Irish people and the natural environment: Where did we go wrong?

EDIT:After all my complaining about Kevin Myers, a rather good article by him was published in yesterdays Irish Independent which fits in rather well with the theme of this post.

I’m currently working on a thesis for my Masters course in Culture and Colonialism. The topic I’ve chosen is somewhat obscure- I’m applying Lynn White Jr’s idea’s on environmental destruction to Irish history. White was a medieval historian who had much to say on the development of technology in medieval Europe and the eventual spread of European influence across the globe during the early modern era. His best-known work (And most controversial) work was The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis a speech he delivered in 1966. In this speech, he theorizes that Western Christianity was responsible for much of the environmental destruction which had occurred throughout world history as it was an anthropocentric religion which created a ‘dualism’ between humans and their surrounding environment which was non-existent in earlier religions or those which originated in other parts of the world. This theory is, needless to say, enormously controversial and the debate on the issue is too great for me to even attempt a summary here. Regardless of whether this notion holds true in most of Europe however, it certainly does not appear to be the case in Ireland. The technological advancement and increased agricultural exploitation of the landscape to which White pays such attention did not occur in Ireland. A explanation may be found in the unique character of the Christian Church within Ireland and some of its neighbouring territories during the early medieval period- this ‘Celtic Christianity’, influenced by pre-Christian beliefs, attached a greater significance to the natural environment than the mainstream faith of continental Europe (If you want to find out more, read my completed thesis in about a months time!)

All of this makes it quite surprising therefore, that Irish people are now some of the least environmentally friendly people on the planet. If one spends any time abroad whether in Europe, America or any other developed country, one cannot help but be struck by the comparative lack of litter. It is common practice here to discard your rubbish on the ground. I have met few drivers who find their conscience troubled by the idea of throwing empty bottle or old newspapers from a car window. Government ad campaigns have long sought to convince people that others will be disgusted by their littering seemingly unaware that the majority of Irish people see nothing wrong with disposing one’s used goods at the side of the road. When I was a young child I once took a walk with my father along a small country road near my house called ‘tinkers lane’. This laneway was coated with several decades worth of abandoned goods, most notably old broken fridges, cookers and microwaves. I asked had it been travellers who had dumped these items, assuming it must have been so because of the racial ephitet contained in the placename. I was informed that it had in fact been my neighbours, including my own grandparents. Nobody had seen anything wrong in dumping ones old appliances in the middle of the countryside.

It is not just littering that displays the callous attitude towards nature that is ingrained in the Irish psyche. Willful destruction of the natural environment is commonplace. When I visited New York, I noticed how so many trees remained in the suburbs, providing a element of beauty in what would otherwise be monotonous stretches of identical houses. Irish developers on the other hand, seem intent on creating exactly that- when commencing work on a building site, all trees as usually cut down regardless of whether they are in the way or not. On a lesser scale most individuals building one-off country houses operate in the same manner. Many Irish farmers also seem to have an irrational desire to get rid of all trees even if they in no way impede their livelihood. The British plantations of this island and the Royal Navy’s need for timber are the usual explanations for how a once forested nation became so devoid of woodlands, but many Irish people seem to be intent on continuing their work. At times it almost feels like they are engaging in a war with nature- an example is the insistence of the farmers of Kerry on killing sea eagles which are in no way threatening their livestock, an action which I have heard many small farmers of Mayo express full support for. It has become rather common for people to claim they are embarrassed to be Irish, but I assure you that I am when I hear of these horrible killings. Such disgraceful actions in such a rural agricultural nation at times makes me glad that the Irish never experienced an industrial revolution- I do not think life on this island would survive the strains the wild abandon of Irish industrialists would place upon it. Why are the people of Ireland so unfriendly to the natural environment? Where did we go wrong?

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