtain such destructive activities. However, this law is rarely enforced due to a chronically under-resourced National Parks and Wildlife Service.

On the other hand, environmentalists argue that certain spaces be conserved. Preservation of rare habitats is becoming increasingly important as ecological degradation continues apace.

However, demarcation can have its drawbacks. If we protect one area for nature, does that mean we can degrade other places? These are important questions to address if we are to collectively protect the life systems all species depend upon.

Remembering our roots

Humans are natural beings. The air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink are all produced through natural processes. It is important to remember that physiologically, humans are mammals much like the leopards, pandas and wolves we see in nature documentaries. Moreover, we often use ‘nature’ to describe peoples’ personalities: “It is in her nature to be good at art.”

The natural world has been shaped by human intervention over millennia. For example, the fields from which grains are cultivated have been produced through socio-natural processes.

Human labour in the landscape – planting, ploughing and harvesting – is combined with natural processes such as rainfall, sunshine and pollination, to produce crops.

glassglobeintheinnatureconceptforenvironmentand Source: Shutterstock/Brian A Jackson

There are undoubtedly places which feel more natural than others. Connemara has a sense of wildness that Grafton Street does not possess. Yet the former is a landscape shaped by the activities of people over thousands of years, while our cities are increasingly becoming home to a diverse range of plants and animals as intensive agriculture and new development erode ecosystems in the countryside, forcing animals into urban spaces.

The boundaries between what is natural and what is cultural are therefore increasingly becoming blurred to the point where these neat categorisations have become redundant.

Reconnecting

So how can we forge a new relationship with the nature we are a part of?

Many of the existing and proposed solutions to climate change, for example, involve the use of technology in order to maintain our current lifestyles. Examples include the electrification of motor vehicles and the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy. These developments are necessary, but they have their drawbacks.

Electric cars may produce low emissions but have an ecological footprint related to their manufacture. Wind farms have been placed in sensitive habitats, and in some cases have caused more harm than good.

The concept of nature-based solutions emerged from recent environmental debates. Their implementation can be less contentious than technological ‘fixes’ as they restore ecosystems in order to meet the challenges of environmental problems.

The rewetting of peatlands in order to reduce flood risk is a prime example. However, the recovery and of nature and the presence of wild species are not always welcomed.

Human/wildlife conflict can arise when animal populations are restored or migrate into our urban centres from degraded landscapes. Sadly the first and only option considered by those in authority is to cull wildlife if their presence is deemed a nuisance.

Many people are not used to living alongside wild animal populations and therefore have low tolerance thresholds. This is part of what is known as ‘shifting-baseline syndrome’, where we become acclimatised to sparse environments and find it difficult to accept species when they do return.

aseagullwasstaringatthecamera-seagullseagullportrait Source: Shutterstock/OlegRi

A recent decision by authorities to destroy gull nests in Balbriggan, Co. Dublin, is a noteworthy example. The seabirds targeted are in steep decline nationally and have had to move inland as their food has been over-exploited by industrial fishing.

If they are not welcomed in their new refuge, having escaped habitat destruction, where are they to go?

Our attitudes to wild species have important implications for the future of our society. We are part of nature, and to degrade it harms not only wild animals but the life support systems that we depend upon.

Rethinking our relationship with nature includes reassessing our role in shaping it. We need to develop new relations with the natural world and learn to accept the spontaneous emergence of flora and fauna across our landscapes.

Key to this will be asking whether neat garden lawns are actually desirable and whether if it is healthful to spray weedkillers all over our urban spaces. Ivy growing on trees is routinely killed due to misconceptions that it will harm its host. The reality is that this native species provides vital habitat and food resources to birds and insects during the leaner winter months.

Beyond these local considerations, we must reassess our purchasing habitats and select goods with the lowest environmental impact. Only then can we preserve the natural world and our place within it.

Jamie Rohu is PhD candidate in the Department of Geography, School of Natural Sciences at Trinity College Dublin.

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