Too Much of a Bad Thing

(London Magazine, December 2011)
So many tears have been shed for sugar that by rights it ought to have lost its sweetness.
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat

The English palate, especially the working class palate, now rejects good food almost automatically.
George Orwell

Type: ‘Haiti’; ‘Dominican Republic’; and ‘border’, into an image search on Google. A split-second-cyber-miracle-later a startling aerial photograph of a portion of the island of Hispaniola shared by those countries appears. The Dominican side is blanketed in verdant forest with occasional yellow patches, but to the east in Haiti green has given way to arid yellow.

The stark contrast reveals the environmental devastation that sugarcane agriculture has wrought, dissolving forests as if enamel from teeth. According to the World Wildlife Fund it has ‘caused a greater loss of biodiversity on the planet than any other single crop’. This is compounded by over-population, a legacy of sugarcane’s labour-intensive agriculture, which leaves Haiti with a mere 1% of forest cover. Next door, the Dominican Republic retains 28%.

By the end of the 18th century Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue, was the cash cow of the French Empire, accounting for two-thirds of its overseas trade. A plantation system based on slave-labour brought fantastic wealth to its ruling class: ‘rich as a Creole’ entered popular parlance.

The Haitian Revolution 1791-1804 ended that iniquitous system, and former slaves came to power for the first time. But sugarcane’s scars fester on the body politic, as on the landscape, and Haiti was crippled by huge debts from its inception after France compelled its former colony to pay massive compensation to dispossessed plantation owners. Outside interference continued, latterly emanating from the United States. The ills of a system that generated Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoute originate not in the frailty of the Haitian people but the after effects of the insatiable (mainly) European appetite for sugar.

Sugarcane originates in Papua New Guinea but is now cultivated in many tropical countries that enjoy hot and wet conditions. It even reached far-flung Easter Island where archaeologists have discovered the highest incidence of cavities and tooth decay of any known prehistoric people. First processed into solid sugar in India around 350 AD, cultivation and consumption then moved steadily westwards. It is said that sugar followed the Koran.

First treated as a spice it was rarely encountered in Europe prior to 1000 AD, but became a fixture in aristocratic cookery during the Crusades. After the fall of Acre (1291) cultivation moved to Cyprus and soon spread throughout the Mediterranean world.

Desserts were not a feature of medieval banquets with pricey refined sugar used sparingly in otherwise savoury dishes. Only after Catherine de Medici’s marriage to Henry II of France in 1533 did the idea of climaxing a meal with a sweet conclusion become de rigeur for the few who could afford it. Most Europeans would not have encountered it prior to the 18th century, but by 1900 it had become a staple, especially in England. According to anthropologist Sidney Mintz: ‘the diet of a whole species was gradually being re-made’.

Colonisation of the New World serviced Europe’s growing addiction. Settlers, beginning with Christopher Columbus, grew it and more than elusive gold, sugarcane offered a real El Dorado. But production was dependent on slavery, a pernicious system that first exhausted and then extinguished the native Arawak population before Africans were resorted to: approximately 13 million endured the murderous indignities of the Atlantic crossing, and of the 11 million that survived 6 million were destined for sugarcane plantations, in which ‘the deadliest form of slavery’ prevailed. In those appalling conditions a new species of racism emerged where Africans, ‘the sons of Ham’, were often treated worse than livestock. The racist language of the plantation survives to the present day, co-opted by successive political movements that relegate fellow-humanity to the status of inferior animals. Eric Williams argues that ‘slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery’.

According to Elizabeth Abbot: ‘Whites relied on blacks to produce their sugar, counted them as their biggest capital investment, enslaved and mistreated them, vilified their race, sexually assaulted and fell in love with them, and lived dependent on and surrounded by them.’ The cruelty catalogued in Abbot’s book: Sugar A Bittersweet History, is shocking and its legacy is the continued instability of post-plantation societies. With the demise of most of the French West Indies the British West Indies dominated the market, although countries such as Brazil gained increasing market share in the era of free trade that followed the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.

The Slave Trade was prohibited in 1807, but full emancipation only arrived in the British Empire in 1833. Slavery on sugarcane plantations endured until 1888 when it was finally stamped out in Brazil. Europeans and Americans continued to consume slave-produced sugarcane until that point. Abolition was the fruition of a long and worthy campaign, but the system that replaced it, indentured labour, involving the transport and virtual incarceration of coolie labourers from India and China, was almost as bad. It has left a further legacy of racial tension in the West Indies and places further afield like Fiji.
Humans have a natural inclination towards sweet food and refined sugar (sucrose) is a pure expression of this. In sweetness our bodies recognise easily-digestible caloric value. But as adults we rarely enjoy food that is purely sweet, usually preferring a balance of tastes. It is important, however, for us to be wary of the bitter taste as this may indicate indigestibility or even poison; a child’s aversion to coffee or beer is quite understandable. Over time most of us acquire a taste for strong-tasting bitter substances, often for the stimulation and even intoxication they impart as much as any nutritional benefit.

According to Sidney Mintz: ‘sweet-tasting substances appear to insinuate themselves more quickly into the preferences of new consumers while bitter substances are “bitter-specific”’. Thus, ‘liking watercress has nothing to do with liking eggplant [aubergine] for instance.’ A sweet tooth is not discerning: the taste of sucrose derived from cane or beet is virtually identical, and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has much the same character – witness Coca-Cola’s successful substitution of cheaper HFCS for sucrose in 1984. Trying to substitute the bitter flavour of root beer for bitter cola would be another matter.

The increased sucrose consumption which began at the end of the 18th century at all social levels was predicated on low price but also on a seductive combination with chocolate, coffee, and tea. These bitter drug-foods became cheap and plentiful for Europeans at precisely the same time: the end of the 18th century. Sucrose took the edge off the bitter taste which balanced excessive sweetness. Coffee, tea and chocolate consumption would not have taken off in isolation, but equally sucrose alone would not have had the same appeal.

Mintz says that in England tea ‘triumphed over the other bitter caffeine carriers because it could be used more economically without losing its taste altogether’. In reaction to the heady days of the gin-soaked 18th century the temperance movement lauded it as ‘the cup that cheers but does not inebriate’. For impoverished workers of the Industrial Revolution, tea in combination with sucrose provided calories, as well as stimulation and an enduring social ritual. Mintz argues, persuasively, that cheap sucrose was an important fuel for workers in the Industrial Revolution. Over-worked and under-paid, they now had access to fast food that would get them through the day.

Horrendous slave-labour in the West Indies was providing energy for harsh wage-labour in Britain. Moreover, Eric Williams argues that huge profits generated from sugarcane ‘fertilized the entire productive system of the country’. It also provided jobs directly, manufacturing items required by plantations including iron-collars, handcuffs and shackles, tongue depressors, and ball-and-chains originally designed for medieval torture.

Voltaire’s (d. 1778) dictum that England has 42 religions but only 2 sauces contrasts that society’s piety with its lack of enthusiasm for cooking. Bernard Kaufmann argues that such a hotbed of Puritanism was unusually predisposed to sucrose: ‘religious asceticism is suspicious of anything that is fatty or bloody, but is defenceless against things that are sweet’. At a time when an all-pervading spirit of ‘thou shalt not’ held sway, sucrose, dissolved in water or used to preserve, did not seem a gluttonous indulgence. It could also replace the sweetness of frowned-upon alcohol.

Writing about his countrymen from the vantage of the late 1940s the historian C. R. Fay asserts: ‘Tea which refreshes and quietens, is the natural beverage of a taciturn people, and being easy to prepare it came as a godsend to the world’s worst cooks’. But arguably the very popularity of tea contributed to the decline of English cookery. A pot of tea with sucrose, only commonly accompanied by milk by the start of the twentieth century with the advent of refrigeration, was the urban answer to the cauldron of soup that traditionally sustained rural communities. Its simple preparation, warm re-assurance and even slight suppression of appetite removed the need for hot food in a hard-working society where time was increasingly short. Also, the failure to provide infrastructure to cope with mass urbanization in 19th century England made it necessary to boil water to make it safe until improvements in sanitation arrived in the 1890s. Tea made water potable and palatable.

In many poor urban families an expensive piece of meat was reserved for the male bread-winner while the rest of the family subsisted on sweet tea, ballasted with shop-bought bread and butter or margarine and jam, composed of over 50% sucrose. This under-nourishment of children and babies in utero had long term health consequences. According to Floud et al in The Changing Body, over the course of the 19th century average final heights of men (an important nutritional indicator) in England actually declined slightly from the average at the start of the century (168.6cm to 168.0cm).

Tea, while a diuretic, has some health benefits (particularly if it is green tea) but sucrose is considered nutritionally ‘empty’, apart from as a short-term source of energy. The effects of over-consumption, now defined very conservatively by the NHS in their dietary guidelines as above 10% of daily caloric intake, can be extremely damaging. Henry Hobhouse describes the process: ‘the body becomes used to a feast/famine syndrome in the blood sugar, and this produces an addiction which is chemical, not psychological’. Thus, ‘a vicious circle is created in which the victim becomes hooked on a constant flow of industrial sugar to the bloodstream and cuts down on fibre… as sugar consumption inhibits the production of starch and fibre-converting enzymes’. A preference for less nutritious white bread is coupled with and reinforces a sucrose addiction as the enzymes required to digest whole grains are ‘killed by industrial sugar’. Furthermore, consumption of refined sugar does not trigger the release of the hormone leptin which informs the brain that we are sated. This explains why it is possible to drink highly caloric soft drinks during and after meals without feeling full.

In 1900 sucrose was supplying a whopping near one-fifth of the calories in the English diet, almost double on average the maximum limit recommended today. Despite the virtual end to sustained food shortages, and certainly famines, a series of nutritional surveys conducted among working class families across Britain at that time suggested that not only the urban poor, but also ‘the bulk of the semi-skilled workers, the routine clerical workers, and even those of the skilled artisan class’, were likely to be undernourished. Sucrose was the food of the poor it would seem.

Greater diversity entered the diet after World War I which brought better nutrition (and led to increased average heights and life expectancy) but the English sweet tooth endured. By the 1930s George Orwell still observes an unhealthy addiction in The Road to Wigan Pier: ‘plenty of people who could afford real milk in their tea would much sooner have tinned milk – even that dreadful tinned milk which is made of sugar and cornflour and has UNFIT FOR BABIES on the tin in huge letters’.

Refinement of sugarbeet into sucrose commenced at the start of the 19th century, especially gaining ground during the Napoleonic Wars when France was denied access to the West Indies. By 1880 beet production nearly equalled that of sugarcane. Although it is not environmentally hazardous, the end product is equally unhealthy. From the late 1970s, especially in America, sucrose was joined by another refined sugar derived from maize: HFCS. Farm subsidies, introduced by Richard Nixon in the 1970s maintain its low price. It is even sweeter than sucrose and has identical harmful effects. Sucrose consumption has not declined in the United States, but HFSC consumption now exceeds it. Consumption is disproportionately high among the poor, many of whom subsist on HFSC-laden fast foods in which it forms an unhealthy trinity with saturated fat and salt. Its use is rising inexorably elsewhere. It was recently calculated that of an estimated 47 billion beverage servings humans consume daily, 1 billion of these are in Coca-Cola.

The success of HFSC can also be attributed to the emergence of nutritional advice in the US and elsewhere in the 1970s promoting ‘low fat’ diets. A product could be advertised as ‘low fat’ but still contain vast quantities of cheap HFCS. Big Food has maintained this nutritional confusion through powerful lobbies.

The consequence of large-scale addiction is the public health crisis of obesity. We may now live longer than ever but our potential to live still longer and in good health is threatened. Refined sugar seems to be the greatest culprit. According to nutritionist Patrick Holford: ‘There is no question in my mind that increased sugar consumption is driving not only obesity and diabetes but heart disease and breast cancer’.

Obesity is the plague of our time with most developed countries converging with the US rate of over 50% of the population. The concomitant rise in type 2 diabetes is afflicting children at increasingly young ages. One wonders why governments, medical professionals, chefs and gastronomes have been so slow to address the issue. A zero-tolerance approach should be adopted that advocates a near-total exclusion of refined sugar in view of its addictive quality. The present NHS guideline seems inadequate. According to Floud et al the ‘evidence suggests that the rise in obesity represents one of the major challenges which needs to be faced if European populations are to build on the advantages which a century of economic and social progress have bequeathed.’

Sweetness can be derived from safe sources in which fibre is present. As Dr. Robert Lustig whose lecture ‘Sugar: the Bitter Truth’ (which has been viewed almost two million times on Youtube) says: ‘When God created the poison he packaged it with the antidote’. Natural sugars are accompanied by fibre. The problem arises when the antidote is removed, i.e. when a plant is refined into a slow-acting poison.

Not only is refined sugar responsible for expanding waistlines and a range of preventable diseases, according to Holford: ‘adolescents consuming sugary drinks become ‘more disruptive and less able to concentrate in school’. A variety of mental health problems have been associated with over-consumption of refined sugar.

Refined sugar has always had its apologists. In 1715 Dr Frederick Slare wrote an encomium to it as a tooth-cleaning powder, a hand lotion, a healing powder for minor wounds and, above all, an essential treat for babies and ‘the ladies’ to whom his treatise was dedicated.

Even the iconic Che Guevara was seduced: ‘The entire economic history of Cuba has demonstrated that no other agricultural activity, would give such returns as those yielded by the cultivation of sugarcane. At the outset of the Revolution many of us were not aware of this basic economic fact because a fetishistic idea connected sugar with our dependence on imperialism and with the misery of the rural areas, without analysing the real causes: the relation to the unequal balance of trade.’ After the fall of its main trading partner the Soviet Union, Cuba discovered the cost of its dependence on that monoculture and has only belatedly turned to mixed agriculture to address its needs. Moreover, the requirements of sugarcane sustain an autocratic mode of agriculture that exacts a terrible price on the natural environment, as well as workers. Finally, the end product is nutritionally empty.

Most surprisingly, Margaret Abbot in the closing chapter of Sugar: A Bittersweet History opines that the successful conversion of sugarcane into biofuel in Brazil has ‘a redemptive quality’ in ‘the narrative of sugar’s story’. Here she departs from the thrust of her argument, perhaps wishing to end on a positive note after telling such a harrowing tale. She disregards her own findings about Brazilian sugarcane agriculture’s continued encroachment on ‘former pastureland and ecologically-sensitive wetlands’, as well as the unequivocal findings of the WWF. The siren-sound of refined sugar has no limit it would seem.

It seems quite appropriate that refined sugar and the motor car in which that biofuel is used should join in an unholy alliance. Both were once the preserve of aristocrats but now access is near universal. As the prevalence of each increases any initial benefits decline: cities become thronged with traffic; and energy-dips, or even hypoglycaemia, occur after refined sugar’s brief high. Mechanized locomotion and instant energy are coiled in a warm, corpulent embrace; 19% of American meals, mostly fast food, are eaten in a car.


Anti-Refugee Sentiment in Czechia

Anti-Refugee Sentiment in Czechia

(Published in Village Magazine, April, 2016)

Aflons Mucha’s Slav Epic enjoys pride of place in the Czech National Gallery in Prague. It is a cycle of twenty large and portentous paintings completed between 1910 and 1928 recalling the history and myths of an heterogeneous people inhabiting territory from the Asian steppe to the shores of the Mediterranean.

The artist imposes his peculiar predilections and aspirations in broad strokes to produce imagery simultaneously troubling and enthralling: a pacific nature is emphasised but a belligerent Germanic ‘other’ is also apparent.

The first painting has a contemporary resonance. Mucha claimed his intention was to depict the Origin, the Adam and Eve of the Slavs. The English guide says: ‘He portrayed them crouched down like defenceless refugees, wearing expressions of fear’. On the hill behind we see a hostile horde that have plundered and set fire to their village. Implicit is recognition that all peoples have at one time sought refuge from invasion.

But that understanding is sorely lacking in the Czech Republic today along with other countries across Central and Eastern Europe. Not since the US invasion of Iraq have attitudes differed so greatly between what Donal Rumsfeld famously referred to in 2003 as ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Europe.

Many in Western Europe are exasperated by the attitudes of their Central and Eastern European counterparts, regarding it as hypocrisy considering the number of Central and Eastern Europeans who have migrated west for work and previously as political refugees. Central and Eastern Europeans appear to be from Mars and Western Europeans from Venus; but there is hardly a genetic basis for the intra-continental differences.

Perhaps most surprising to Westerners are attitudes in the Czech Republic a state geographically, and to an extent culturally, Western European: Prague’s architectural splendours are further to the west than Vienna and here revolutions have been pacific Velvet affairs. The state of Czechoslovakia was the only democracy in continental Europe apart from France in 1939. But successive opinion polls have shown that Czechs to be overwhelmingly opposed to receiving refugees despite shocking scenes that have generated strong feelings of empathy elsewhere.

How to explain this apparent imperviousness to the suffering of others? Four factors appear to be at work: the first is the historical and current relationship with minorities; the second is the enduring economic fallout from the Communist era; the next factor is the malign influence of the current Czech President Milos Zeman; finally after a twentieth century during which the Czech people have been unwillingly controlled by three empires – the Hapsburg, Nazi and Soviet – there is a strong sense that the Czech people should be allowed to control their own affairs.

The Czech Republic has produced statesmen of international renown. Former playwright President Vaclav Havel was one of the heroes of the struggle against Communist dictatorship; although his equation of the extension of US power with the expansion of liberty, culminating in support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, was naïve at best. Nonetheless his emphasis on individual autonomy and artistic expression was an antidote to the conformity of the dark Communist years.

Looking further into Czech history we find the great Tomas Masaryk the first president of Czechoslovakia whose liberal sentiments contrast with the hateful rhetoric that pervaded the leaderships in countries surrounding an embattled state that was effectively handed over to the Nazis by the British and French in 1938.

In a speech in 1928 marking the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the state he said: ‘I repeat and emphasize what I have said before, namely, that everything in the nature of Chauvinism must be excluded from our political life’. Arguing for a pluralist civic nationalism he said that: ‘the necessary State unity does not mean uniformity’.

Although that state did not perfectly integrate its broad composite of minorities his pacific leadership (he said that Czechoslovakia should only have an army as long as other countries did) engendered tolerance, especially religious. One individual who grew up in inter-war Prague recalls: ‘One of the pleasant aspect of living in Czechoslovakia at the time was that you never really knew what religion the other person had, child or adult, and more importantly didn’t care.’

Masaryk also said that: ‘politics is leadership and that democracy therefore has its constant and urgent problem of leadership’. The current President Milos Zamen is offering leadership of a different character today in Czech Republic.
Zamen is part of a rising phenomenon of politicians speaking in foul-mouthed terms about marginalised groups which has reached its apotheosis with Donal Trump is apparent in the Czech President. He regularly departs from political correctness and appeals to fear and xenophobia.

Thus in the wake of the New Year’s Cologne sex attacks he claimed that ‘it’s practically impossible to integrate Muslims into Western Europe.’ This was one in a line of statements expressing intolerance towards Islam and support for Israel.

He has also previously stoked anti-German feeling, referring to his opponent in the 2013 Presidential election Karol Schwarzenberg as a Sudetan German and claiming that Sudetan Germans had been done a favour by their forced transfer to Germany after World War II during which many thousands died.

The heavy-drinking President has also pursued friendly relations with Vladimir Putin and is roundly disliked in liberal, relatively cosmopolitan Prague. But his divisive views, so out of step with the legacy of Masaryk, have proved a successful political strategy and today he is the most trusted politician in the country with a 56% approval rating according to a recent survey.

A major reasons for this is the continuing discontent of the majority of the population with their economic status. Thus, in a survey conducted by the CVVM agency in October 2014, 55 percent of Czechs characterized the economic system that existed in Czechoslovakia before 1989 as ‘better’ or ‘on the whole better’ than the current one.

This nostalgia for the Communist era may come as a surprise but it reflects the two-tier economy that has grown up. Prague now contains a substantial population that have grown wealthy in particular off the back of a booming property sector that has attracted significant foreign investment.

There is also a high level of corruption that stalls development. This problem dates back to the Communist period where it was said that you weren’t looking after your family unless you stole. The Czech Republic’s proximity to wealthy European states and liberal laws have also proved an enticing focus for organised crime from around Eastern Europe, including Russia.

Moreover, in an era when wealth is flaunted as never before through social media, consumer desiderata from flash cars to the latest technologies and foreign holidays float before a population whose static income usually inhibits them from sharing the spoils. Excessive alcohol consumption is perhaps one indicator of a simmering resentment. The Czechs are among the world’s biggest drinkers and a lot of is consumed in a manner distinctly unfestive.

But perhaps the single biggest cause of unsympathetic attitudes towards refugees comes from a troubled relationship with minority groups. As indicated until the Second World the state of Czechoslovakia was a diverse society with Czechs the largest minority among Slovaks, Germans, Jews, Hungarians, Ukrainians and Romany. It was external factors that brought this arranged but reasonably content marriage to an end although friction, especially with the previously ascendant Germans, was apparent throughout.

In the wake of the Holocaust and the expulsions of the German minority Czechoslovakia emerged a more homogenous society a process completed by the Velvet Revolution which saw it separate amicably with Slovakia in 1993. In Prague today one sees few people of colour although there is a significant Vietnamese minority that compliantly run small shops across the city. But there remains one significant and vilified minority: the Romani.

The Romani (referred to inaccurately as Gypsies – their origin is not Egypt – and the term is regarded as a racial slur) are the descendants of migrants from northern India that came to Europe in the middle ages. Many were enslaved until the nineteenth century. The Nazis sought to eradicate them killing up to a half million, an event known as the Porajmos. Romanticised as wandering musicians, their peripatetic mode of existence is anathema to the settled industrial societies that emerged in Europe in the nineteenth century.

Under Communism they were forced into settled lives that stored resentment and bred criminality. Attitudes have hardened in Czech Republic and other nearby states despite the miscegenation that is apparent in the saturnine looks of many self-identifying ethnic Czechs. Yet many apparently open-minded people reveal what can only be described as racism towards this minority that number up to a quarter of a million in a country of ten million. The anti-social conduct of some Romani in a generally law-abiding society is a particular affront, and there is a widespread sense they receive favourable treatment from state agencies.

The appearance of a wave of dark-featured people at Europe’s gates is easily associated with the resident minority. This is compounded by the awful excesses of Political Islam that have been broadcast around the world and the challenge of integration in some European countries. There are also perhaps lingering memories of the Ottoman bogeyman who laid siege to nearby Vienna as late as 1683.

In the nineteenth canvas of his Epic Alfons Mucha reaches The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia. In it we see a hesitant and confused gathering in the snow before the Kremlin. According to the guide this reflected Mucha’s shock at the backwardness and ignorance of many of the people he encountered in a study trip in 1913.

The historical trajectory of the Czech people has been quite different from that of their Russian counterparts and ultimately it is difficult to reconcile Mucha’s pan-Slavonic vision with the historical diversity of that broad linguistic group. But the motif has a contemporary parallel as, just as freed Russian serfs struggled to reconcile themselves to the capitalist society of the twentieth century, similarly citizens of Eastern European countries including the Czech Republic, have struggled to recover from first Nazi brutality and then Communist totalitarianism.

Coming after centuries of Hapsburg rule there is a firm belief that the Czech people should control their own destiny reflected in the decision to opt out of the Euro. To understand these attitudes the views of the renowned literary critique Arné Novak (1880-1939) might prove insightful. He wrote that ‘The Czech national temperament continually fluctuates between two poles: on the one hand, a self-righteous over-estimation of everything native, with a stubborn clinging to ancient prejudices; on the other hand, impatient curiosity about the latest foreign literary fashions, and a readiness for slavish imitation.’

If we are to accept this caustic assessment and apply it to Czech politics the “stubborn resistance” might be observed in a resistance to being dictated to on the issue of refugees by the European core, especially Germany. Meanwhile, a hint of ‘slavish imitation’ might be discerned in uncritical acceptance of American foreign policy.

Apart from contending with the the demands of economies presupposing inequality, the entrepreneurial spirit has been difficult to ignite in an older generation worn down by repetition and a lack of meritocracy. Further, the pernicious presence of secret police informants across society under Communism has left a legacy of suspicion and a lack of openness to strangers. Unfortunately these resentments now manifest themselves in antipathy towards those who have sought refuge in Europe, and the irresponsible statements of the Czech President have inflamed the chauvinism leading to “stubborn resistance” that his great predecessor Masaryk decried.

Protecting Agriculture from Emissions Targets Will Cost the Wider Economy

(Published in the Sunday Times, November 9, 2014)

In a week when the International Panel on Climate Change said that current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have not been seen in at least 800,000 years the European Council agreed to set no specific targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction in the agriculture sector. The move was instigated by the Irish government who persuaded other leaders that agriculture should be given special treatment.
Irish authorities are keenly aware that a startling 32% of Irish emissions emanate from agriculture already. Ambitious targets to expand dairy production outlined in the Harvest 2020 document would be impossible without the deal.
A 2014 Environmental Protection Agency report states that emissions from Irish agriculture will increase by 9% between 2012 and 2020. The EPA report asserts: ‘This is predominantly driven by a projected increase in dairy cow numbers of 14% between 2015 and 2020 following the abolition of milk quotas in 2015’.
The proportion of emissions from Irish agriculture is higher than for any other EU state, and second only to New Zealand’s among developed countries. This is because of the dominance of cattle and other ruminants in our farming sector. There are almost seven million cattle in Ireland, and a mere 8% of agricultural land is devoted to crops, fruit and horticulture production.
Livestock are responsible for significant emissions for a variety of reasons including their digestive process, fossil fuel inputs in feedstuffs, and clearance of forests and jungle for grazing and feedstuffs.
Calculating their global impact is a complex exercise. Estimates will depend on criteria used which could include historic loss of forest cover and mitigation strategies.
A 2014 UN report, that leading environmentalists have questioned, estimated that the proportion of emissions emanating from livestock had dropped to 14.5% of total anthropogenic emissions compared to 18% calculated in a 2003 report.
At first glance this suggests livestock emissions have declined by nearly 20%. In reality an increase in emissions from other sectors in the intervening period has masked the livestock sector’s apparent decline of a modest 5%.
At the other end of the scale, a 2009 World Watch report authored by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang estimates that livestock account for 51% of global emissions.
It might be argued that unlike, for example, air travel all human beings require food, making agriculture untouchable. The Irish government advances the further claim that emissions from Irish livestock tend to be lower than elsewhere, although the intensification envisaged in Harvest 2020 could erode that argument.
This one track, industry-driven approach ignores the value and simplicity of encouraging a dietary shift towards food alternatives with far lower emissions profiles. Essentially this means human beings eating more crops directly as opposed to animals expensively converting grass or grain into flesh.
A 2014 Oxford University study found that an average ‘vegan’ (or ‘plant-based’) diet in the UK had emissions less than a third those of a person on a diet with a heavy share of meat. Considering the near convergence of UK and Irish food supply chains we can assume those figures apply in Ireland too.
A change in the profile of our agricultural production would cost far less than a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Thus, the decision to remove the agricultural sector from the emissions reckoning could harm the wider Irish economy as industry, households and transport sectors will be compelled to bear the entirety of scheduled reductions.
There is an onus on the Irish state to protect marginalized rural communities. But the current arrangement is not even rewarding most farmers. Despite annual subsidies of over €2 billion in direct farm payments, four-fifths of farms actually lose money. Just last week meat packaging plants were blockaded around the country.
Minister Simon Coveney has publicly blamed low European demand for beef on the economic downturn but it could be indicative of a long-term trend as ethical, environmental and health arguments weigh in against meat consumption particularly in more affluent countries.
The global dairy industry has marshaled powerful nutritional arguments that feature in many government’s nutritional recommendations, but nutritional epidemiologists are increasingly questioning their validity. For example the Harvard School of Public Health states on its website: ‘It’s not clear … that we need as much calcium as is generally recommended, and it’s also not clear that dairy products are really the best source of calcium for most people.’
It has become almost axiomatic that Irish agriculture cannot produce anything bar animal products. But our history defies that assessment: only after the Famine did the extensive commodification of cattle for export begin. Today Irish farmers have access to a global seed bank and a warming climate offers prospects for novel crop varieties.
Reducing emissions is arguably this generation’s most significant challenge if we are to believe the assessment of 97% of climate scientists who say that human activity is responsible for climate change and that there will be devastating consequences. It is surely regrettable that any sector should be given a free pass, especially if the food alternatives are healthier and far simpler than implementing reductions in other sectors.
Moreover, there may be a creeping obsolescence in Irish agriculture’s overwhelming focus on producing animal products as opposed to healthy crops for direct human consumption. Irish rural life should be protected but the argument for substantial agricultural reform is compelling.


(Published in Village Magazine, April 2016)

Michel Aflaq (1910-1989) was the principle ideologue of the pan-Arabist Ba’ath Socialist party still ruling Syria and previously Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Although born Christian he believed Islam to be proof of Arab genius and allegedly converted before his death in Baghdad.
The Arabs were a motley collection of illiterate warring tribes inhabiting the Arabian Peninsula until the Prophet Muhammed (570-632 CE) and his successors built an enduring empire with extraordinary speed. The early Muslims were not only successful warriors conquering territory from Spain to Persia but also projected a ‘soft’ power allowing them to convert subjugated peoples. The era brought great advances in philosophy, art and mathematics and was marked by a tolerance unknown under Christendom.
The Qu’ran itself was the first book written in Arabic, and according to the historian Albert Hourani Muslims believe Arabic is revealed in it; it certainly ushered in a great era of literacy. It is perhaps unsurprising that contemporary Arabic political movements have expressed themselves in the idiom of Islam however diverse that inheritance is.
Furthermore the failures of Arab nationalism especially under Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-70) appeared to make Political Islam the answer to the project of throwing off the economic and cultural shackles of imperialism, and confronting Israel. The brutalisation of the Middle East through internal repression and outside intervention has shaped the emergence of ISIS, but its unsophisticated ideology has an historical trajectory.
Likewise Christianity has had a lasting influence on the idea of Irishness: first because Christianity’s arrival in Ireland brought with it literacy (ogham script hardly qualifies) that generated a seismic cultural awakening; second, and another source of pride, Irish Christians performed vital missions in restoring Christianity to Britain and other parts of Europe; third, the Reformation in Britain occurred simultaneously with its second wave of colonisation of Ireland creating an effective method of creating a ruling caste; fourth, the decline of the Gaelic language left Catholicism as the only obvious point of cultural differentiation between the Irish and English.
Thus in George Moore’s novel The Lake Father Moran opines: ‘religion in Ireland was another form of love of country, and that, if Catholics were intolerant to every form of heresy, it was because they instinctively felt that the questioning of any dogma would mean some slight subsidence from the idea of nationality that held the people together’ He continues: ‘Like the ancient Jews, the Irish believed that the faith of their forefathers could bring them into their ultimate inheritance’.
Moore himself eventually renounced Catholicism, just like the main character in the novel Father Gogarty who says: ‘my moral ideas were not my own. They were borrowed from others and badly assimilated’. Gogarty bemoans the Church’s attitude to women recalling how ‘at Maynooth the tradition was always to despise women.’
Well before Irish independence in 1922 the Catholic Church held a firm hold over Irish society especially in the crucial sphere of education. Maynooth was established in 1795 and Irish primary education had become increasingly denominational by the end of the nineteenth century. To some extent this suited the British administration as it recognised the Church as a force of conservatism that would protect private property against social revolutionaries.
James Joyce also violently repudiated Catholicism. He wrote to Nora Barnacle in 1904: ‘Six years ago I left the Catholic Church, hating it most fervently … Now I make war upon it by what I write and say and do. I cannot enter the social order except as a vagabond.’ In Portrait he resolves: ‘I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile and cunning.’
It took artists of the stature of Joyce and Moore to escape their Catholic upbringings. Unfortunately most of the revolutionary generation rapidly conformed and thereby stamped out the pluralism, feminism and even vegetarianism that animated the more free-thinking period before hostilities began. One of the most powerful ministers in the first government Kevin O’Higgins remarked: ‘we were probably the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a revolution.’
That it should have been an Easter Rising that kicked off the affair is revealing. There was an obtuse connection drawn between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and the blood sacrifice and emergence of an Irish nation state. Remarkably, in the wake of the Rising such illustrious revolutionaries as Roger Casement, Countess Marckieviez and James Connolly converted to Catholicism.
The Civil War between two children squabbling over the spoils of a new state had no relevance to the relationship with the Church. Observers were already noting the ‘sombre bodyguard of priests’ surrounding de Valera as he ascended political platforms in the early 1920s; and the first Cumann na nGaedheal administration (1922-32) alienated many erstwhile progressive supporters, including W.B. Yeats, by bringing in a ban against divorce in 1925.
We now know that the Catholic Church was virtually untouchable in its position of power in Ireland until the 1990s when the staggering effect of sexual repression and a culture of impunity became apparent. The same sex marriage referendum last year affirmed that the once vice-like grip was no more: only Roscommon voted against the proposal despite the Church’s opposition. It remains firmly entrenched in education but such is the prevailing distrust for priests in particular that this situation is unlikely to endure much longer.
Moreover, Irish people are no longer drawn to the priesthood or convent as they were in droves. The Church simply does not have the personnel to project its message any longer. Of course there are residuals defenders of Catholic Conservatism in the Iona Institute and the broader Pro Life movement. But the abuse scandals seems to have changed the bulk of Irish people’s outlook and the Pro Life movement now looks more like a pale shadow from the US Tea Party. Considering the margin of victory – the vote in favour was 62% – in the same sex marriage referendum it seems likely that even the eight amendment will eventually be repealed.
But we may ask what is left when we throw away the chains? If Irish politics is anything to go by Irish people are quite lost at this point electing parties that oversaw the countries delivery into the hands of the Church, and then the IMF, alongside a raft of vacuous independents. The Far Left is a shrill irrelevance and the nationalist left fatally compromised by direct participation in atrocities during the Northern Troubles.
Could something be recovered from Ireland’s longstanding relationship with Christianity? Might the revolutionary ideas expressed in the Gospels and the lives of the saints rejecting materialism, promoting equality and pacifisms – and even containing seeds of environmentalism in the legacy of St Francis – actually inform a new political consciousness.
The Irish people are increasingly mired in neo-liberal confusion, which could be linked to the spiritual void in most of our lives. Increasingly Eastern thought is turned to for assurance and contemplation; but perhaps we have native idioms more comprehensible to us in our midst.
I do not write this as a spiritual person but as one who wishes to see a change of heart in the country which will allow us to realise a society that it is fairer and more sustainable. It seems to me that the language of religion conjoining poetry and prophesy speaks to people in a more powerful way than empiricism. Even Marx acknowledged the elixir.
One does not have to Believe in order to believe in its effect, though perhaps a measure of faith helps. As the philosopher Bartholomew Ryan puts it in his book Kierkegaard’s Indirect Politics: ‘There is no completion, but for pointing towards the elusive faith, but that faith remains incommensurable and we forever falter when we try to talk about it (otherwise it would not be faith).’
People sometimes grow nostalgic about Pagan Europe. At a musical festival you might be urged to embrace your pagan spirit. But life was often pretty brutish in pre-Christian Europe. Here is an account of human sacrifice by an Arab traveller to Scandinavia in the tenth century:
Then the girl was pulled into the tent and the men started to beat on the shields so her screams could not be heard. Six men entered into the tent to have intercourse with the girl, after which they put her onto her master’s bed. Two men grabbed her hands and two men her wrists. The angel of death put a rope around her neck and while two men pulled the rope, the old woman stabbed the girl between her ribs with a knife.
Undoubtedly worse atrocities even have been committed in the name of organized Christianity from Cortez to the Crusades but those acts were utterly at variance with the ideas expressed in the gospels, rather than a component of ritual or doctrine as in many Pagan practices. In particular by dignifying each life Chrisitianity was crucial to the demise of slavery. Ireland, as a land of saints and scholars helped extend that idea, and early Irish nationalists drew on this as a source of inspiration. We should be loath to dispense with it peremptorily.
There have been many powerful critiques of organised Christianity not least from Edward Gibbons who wrote that: ‘The pure Deism of the first Christians … was changed, by the Church of Rome, into the incomprehensible dogma of the trinity’.
One of the most savage attacks on the Church of Rome came from Fyodor Dostoyevsky whose omniscient Idiot exclaims: ‘In my opinion Roman Catholicism isn’t even a religion, but most decidedly a continuation of the Holy Roman Empire, and everything in it is subordinate to that idea, beginning with faith. The Pope seized the earth, an earthly throne and took up the sword; and since then everything has gone on in the same way, except they’ve added lies, fraud, deceit, fanaticism, superstition, wickedness. They have trifled with the most sacred, truthful, innocent, ardent feelings of the people, have bartered it all for money, for base temporal power. And isn’t that the teachings of the Antichrist?’ But Dostoyevsky was a deep believer and his novels invariably invoke the redemptive power of a Christian faith removed from temporal power.
Frederick Nietszche went much further opining that: ‘Christianity has been up till now mankind’s greatest misfortune’. In response the Irish poet-philosopher John Moriarty writes: ‘As though the Europe he grew up in was purely idolatrous Mexico and he a Cortez who came ashore. Nietzsche proceeded to smash and roll Christianity down the steps of its own pyramid temples. In its place he set up actuality, recurrence and will to power.’ And ultimately Nietzsche’s vision is associated with madness and Fascism.
Moriarty proposes that: ‘It is as necessary that we realize a past out of which to grow as it is to realize a present and future into which to grow’. In his Dreamtime he paints an ecumenical mythological inheritance out of which this growth in individuals and across a wider society might be realised. The Christian experience is reclaimed and reordered.
It seems that just as the key to defeating the doctrine of ISIS will emerge from within Arab-Islamic idiom rather through sustained bombing campaigns, similarly the key to creating a more compassionate, thoughtful and proactive Irishry may lie in re-engaging with our mythical inheritance, and that includes a re-imagined Christianity.

The Environmental Origins of Ebola

(Published in the Irish Times Oct 27, 2015)

A new study explores the environmental factors that give rise to outbreaks of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). Jointly undertaken by the Environmental Foundation for Africa and the ERM Foundation it posits a connection between rainforest fragmentation and this zoonotic disease. This is hypothesised to occur through increased contact between species that normally do not come into contact with each other or with humans. These include various bat species hypothesised to play a role in the transmission of the virus to humans.
As the recent West African epidemic which began in December 2013 subsides the burning question in the region and beyond is: how do we prevent this nightmare from recurring? [A timely reminder of the effect of this terrible disease is provided by the tragic case of Scottish nurse Pauline Cafferkey who contracted the illness in the line of duty].
So far there have been over 11,000 reported mortalities with twice that number of survivors who are both physically traumatised and socially stigmatised by the disease. Moreover as of October 2014 the World Bank estimated that the economies of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone could lose US $1.6 billion in economic activity during 2015.
More than this, the epidemic has generated existential fears which I encountered on a visit to Sierra Leone last May. In societies where tactile behaviour is deeply rooted prescriptions against physical contact impose uncomfortable limitations. Bans on public gatherings also distort important social rituals. Further, the increased security measures leave the potential for abuse of power.
The international community including governments and NGOs devoted considerable resources in medical assistance to prevent the spread of the epidemic. To some extent self-interest on the part of the international community was a motivation: malaria and respiratory infections continue to be far greater killers in what remain some of the world’s poorest countries. Nonetheless EVD’s terrifying symptoms that include unexplained haemorrhaging, its high mortality rate and the risk of wider contagion demanded a response.
Correctly, recovery plans for the region emphasise strengthening healthcare systems as a primary objective, but as the authors of the study point out the prevailing approach is “to treat the next outbreak as “inevitable”.” Moreover, economic recovery plans focus on a “business as usual” approach that fails to take the environmental impact of economic activities into account adequately. Thus, the regional organisation of the three state’s the Mano River Union in their post-EVD recovery plan makes no direct reference to ways of reducing the risk of future outbreaks, or for any environmental protection measures that could support this.
The study contends that: “forest loss or fragmentation, accompanied by hunting and the trade in bushmeat drive contact between humans and wild reservoirs and lead to infections.” It is not certain whether fruit bats are indeed the reservoir host of EVD that give rise to the transmission of the disease to a human being: “They may be part of a more complex chain of reservoirs and transmission chains between wild reservoirs and humans.” Forest fragmentation which changes the behaviour of bats could have repercussions elsewhere. The bats altered behaviour may be stressing other species that leads to a rare zoonotic occurrence.
The index case for the latest outbreak is believed to have been an unfortunate 2-year-old boy from Méliandou in Guinea who came into contact with an infected bat while playing in the hollow of a tree. In that region local land use is dominated by a pattern of subsistence farming commonly referred to as slash and burn agriculture.
Although mature trees are usually not a farmer’s first choice to clear, when aided by mechanization used in industrial logging or mining this task becomes a lot easier. Relatively few large blocks of forest in that region of Guinea “have not been subjected to significant, recent human manipulation” according to the authors. Indeed only a tiny proportion of the wider Upper Guinea rainforest belt remains unexploited, a process of deforestation that has accelerated considerably in recent decades. This has caused significant disturbance to bat populations creating the pre-conditions it appears for an outbreak.
The study uses time lapse satellite imagery to compare the outbreak in Guinea with others in Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and South Sudan. They observer similar environmental patterns of forest fragmentation that are assumed to alter the mix of wild species in a given location, including bats, affecting their stress levels and potentially reducing immunological resistance levels. The data connecting forest fragmentation with an outbreak is not definitive but the circumstantial evidence is compelling.
Based on this evidence donors should ensure that the environmental impact of economic activities including agriculture, mining and logging are assessed. People must be equipped with the skills and resources to produce food, energy and other goods without damaging their environments.
Confronting it as simply a medical issue without reference to the environmental context is insufficient. Rolling out a vaccine is important but we have no way of knowing the type or the severity of the next virus that emerges.
The authors warn against demonizing and eradicating animals that could harbour EVD. Quite apart from the morality of this, rainforests are highly complex ecosystems. Any such measures could have unintended, dire consequences. Further, the identity of the reservoir host remains unclear and seems likely to be so for some time.
The study argues that donors and the authorities in the region should incorporate natural resource management and environment impact as core evaluation criteria into their programmes “and not treat them as box ticking exercises, or consider their job done by funding an isolated, sector specific ‘forest and wild management’ project.”
Moreover, as the recent publication of the UN’s Sustainability Goals remind us, biodiversity is essential for human flourishing. The limits of natural capital must be taken into account if economic activity is to be sustainable, and that is especially important for feeding populations. The recent EVD outbreak highlights these crucial interdependencies, and the potentially catastrophic consequences of another outbreak are such that the burden is shared by us all.

Interview with Tommy Garnett

(Published in Village Magazine June 2015)

Tommy Garnett is a dual citizen of Ireland and Sierra Leone. He founded the Environmental Foundation for Africa (EFA) in 1997 while living in Liberia at the end of the first Sierra Leonean civil war. His organisation currently employs twenty staff all of whom are Sierra Leonean. He lives and works in Freetown.

1. What is your background and why did you found the Environmental Foundation for Africa?

I was born in the Kono district in the eastern province of Sierra Leone in the late 1950s at a time when most of the country’s forests were intact. I remember that our house was on the edge of the forest, so I had a forest backyard at the age of 5 or 6, but by the time I was eighteen and going to university that forest was no longer there. In its place were developments, degraded bush and diamond-mining pits that stretched as far as the eye could see. But that memory of the forest of my childhood stuck with me. When the war started in Sierra Leone in 1991 I was living with my family of three young children in London and we started seeing pictures of devastation: the suffering of people and destroyed landscapes. I also knew that mining had been happening for the best part of five decades and it seemed there was no one talking about what would be done to repair this damage. The focus was exclusively on alleviating human suffering. That is why I decided to start an organisation that would focus on the repair of degraded landscapes, protection of forests and education of people about managing both.

2. Why is environmental protection urgent in west Africa?

Much of western Africa lies within what used to be called the Upper Guinea forest belt, which once stretched south through Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Western Togo. Over the last century this has been reduced to less than ten percent of its original cover. Given the inextricable link between forests and the traditions of the people of this region, many cultures and livelihoods are disappearing.

3. What are the main projects you are running?

We have launched a biodiversity and renewable energy learning centre which is intended as a repository of knowledge and experience of over twenty years working in the field. We hope to use this centre as a place for exhibiting representative samples from the eco-systems of our country and wider region, and create enabling-conditions for people to have a heart connection with nature and the forest. Currently the relationship with the forest is narrowly utilitarian. We want people to fall in love with nature! Then its protection is assured.
We also maintain a wildlife sanctuary on Tiwai island where we promote eco-tourism, motivating local communities around the site by delivering alternative livelihoods and raising awareness of the global significance of its biodiversity. We are also offering renewable energy by installing solar panels to local villages. These projects help people understand that they matter and that there is great value in protecting forests.
We are also involved in supporting research, working with Njala university to find answers to some of the burning questions that help people recognise why they should manage natural resources. For example, we are conducting a joint study with Environmental Resource Management Foundation (a part of the ERM consulting group) to establish a link between Ebola and natural resource management.

4. What organisations support your work?

We are supported by the European Union who are funding a solar energy project in 50 communities. Critical Eco-system Partnership Fund based in the US has also provided support over the years. We also work with the JJ Charitable Trust an arm of the Sainsbury Charitable Trust.

5. Have Irish Aid been supportive?

We have not had any relationship with Irish Aids in recent times though they supported me initially as for the first ten years out here I was an Irish volunteer working for APSO. I used to receive a volunteer’s allowance which allowed me to support my young family while I did my work. They also provided bridging support for Tiwai island when we first completed construction of the facilities in 2006: the only means of maintaining the facility.

6. Do you have other means of fund-raising?

At the moment the only means available for us is to draw income from the usage of the learning centre, but it is not easy to raise money as a result of the Ebola crisis. It is not a good climate for doing meaningful environment work. It is very expensive to do business in this context for a local organisation that wants to deliver the highest standards possible. The cost of utilities is very high. In order to have the desired impact, we have to focus on environmental management meaning we constantly have to find ways of fund-raising, and that includes generating resources from our facilities.

7. What are the principle challenges confronting environmental protection in Sierra Leone?

We have a rapidly growing population of which more than 65% are under the age of 35. Very high levels of unemployment: over 70% of the rural population are dependent on the land which brings a lot of environmental degradation. The economy is driven by the extractive sector, mining particularly and lately we are seeing the establishments of large plantations of palm oil, squeezing other activities. There isn’t a proactive approach by the international development partners towards environmental protection. Everything that occurs is in response to obligations. Usually we respond to crises when it comes to addressing environmental challenges. It is sometimes daunting to know where to start: for example waste management is terrible meaning many of the beaches are littered; then there is the degradation of the hill sides due to soil erosion; up country we still have a lot of slash and burn agriculture with no clear plan of action on how to replace or remedy the destruction to nature. The measures taken are so far comparatively minor: the combined efforts are far smaller than the problems.

8. Do the Sierra Leonean government support your work?

Yes, they have been very supportive. Apart from the fact that they support all the organisations through concessions, the government recognises that we are contributing to the national development plan. But given the financial and human resource constraints even the best intentions are insufficient to have lasting impact when it comes to implementing environmental projects which require long time scales. But NGOs and their partners want immediate results. Changing a culture is a slow process, and very few entities allocate enough time and resources.

9. What additional measures should foreign NGOs take when delivering aid to take care of the environment?

The first thing they should do is recognise that we have all contributed and continue to contribute to the problem. Investing in development aid in the agri-sector means that more forests are cleared to grow rice. Building more latrines involves using materials from the bush. Investing in roads and bridges requires cutting down huge swathes of forest. Every agency has contributed to the problem. The second task is to integrate environmental considerations into the planning and implementation of every project. This means close collaboration with both governmental and civil society organisations. Bigger NGOs with greater resources should develop capacities within their institutions so that it isn’t always an external agency that cleans up adverse environmental impacts. Failure to recognise the ecological basis of all investments is like building on sand. What has just happened with Ebola is a classic example. When it struck it wasn’t long before all the systems collapsed. Yet we know that this zoonotic disease came about in part because of the fragmentation and irresponsible use of forest eco-systems. We were very quickly left to the mercy of the international community.

10. Is it difficult to raise environmental awareness among Sierra Leoneans?

I would rather say it is absolutely necessity to raise awareness. The challenge is to maintain consistency and follow words with deeds. This is why there needs to be greater collaboration between all the actors, so that when people are told that something is not right they are shown suitable and sustainable alternatives. This is what happens when an organisation talks about agricultural sustainability, it wouldn’t take long before people would stop burning the forest. We need to look at this as not a threat to incomes but a wise investment for the sustainable foundation on which all development efforts lie.

11. Shouldn’t we always prioritise aid to people as opposed to the environment?

If you see people as different from the environment then maybe. But if you see the people as being part of the environment then you see it’s a necessity. It’s a false economy to support people at the expense of the environment. That is where the whole world is going wrong.

12. Are you hopeful that environmental conditions will improve in Sierra Leone?

I have to be, otherwise I might as well retire and go travelling adding more CO2 to the atmosphere! I am an eternal optimists. I see the innocence of the children and ask myself what they will be doing in twenty years. When I was their age I had so many dreams and aspirations. Since then much of the forest has disappeared. Peace and quiet is hard to come by, the beaches are dirty most of the time. All of the things that make nature beautiful are under threat. It is all important that we work with the younger generation who will inherit what we have now. There is no other option if we are to avoid future catastrophes. If we are to curb future poverty, then we have to look seriously at this.

Sierra Leone After Ebola

(Published in Village Magazine, June 2015)

In Sierra Leone an amusing assortment of greetings have evolved to replace any ‘pressing of the flesh’ that could give rise to Ebola contagion. From elbow jabs to clasped-hand bows, a gallows humour is derived from the enforced measures.
The reality of Ebola is hidden from visitors, the main reminder the hand-held, infra-red thermometers that assail passers-by at checkpoints that have been set up at regular intervals along most highways. Statements such as ‘Ebola Stops With Me’ are also emblazoned along roadsides, and posters showing symptoms are widely dispersed.
After an estimated 10,000 cases the steady flow has become a trickle, and the country is ready to move on from a disease that made the West shudder at the prospect of a plague that could carry all before all before it. But for Sierra Leoneans, accustomed to other epidemics such as AIDS and ubiquitous malaria, Ebola, while horrific for victims, is nothing new. Throw-in a frightening decade-long civil war that witnessed limb-severing among other horrific punishments, and you find a stoic people familiar with adversity.
Inhabiting temperate north-west Europe it is hard to grasp the challenge of this region’s climate. Throughout the year daytimes are stiflingly hot, rarely dipping below 30 degrees while during the wet season the force and duration of rain is such that at times one marvels at how much moisture the clouds contain.
The territory of Sierra Leone, like the rest of Africa, was framed by European colonisers without regard to its tribal constituents. But well before the ‘Scramble for Africa’ those societies had been destabilised by the arrival of European weapons and extensive raiding for the horrific trans-Atlantic slave trade. Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, like Monrovia in neighbouring Liberia, was established by the British as a colony for freed slaves and the national lingua franca Kreo comes from those first settlers. Sierra Leone became a British protectorate in 1896.
Today the human indicators in Sierra Leone are among the worst in Africa. Up to 40% of the population’s growth has been stunted due to poor nutrition in the womb and infancy. Rates of literacy are low. Above all it is poverty that makes the task of containing Ebola difficult.
Throughout the country electricity is intermittent and internet available only to a privileged few, albeit many of the poorest seem to carry mobile phones. Although there are some decent roads, heavy rains make light work of others. The undulating surfaces are ruinous to vehicles; any driver must be a mechanic.
Commerce is everywhere in Sierra Leone, at any road stop a line of individuals, mostly women and children, greet vehicles usually with vibrant fruits and vegetables. In Freetown and other cities market stalls and small shops line every artery. Money changes hands constantly, transactions negotiated at every turn. As the state provides little or nothing, individuals must carve out niches to survive.
A host of donor countries and NGOs, including Ireland Aid, assist the development of the country. It is said that the Chinese are building a new airport outside Freetown and a road through the north of the country to Liberia. One might question the bona fides of some of this aid which may be motivated by commercial interest, but its continued flow is crucial to raising human wellbeing.
But, unfortunately, environmental considerations rarely register. In time this may prove a grave mistake as Sierra Leone’s is reckoned to be the third most vulnerable country in the world to climate change.
Only a tiny proportion of Sierra Leone’s once abundant forests – part of the wider Upper Guinea belt – survives. Local wisdom has it that a meal is not complete without rice, but the impact of that crop which originated in Asia is apparent in the expanses of charred tree stumps everywhere apparent. This slash and burn agriculture requires a twenty year fallow period which has caused centuries of devastation to accumulate. A shift in dietary preferences towards other carbohydrate staples such as native cassava, plantain and yams that do not exert such a toll would be of great benefit, and would actually improve nutrition. The country’s future food security might depend on this as more and more land is degraded by demographic pressures. At least the presence of pests such as the tetsi fly deters large scale ranching though the goat, the main domesticated ruminant in Sierra Leone, is known in other locations for its impact on recovering forests.
The timber trade is also a leading cause of deforestation, with foreign companies implicated in its acquisition. Moreover, scaffolding for building works mainly comes in the form of bamboo derived from hard-pressed forests. A simple measure would at least require development agencies to import steel scaffolding for their construction projects.
Then there is mining, including of fabled ‘Blood Diamonds’ competition for whose extraction was an underlying cause of the Sierra Leonean civil war. Both rebels and government troops collaborated in their extraction which caused significant deforestation. Today as well as artisanal operations, bigger players including Western companies have moved to extract iron-ore, bauxite as well as diamonds.
The consequences of centuries of exploitation are everywhere apparent. With hillsides denuded of forest cover, top soil turns to suffocating dust in the dry season which is drained away when the rains arrive. Then the sea around Feetown acquires a brownish hue that stretches for miles. Millennia of accumulated humus cannot easily be regained.
The economic value of biodiversity, or natural capital, is increasingly recognised, especially in terms of clean water, food production and climate impact. But more slowly are we recognising its value as a good in and of itself. Unfortunately most Sierra Leoneans are too impoverished to be able to see beyond immediate material considerations but there is a growing appreciation of nature in a region which exhibits extraordinary diversity.
A trip to Tiawa island, situated along the River Moa, brought to mind Joseph Conrad’s description of a similar profusion of life along another African river: ‘Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.’
Maintaining the integrity of the biodiversity on the island is a delicate balancing act that has required extensive consultation with local villages. An EU project has brought solar power to many nearby. In turn, village elders deter their tribesmen from hunting for the array of primates that populate the site. So-called bush meat is not highly prized by the local communities but poverty and ignorance impels some to seek it out.
Stopping hunting is not merely a sentimental concern. Diseases such as Ebola and Aids are zoonotic in character; that is they spread from one species to another, usually through the consumption of flesh. A species of fruit bat has been isolated as the reservoir host for Ebola while diseased monkey were responsible for AIDS. Curbing the consumption of bush meat is an important component in ending further zoonotic outbreaks.
The challenges involved with instigating projects are considerable in Sierra Leone. Even purchasing property is tricky as the state’s registry may issue more than one deed for the same land. Corruption and nepotism are endemic. This gives rise to a certain despondency as even the highly educated and energetic find advancement difficult. Career frustrations make the option of leaving the country appealing. The considerable environmental challenges are compounded by human intransigence.
Almost anything is available at the right price. Dramatic luxury co-exists with withering poverty. The latest US car models mingle with men dragging large wheelbarrows and women with heavy loads on their heads. With both actual and comparative poverty, it is hardly surprising that individuals should aspire to great wealth should circumstances permit. Inculcating a common interest between people is a serious challenge, and an understanding of the limitations of their natural environment is crucial.
Hope lies with the children who are increasingly literate, improved education and access to information can spur the next generation to re-build the country based on principles of fairness and sustainability. It is also a source of comfort that the sickly violent tide has turned. The developed world must also play its part, and the Ebola crisis exhibits the interconnectivity of the global village. Let us hope that greater cataclysms do not intercede to deter a favourable outcome.

The Scapegoat

(version in Village Magazine, May 2015)

The Charlie Hebdo attacks by individuals purporting to represent Islam have again linked that religion to violent behaviour anathema to Western, liberal values. From stoning of adulterers to beheadings and burning alive of infidels, flogging bloggers and even female genital mutilation (fgm), a picture registers of a religion stubbornly rooted in a barbaric past, even if those practices have little or no justification in Islam.
What we generalise as ‘Islam’ is a constantly evolving and diverse set of beliefs influenced by the varying settings of its over one billion global adherents.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim claimed that religions are: “a system of ideas with which the individual represent to themselves the society of which they are members”. This follows Aristotle’s dictum that: “men create the gods after their own image”.
A contrasting view, articulated by another sociologist Max Weber, is that religions of themselves generate cultural conditions: most famously he argued that Protestant work ethic led to modern capitalism.
This focuses the question on whether religious violence flows from the teachings of the religion itself or whether religious discourse is simply used to justify violence that has deeper roots in human nature.
Engagement with the ideas of René Girard might shed some light on this question. Girard identified a universal tendency towards what he termed “acquisitive mimesis”. By this he meant that humans copy each other’s consumption (a version of ‘monkey see, monkey do’) which naturally leads to rivalry over scarce resources.
Moreover, and unlike other animals, humans evolved an ability to employ deadly weapons, beginning with stone projectiles. With this capacity for wreaking destruction early humans found it necessary to resolve potentially fatal conflicts brought about by competition for resources.
Girard identifies the mechanism of the scapegoat across a whole range of cultural contexts which intermittently becalms the violent tendencies that bedevil human societies. Jesus Christ’s crucifixion is an obvious example, but he found this to be a near-universal feature of tribal societies.
Religions play a prominent role. According to Girard: “The sacred is violence, but if religious man worships violence it is only insofar as the worship of violence is supposed to bring peace; religion is entirely concerned with peace, but the means it has of bringing it about are never free of sacrificial violence.”
He also claims that: “Prohibitions are intended to keep distant or to remove anything that threatens the community.” Adding: “There is no prohibition that cannot be related to mimetic conflict.”
This is consistent with Robert Harris’s thesis on why pig meat is taboo in Islam: the Middle East (where Islam emerged) does not contain forests as Europe has (or had at least) where pigs could feed on acorns and other foods generally inedible to humans. In contrast in the arid conditions of the Middle East pigs would have to compete with humans for their food. The conversion of food into flesh diminished its value and so it became haram (forbidden). The prohibition therefore decreased competition for food, and its potential for violence.
With this in mind we may explore the origins of violence in Islam where the socio-cultural context is important to our understanding of how that faith is articulated.
The harsh desert environment of post-nomadic Saudi Arabia where literacy was rare and violence endemic preserves religious practices that we in the West consider barbarous. The discovery of enormous oil reserves after World War I thrust unimaginable wealth into the hands of the new state, and the fundamentalist Wahhabi form of Islam has been used by the ruling Al-Saud family to legitimate their rule.
Today, a range of interpretations of Islam are found in different countries. Most Muslims in the West find little difficulty reconciling their lifestyles with the norms of their societies, albeit they may be highly critical of the foreign and domestic policies of their governments.
When we ask why individuals embrace terrorism a consideration of their life prospects and the nature of their societies is an important consideration. Would-be-terrorists observe a global environment where disproportionate wealth (ergo power and munitions) lies in the hands of Western states whose foreign policies have often been directed against Muslim countries. Jihad is interpreted to suit these conditions: extreme and seemingly gratuitous violence balances the wealth and power differential.
It is also instructive to recall Christianity’s history of justifying the Crusades, the Inquisition and oppression of minorities. The Bible was even used to justify slavery before the American Civil War.
With peace reigning in Western societies, at least internally, a more harmonious Christianity has been articulated. The corpora of works that constitute both Christianity and Islam contain a wide range of possible interpretations.
But Weber’s view of religion should not be dismissed entirely. The often intolerant Wahhabi teaching emanating from Saudi Arabia over the last decades have had a strong and worrying influence on many of the global umma. The values of a violent, desert society remain influential.
Reflecting on the nature of, and differences between, global religions is instructive. One distinguishing feature of the monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism is they firmly place man at the centre of the universe with dominion over all life.
This extends to how we consume food which involves a fundamental relationship with the earth. In contrast most forms of Buddhism and other Eastern traditions see humans as one among other animals and advocate restraint on the unnecessary killing of other animals for food.
At face value these prohibitions may seem irrelevant to inter-human violence, but if a religion restrains intentional killing the level of inter-human violence in that society could decrease. Advances in weapon-technology were also linked to human predation on other animals.
Perhaps prohibiting violence towards animals can temper a need to scapegoat other humans. Through denial of what many consider a natural inclination to consume the flesh of other animals we might begin to reverse the acquisitive mimesis that brings humanity to the brink of self-destruction.
Rene Girard observed: “Man is not naturally a carnivore; human hunting should not be thought of in terms of animal predation.” He said that “What impelled men to hunt was the search for a reconciliatory victim.” And concluded: “The common denominator is the collective murder, whether attributed to animals or men, rather than the hunted species or various techniques employed.” He also argues that animals were first domesticated for their use in sacrifice, not for their value as food.
Thus the consumption of animals is, at least in its origin, unnecessary and symbolic. A means of resolving our “acquisitive mimesis”. By curbing this behaviour societies diminish the “collective murder”; more so when we consider how the demand that consuming animals places on scarce resources and how it is now often undertaken as a form of competitive display; eating a steak can be an affirmation of wealth or manhood.
The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of a form of politics divorced entirely from violence. This great achievement is especially identified with Gandhi who guided Indians to throw off the shackles of the British Empire through non-violent resistance.
Pacifism and vegetarianism often go hand in hand. Leo Tolstoy another who recognised the need to reverse the acquisitive streak in human nature claimed that: “as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields”. The cycle of violence could begin at the dinner table.
Gandhi explicitly connected his political philosophy with how other animals were treated when he said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” This moral progress we assume involves the development of a society where other human beings are valued and not seen in competitive terms: a curbing of the tendency towards acquisitive mimesis.
Of course a person may renounce animal products and still exhibit psychotic tendencies, as Adolf Hitler did. The motivation for any forbearance counts. But it is also not beyond the bounds of possibility that it will be discovered that the consumption of flesh, especially from cruelly treated animals, has an effect on our mental state. Perhaps by renouncing animal products an individual becomes more sensitive to suffering of all kinds.
The monotheistic faiths also acknowledge the violent stain of consuming other animals. The Christian obligation to avoid meat on the once numerous days of religious observation might be viewed as simple self-denial but Christian ideas on the subject can be traced to the (1st Century AD) Stoic philosophy of Musonius who claimed meat was suited to wild beasts and regarded it as a “heavy” food that dulls the intellect and “darkens” the soul.
Stoicism influenced the 4th century theologian St Jerome who claimed that animals were not originally created for human consumption and that only after the Great Flood, when God saw that humans were wicked and greedy, were they given the freedom to eat it. Abstinence ‘lightens’ the soul and brings the Christian to a state suitable for prayer.
More so than their Christian counterparts, Muslims and Jews have strict laws regulating consumption of other animals. The defilement of eating meat is avoided by strict ritual prohibitions. That Christianity does not also ordain these rituals can be traced to St Paul’s rejection of Jewish dietary laws.
It is easy to cast the Muslim as the aggressor against our civilised Western societies, but when we examine the devastating effect that Western capitalism wreaks against the natural world and the often concealed violence that is brought to bear against the Third World resistance is understandable, even justifiable. But the demand for the collective murder of the scapegoat victim contrasts with the truly revolutionary pacifism of Gandhi’s political philosophy.
Where resistance is articulated through a religious discourse it is relevant that some religions offer approval for violent reaction whereas others may temper that behaviour. Ultimately curbing the tendency for acquisitive mimesis by a mechanism other than the scapegoat offers the only prospect of saving humanity from interminable conflict.
But simply abandoning all our religions and embracing secular ideologies such as socialism will not necessarily achieve this outcome as the corruption of Communism exhibits. So Girard observed: “Human beings are soon moved to make religion itself into a new scapegoat, failing to realize once more that the violence is theirs. To expel religion is, as always, a religious gesture – as much so today when the sacred is loathed and abhorred in the past when it was worshipped and adored.” Curbing a human capacity for violence that arises out of our greed is what needs to be addressed.
A prohibition on animal consumption may engender compassion for all living creatures and reverse a long-standing human tendency to mimic the consumption of those around us. This may offer a guide to resolving the human capacity for highly destructive behaviour and potentially curb the acquisitiveness that generates a perceived need for a victim. It might also help curb the spiralling consumption that endangers the human presence on earth.

Song is Existence

(Published in Village Magazine May, 2015)

In the presence of great music we have no alternative but to live nobly.
Sean O’Faolain

Donal Dineen recently described this as a ‘golden age’ in Irish music. We might take heart when a DJ of his calibre with knowledge crossing genres and continents makes such a pronouncement. His sets and peripatetic shows reveal a remarkable and unyielding musical engagement; his vocal input merges clarity, wit and pathos even if at times he does wander.

Of course it will be for posterity to judge whether such a description is warranted, or whether Dineen ‘has gone off on one’. Nonetheless it is worth assessing this creative outpouring in our midst, track its merits such as they are and even plot future directions.

Any golden age in music cannot be divorced from the wider socio-economic and cultural context. Musicians are not free floating forms insulated from broader currents. If this is a golden age for Irish music then to some extent it extends to Irish life at large, or at least there’s a cloud with a very silver lining.

On many levels we’ve ‘never had it so good’ in spite of the Celtic Tiger failing a dope test: the country has maintained its population unlike after other historical crises albeit with a diminished standard of living and increased emigration. But the brain drain is not all in one direction. Immigrants from all over the world continue to arrive in Ireland. In terms of music, there is sufficient wealth for patronage of concerts to continue and a comparatively generous social welfare system (for all except the under-25s) forces few musicians into serious poverty.

Importantly those who have arrived are keen to integrate and a garrulous culture is happy to accommodate outsiders. Ireland doesn’t have the colonial baggage of some of its neighbours and there is little obvious racism.

Of course there is serious inequality, a public health time bomb, far too great a concentration of economic activity in Dublin and an often atrocious attitude to the environment. And yet there is a spirit in Ireland that visitors and even residents remark upon. Strangers actually talk to one another. Distasteful efforts to brand and commodify the Irish welcome does not mask genuine warmth.

In the sphere of music many New Irish are asserting individual creativity and drawing on international influences shaped by appreciative Irish audiences. In jazz and world music, the Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu, the Italian pianist Francesco Turrissi and half-Sierra-Leonean-half-Irish singer Loah could enjoy a global audience.

Meanwhile traditional forms have been nourished by interactions with foreign styles. The ‘session’ which blurs the boundary between audience and performer thrives, particularly outside Dublin.

Surveying the wider culture we have long been a country on the geographic edge, but also on edge creatively. A unique history in European terms of colonization, suffering what has been defined as the worst famine in human history then emerging at the end of the nineteenth century as a noisy underclass uncomfortably situated near the centre of an empire where the sun never set. An accident of geography gave the Irish population a modern education and substantial equality in the United Kingdom.

Exploring the context of the Irish cultural revival that began at the end of the nineteenth century, the literary historian Joe Cleary identified ‘conjunctures’ or intersections of socio-political and economic forces that generated impressive artistic achievements.

Rather like the profusion of nature at the fault line of two clashing tectonic plates, the meeting of a peasant society with an advanced industrial society generated an embarrassment of cultural riches. The Irish acquired the language of the colonizer but some chose to distort it and question the prevailing Positivism of the period. In Ulysses and Finnegans Wake the English language was subjected to an almost mocking treatment by James Joyce and W.B. Yeats was inspired by peasant lore to a mysticism central to his oeuvre.

Both Joyce and Yeats were also profoundly musical. Yeats in particular developed a remarkable sonorous quality to his verse, quite at odds with the Modernist rejection of form that has transformed much contemporary poetry into a largely academic pre-occupation. This loss of a wider relevance for poetry could have dangerous, dislocating consequences.

In Songlines the travel writer Bruce Chatwin recalls how the Aboriginal population of Australia believe their ancestors sung their land into existence. He writes: ‘In Aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land; since if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die.’ He concludes that ‘the Songlines were not necessarily an Australian phenomenon, but universal: that they were the means by which man marked out his territory, and so organized his social life.’ Or, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: ‘Gesang ist Dasein,’ meaning ‘song is existence’.

Songs are of course both music and words, but the inspiration for song seems to originate in a different part of the brain to speaking. Fascinatingly, some stroke victims who lose the use of their brain’s left hemisphere can no longer speak but retain a capacity to sing. The right hemisphere is associated with nuance and metaphor which are the lifeblood of poetry.

But when a musician plays her instrument she is largely working from the left hemisphere. This is not surprising considering the mathematical basis of chord progressions and rhythm. To some extent the playing of an instrument is the operation of a noise-making machine which is in the responsibility of the practical left hemisphere.

But when composing the musician enters the domain of the right as symbolic meaning interacts with the relative order of a musical key. A sensitive instrumentalist can also recognise the sentiments expressed in lyrics, echo and embellish them. This coordination of hemispheres helps explain the power of music, especially singing in combination with instruments, to lift us out of our seats.

The psychiatrist and literary scholar Iain MacGilchrist explains that: ‘both hemispheres are importantly involved. Creativity depends on the union of things that that are also maintained separately.’

Religions have long understood the power of songs. Hymns have always occupied an important place in Catholicism and Martin Luther said: ‘Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.’ John Lennon’s claim in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus was not as naïve as it may seem. Their success arrived at a time when organized religions were in decline and the enduring connection between spiritual devotion and song music gave Beatlemania characteristics of a religious revival, although any movement was forestalled by the egos in the band.

Religious songs take a meditative form quite removed from an exoteric tendency in religions towards legalistic control. It seems that if a religion rejects song that oppressive tendencies become manifest: this is apparent in the austere form of Islam expressed by Wahhabism which forbade the use of musical instruments. The only verse permitted to be sung was the Qu’ran which was learnt by heart. Exponents chant programmatically with little scope for revealing their emotions. Wahhabism informs the ideology of Islamic State and other conservative variants of Political Islam. In contrast Sufism, another branch of Islam, embraces song and poetic expression. Without the symbolic insights of song, religions can become judgmental and absolutist.
Irish Catholicism also took an oppressive turn in the twentieth century. Its music was perfunctory and removed from the common people: the Church enjoying an uneasy relationship with traditional music which tended to be associated with pagan superstitions, including the idea that tunes derived from the faeries.

Fortunately, unlike in England, traditional Irish music survived as a signature of Irishness, and perhaps some of the vitality and warmth apparent in Ireland is drawn from a resilient musical tradition. MacGilchrist writes that music ‘has a vital way of binding people together, helping them to be aware of a shared humanity, shared feelings and experiences, and actively drawing them together’.

Of course many forms of music have been popular since independence from the Show Bands to Rock and Roll and even House and Hip Hop today, but the important thing is that music remains in the blood; the Songlines enduring in shifting genres.

Pace Cleary, the decline of the Tiger might be identified as the ‘conjuncture’ out of which emerged the rich stream of musical creativity that Dineen observes. The shock of a renewed acquaintance with poverty after years of mindless consumerism has seen many return to the creative musical well.

But arguably this golden age comes with a significant caveat as much contemporary Irish music is removed from the deep insights of poetry. This might owe something to an enduring discomfort with the English language as a foreign imposition, but also to the excesses of Modernism in poetry. This lacuna creates an imbalance in collective Irish hemispheres.

Mike Scott of the Waterboys who lives in Dublin recently claimed that Ireland is a great place to write songs. Though not Irish by birth he has tapped into the Songlines.

A recent album An Interview with Mr Yeats (2013) is a homage to the poet. It transposes a number of the master poet’s work into song, but the result is perhaps too reverential as the poems are retained in their entirety and not subjected to Scott’s own poetic inspiration evident in other work. Poetry should be recast each generation otherwise it atrophies and a distance emerges between it and our ever-evolving language.

One band that does display a balance between the poetic and the musical is The Loafing Heroes led by an Irish singer-songwriter named Bartholomew Ryan. His words are joined by musical virtuosity from an unusual instrumental array that intensifies the experience of the lyrics. The creativity of the right hemisphere and order of the left are harnessed to powerful effect.

Like many who have drawn from Irish Songlines, Ryan has spent much of his adult life beyond his native shores. Often the greatest insights accumulate from a distance. We just have to observe the legacy of Joyce, Wilde, Beckett and Yeats all of whom did not live in Ireland for much of their lives yet played a huge role in forging what we pereive as Irishness.

One song ‘Dream of the Celt’ from Ryan’s recent album Crossing the Threshold concerns Roger Casement: ‘A seeker and a poet who sailed from shore / That enigmatic gentleman who lives beyond his name’. Casement was one of the 1916 conspirators and was executed after landing in Kerry in a failed mission to join the Rising. Casement had a genuinely global sensibility exposing the horrific crimes of Leopold in the Congo for which he was knighted. But he was a convinced Irish nationalist and situated that struggle within the wider constellation of his opposition to colonialism.

We find a subtle reference to Yeat’s poetic homage to Casement in the Ryan’s lines: ‘There’s a ghost knocking / there’s a ghost beating down my door.’ Thus the spirits from another age inform our present relationship with what it means to be Irish: The Songlines of the ancestors, or as Ryan puts it in another track, ‘Into the Nothing’: ‘Walk along the songlines and into the heart / Dream the dreamtime and bring us back to the start’.

A golden age of music in Ireland could become a golden age for poetry too. There are great exponents working in Ireland today, many with a playful, irreverent approach to language, but their work tends not to enter the mainstream. If poetry and music draw closer rather than seeing one another as separate domains we might find a more powerful drawing from our Songlines, and a balance of the hemispheres.

The nuanced communication of ideas through wider poetic appreciation might help us contend with the serious challenges of our time. A golden age in both music and poetry could inculcate greater sensitivity to nature and empathy with human suffering. Our great music can make words dance.


Defining the Anthropocene

(Published in Village Magazine, January 2013)

This is an interview with environmental historian Professor John Robert McNeill of Georgetown University author of Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (2010); The Human Web (2003); and Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th-century World (2000)

Can you define the Anthropocene?  I can, but there are various definitions and mine is no better than the next one.  However, for my part, I like to define it as that time period in which human action has had deep impacts on the basic systems of the Earth.  Those systems include such things as climate and biogeochemical cycles.  Notice I am not saying it is an epoch or an era – the geologists will decide on that.

Can you trace its origin?  For my money, it began only in the mid-20th century.  But many scientists argue for various earlier Anthropocenes, some preferring 1800, some 5,000 BCE, some even earlier.  A great deal depends on which sorts of evidence one prefers.  Paleo-ecologists often like to cite evidence of large animal extinctions in the late Pleistocene as evidence of the onset of the Anthropocene.  That would be roughly 13,000 years ago and earlier.  But for me, that is not enough: one needs the multiple interventions of the last 75 years to justify the term.

What has been the impact of human beings on planet Earth?  They are too numerous and profound to list concisely.  I tried to take stock in a book published in 2000, entitled Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th– century World, but that exercise took more than 350pp.  And more detailed assessment abound at still greater length.  However, I would say one could list among the more significant impacts, from the human point of view, are ongoing changes to the climate, changes to vegetation, especially the reduction in forests, acceleration of soil erosion, the reduction in infectious disease, especially waterborne disease, the advent of intense urban air pollution (and its reduction in some places, including Dublin!)

What changes do we need to make to our lifestyles to ensure the Anthropocene does not become a dark chapter featuring the collapse of many societies?  We probably can’t ensure much of anything strictly speaking, but to improve the odds of a happy Anthropocene I’d recommend changing the energy system away from fossil fuels to something else that does not entail greenhouse gas emissions on any scale; supporting formal female education as a benign way to encourage lower fertility and slower population growth; more efficient urban design, since in the future ever more of us will live in and around cities.

One of your books confronts the subject of malaria. Do you think there is any prospect of eliminating this killer?  No immediate prospect, certainly.  The etiology of malaria is devilishly complex and the plasmodia responsible for infection are capable of evolving so as to sidestep efforts to check their proliferation.  The best bet is mosquito control, but it is not a very good bet because dozens of anopheles species are competent to transmit malaria.

What other contagious diseases will pose a significant challenge to human beings in the future?  This is extremely hard to predict.  At the moment it is hard to ignore the outbreak of ebola, now raging in parts of West Africa and making an appearance in Madrid and Dallas.  Whether that yet counts as a significant challenge probably depends on where you sit.  Influenza is always a threat of sorts, because the virus in question mutates rapidly and could conceivably break loose once again as it did in 1918, when roughly 50 million people died of influenza.  As a category, breath-borne viruses are probably the most worrisome.

In your opinion, what obligations to our natural environment and other species does our dominance of the planet confer?  Everyone has a different opinion on this matter, and mine is no wiser than the next.  That said, I take the (common) view that it confers upon us the obligation of stewardship: our power means we need to take responsibility for the survival of other species (however I’d make an exception for certain mosquito species that spread human disease, even if they too are God’s creatures).

A recent WWF report claimed that 50% of the world’s species have become extinct in the past 40 years. What is the value of biodiversity?  In the first instance, if one accepts the notion that human power confers the responsibility of stewardship of the biosphere, then biodiversity has value in and of itself: we do not have the moral right to exterminate species.  In the second instance, biodiversity is useful for ecological stability.  When it is reduced, the probability rises of dramatic alterations of ecosystems, including ones we rely on.  Third, many species are extremely valuable to us, as sources of medicines, or as pollinators for crops we depend on.  There are probably unknown species that potentially offer us unknown medicines, if they are not first driven to extinction.

Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang in an Earthwatch article in 2009 claimed that animal agriculture accounted for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions. Do you consider this credible?  I haven’t seen the article in question, so I’ll refrain from pronouncing one way or another.

How can human beings feed themselves without fossil fuels?  At the moment, we can’t.  We would need different sources of energy or else a lot fewer humans.

What changes in agricultural policies in the US and EU do you believe should take place?  There are a lot of perverse subsidies in US and EU agricultural policies.  Most should probably go. I’d favour policies that make livestock farming more expensive; wasting water more expensive; intensive use of antibiotics on feedlots more expensive; intensive use of nitrogenous fertilizers more expensive.  All this would make food more expensive, which would be unpopular and is not likely to happen any time soon!

Should governments in Western countries be encouraging widespread adoption of plant-based diets?  Yes, as a matter of human health.  I’d do it by adopting policies that gradually change the prices of various foods.

What role do you envisage for Nuclear energy?  Nuclear power is tempting because the only greenhouse gases it produced come in the creation and destruction of power plants, not in their operation.  However, I am not quite in favour of it, due to the risk of accident (viz. Chernobyl, Fukushima, among others), the risk of the wrong people getting their hands on fissionable material, and the unsolved problem of nuclear waste.  Maybe in future some of these matters will be resolve so that nuclear power becomes a useful possibility.  Not at the moment however.

Do you believe the innovative spirit of capitalism can provide the technological solutions for our dependence on fossil fuels?   Yes, although I would encourage it because it may be too slow to forestall disagreeable climate change.  I would do that by a carbon tax, one that escalates annually.  And by prize money for useful innovation in the energy field.

How can humans restrain the acquisitive tendencies inherent in capitalism?  I don’t think this can be done without some highly improbable ideological/religious transformation of societies.

Do you think that human beings can reach a point of equilibrium on the planet?  More or less.  Equilibria don’t generally endure for long, and upsets of one sort or another normally come along every so often.  But it is plausible to imagine a human population much less ecologically disruptive than what we have at present, and indeed more or less in equilibrium with the biosphere.  That could theoretically happen over centuries by a radical reduction in human population, although I regard that as unlikely.  It could also happen through technological changes that make it easier for a few billion – maybe not 10 or 12 billion – to live much less disruptively on Earth.  The first step, again, is to revolutionize the energy system.