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.

http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/06/sierra-leone-after-ebola/

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.

http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/06/sierra-leone-after-ebola/

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.

 (http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/02/anthrop-obscene/)

Water, Water Everywhere

(Published in the Sunday Times, 17 January, 2016)

My father tells a story of his visit to a Japanese home in the 1960s where he was given the honour of the first bath. At the end of his ablutions he casually pulled the plug to the consternations of his hosts who meant to use the water after him.

Like any civilized nation the Japanese have long hallowed the ritual of washing. In the 1920s Laurens van der Post observed that ‘in Japanese homes the bathrooms were situated in places of honour with the best view available on to gardens and into nature, and never combined with lavatories as with us, in tucked-away corners in unconsidered and ill-ventilated spaces of our buildings.’

Generating clean water for drinking and washing is the mark of an advanced civilisation. One sees this in the great aqueducts of the Romans. Sanitation measures in many cities from the 1890s helped reduced the prevalence of fatal conditions such as diarrhoea, cholera and dysentery. Creating a stable water supply is arguably the most important function of a state in a world where water supply is increasingly scarce.

It is a terrifying situation that perhaps a billion people live without access to clean water. Revealing also that 85% of the world’s water supply is used in agriculture, much of it to grow crops for animal feed. Even in developed regions such as California water is an increasingly political issue with animal agriculture implicated. Surprisingly the current flooding actually jeopardises the availability of clean water due primarily to run-off of agricultural fertilizers into our reservoirs.

Over the lifetime of the present government the single most emotive issue has been water charges. Suggestions of corruption in Irish Water have justifiably been seized on by protestors. But that does not explain the anger of the Right2Water campaign. There seems to be an assumption that our wet climate offers a near-infinite supply of clean water. On an existential level the aggression of protests might perhaps be traced to annoyance with the Irish weather!

Protestors tend to ignore the very real challenges and costs involved in bringing water to homes and businesses, as well as ecological constraints. Moreover the infrastructure in our cities needs overhauling.

Of course improvements could be realized through direct government expenditure without recourse to what many consider another indirect, stealth tax. But the advantage of imposing a metring system is that it causes people to recognise the limitation of supply. Of course equality issues arise and the company should only cut off supply in extremely rare circumstances. But it might be a mistake to offer untrammelled access to clean water simply because someone is in receipt of social welfare.

We should develop a culture where leaving a tap running comes to be regarded as equivalent to a light being left on with no one in a room, albeit the cost of water is lower than the electricity. Moreover, attention should be paid to the externalised costs of our agricultural ‘success story’ that are paid for further down the line.

In the absence of the demand from the Troika it seems unlikely that any Irish government would have introduced charges in line with European norms. Investment in water infrastructure is for the long haul and its benefit is not immediately apparent. People only start to complain when restrictions are imposed. Improving its usually invisible infrastructure is a decidedly unsexy expenditure despite its delivery being probably a government’s most important task.

As the Irish population becomes stakeholders in the water supply they might start to ask the question of why Ireland is the only country in Europe which fluoridates its water supply, especially in light of a 2012 Harvard study of Chinese districts which revealed a correlation between impaired cognitive development in children and the presence of the substance.

Even if there is countervailing evidence the potential damage is so grave that it seems unacceptable for the present situation to endure. This is particularly pressing with the low rate of breast feeding in Ireland and consequent use of diluted milk formula.

Twice-daily use of fluoridated toothpaste confers the same benefits as medicating our water supply. Perhaps more effort could be made to improve dental hygiene, including flossing of teeth, and to curbing the consumption of sucrose which damages teeth worse than sugars found in whole foods. Just as the absence of water charges is eccentric in a European context, as is the fluoridation of the supply.

Analysts anticipate that water will be the major political issue of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately Right2 Water protestors, and their party political supporters including Sinn Fein, refuse to confront the real cost of bringing water through our taps or the need for a cultural change in how we see water. That is twenty-century thinking that does not recognise ecological constraints.

Of course whole families should not be obliged to share bathwater as was the case when my father visited Japan! But we should recognise access to water as a privilege not enjoyed by a significant minority of humanity. In Ireland the challenge is to change our relationship with water as well as examine what is driving up the cost and how, equitably, this should be born. Water charges should not lead to privatisation: the supply of water requires democratic oversight.

(http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/ireland/News/article1656991.ece)

You Can’t Dukan

(Published in the London Magazine, March 2012)

For Citizen-paparazzo, that is anyone in possession of a mobile phone, the photographic Middletons represent fair game.

Statuesque Kate is less the object of coarse desire than polite admiration. Ideal marriage material it was said. She has the prim, faintly virginal appeal we expect of an English queen, starting with the original Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I herself. The Duchess of Cambridge looks as though she would say no to a cream bun or an impetuous suitor. The sanctity of lines waist and royal seems assured.

Kate would never play away but intrigue is provided by bouncy Pippa – a tabloid dream – who projects the cheeky sex appeal relished by a culture weaned on the Carry On films. Even Puritans need a little ‘crumpet’ to munch on.

We scrutinize and will continue to scrutinize their every move: each crevice and fold of flesh will continue to be admired, deplored and imitated. Plastic surgeons now refer to the ‘Pippa butt lift’. The mind boggles.

The reason this concerns an otherwise serious contributor on matters comestible to the London Magazine is that the contents of their ladyships’ larders is in the public domain, and subject to imitation.

At the time of the Royal wedding it became public knowledge that the Middleton girls et mère adhered to the so-called Dukan Diet, a set of prescriptions ordained by a French doctor named Pierre Dukan. Cosmopolitan called it: ‘The Diet Everyone (Including Kate Middleton) is Obsessing Over’; even that venerable publication The Financial Times was recently moved to interview the rather innocuous doctor. Celebrities such as JLo (yes you are reading this in the London Magazine) and someone called Gisele are following it. His book topped the best seller list in Poland and, bizarrely, Bulgaria. Docteur Dukan possibly exerts more influence than the NHS on how consumers make dietary choices. What does he say?

Trust me I’m a French Doctor

Dukan has a dual appeal. First, as a doctor it is widely assumed that no damage will result from embracing his approach. Second, he is French and the image of that country is bound with graceful beauty and fine dining. The tantalizing promise of elegance of form and gustatory pleasure is dangled like Bridget Bardot munching a slice of gateaux before frumpy Bridget Jones.

The diet has four stages. It begins with the Attack which is a pure protein diet. More accurately, this is a pure animal protein diet as vegetable proteins, which abound in nature, are dismissed as too difficult to work out. Thus, large quantities of meat, fish, eggs and low fat dairy produce is ingested. The long term health consequences are unknown, but in the short term the body ceases to function. Significant quantities of water and two tablespoons of oatbran are advised in order to avoid serious consequences. Dukan cheerfully describes the harmful effect of the Attack phase: ‘It finds itself working like a two-speed engine, in a scooter, lawnmower or motor boat, designed to run on a mixture of pure petrol and oil but trying to run on pure petrol. It putters and then stalls, unable to use its fuel’. Unsurprisingly: ‘After two or three days on a pure protein diet hunger disappears completely’. He admits sotto voce that constipation and bad breath are by-products and that dieters should not swim in cold water or ski at altitude.

Dukan argues that this Attack phase is necessary because: ‘An overweight person who wants to lose weight needs a fast-acting diet that brings immediate results’. It as if he does not take on board his own critique of faddish diets that they have a miniscule success rate in the long term. According to an American study cited by Dukan 12% of dieters do lose weight, but only 2% succeed in keeping it off. Of course Dukan claims that his diet is different.

He even seems to be making excuses for the eventual failure of his own approach saying, quite unscientifically, that the ‘body’s biological memory retains the information regarding the maximum weight and this can never be erased’. And: ‘every time you put on weight and reach a new record number on your scales, the way your physiology adjusts means that somewhere in your brain, a sort of nostalgic memory of this maximum weight is recorded which your body will then always try to reach again’. The original sin of being overweight is never expunged it seems, once a fatty always a fatty. Do not blame good Dr. Dukan, blame that greedy shadow that lurks behind you as you take another helping.

The subsequent phases to the Diet: Cruise; Consolation; and Permanent Stabilization, have fairly consistent dietary advice, eat significant quantities of animal proteins, selected vegetables and few fruits and avoid most fats even disease-busting polyunsaturated oils. He identifies 100 favoured foods of which 72 are animal proteins.

Dukan claims that ‘it has been scientifically proved that after eight hours without good-quality protein the body has to draw upon its own muscle reserve to ensure its vital function’. This claim, for which there is no citation, suggests that we begin eating our bodies in the usual 12 hour gap between dinner and breakfast. He also contradicts himself by calling it ‘natural’ for the human ‘predator’ to catch no prey and be forced to fast for a few days.

Dukan’s diet has been slammed by the NHS and goes against all mainstream advice. The risk posed by the intake of so much animal protein could well have serious long-term consequences; the connection between regular red meat consumption especially and a range of preventable diseases is well established. The Dukan diet is not a healthy diet.

According to the Harvard Medical School Special Health Report from 2011 ‘there is not a single health diet… instead there are many patterns of eating around the world that sustain good health. They share these things in common lots of fruit [viewed as dangerous by Dukan], vegetables and wholegrains; healthy fats from fish and plant sources; and few sugars or solid fats’.

Dukan’s disingenuous and dangerous advice lumps all carbohydrates together so that sugar, a slow-acting poison, is placed in the same category as vegetables, fruits and wholegrains, many of which are also significant protein sources.

Dukan’s diet may work but only because it promotes a disciplined attitude towards food and it advocates exercise. There is definitely no silver bullet here.

Take your Time

Dukan’s book does contain smatterings of good sense. First he devotes a considerable proportion of it to recipes which might encourage more people to spend time cooking their meals which would be an advance for many. According to the Food Standards Agency, in 1980 the average meal took an hour to prepare. By 1999, it had dropped to 20 minutes. He also emphasises the crucial importance of walking which Hippocrates described as ‘man’s best medicine’. Taking lukewarm showers, refraining from hot drinks and spending time out of doors is all excellent advice for anyone wishing to loose weight.

He asserts that: ‘Nourishing yourself is not just about taking in enough calories to survive, it is also, and even more importantly, about enjoying eating as part of that process.’ Indeed, the admittedly exaggerated French Paradox (a diet high in saturated fats but with relatively low rates of heart disease) has been attributed to the length which French people take over well-prepared meals. Dukan advocates: ‘EAT SLOWLY and CONCENTRATE ON WHAT IS IN YOUR MOUTH’, and avoid eating in front of the television or while reading.’

He refers to a study which filmed two groups of women, one overweight, the other a normal weight. It was discovered that the women of normal weight chewed for twice as long as the overweight group. The connection between eating quickly and excessively was recognised by the Ancients: the word gluttony actually derives from the Latin gula meaning ‘to gulp down or swallow’.

He also recalls the advice given by a guru in a New Delhi ashram to a person who was overweight. The guru said: ‘At each meal, eat and chew as you would normally, but just when you are about to swallow push the food back in the front of your mouth and chew it for a second time. In two years you will be back to your normal weight’, and so it proved.

Thus, one way of tackling the obesity epidemic is, paradoxically, to put more focus on food by savouring it.

Ethical Considerations

At no point in the book do ethical considerations emerge. How the 72 animal foods and 28 plant foods arrive at the table is of absolutely no concern to him, all that matters is that it is lean animal protein. Environmental impact, animal welfare and the qualitative difference of organically- or biodynamically- produced food is ignored.

Inherent too is an elitism among diners, this is certainly not a diet for humanity. The expense of sustaining a pure animal protein diet for any length of time would be considerable unless the lowest quality produce is selected. Further, particular cuts are defined as worthy whereas others are proscribed. Only lean beef for example is to be eaten. The obese poor who can’t afford the Dukan diet are to be left the fatty cuts that cause heart disease it seems. Or perhaps he thinks they should be thrown away, in which case the cost of the lean meat would be even greater.

He also expresses quite ignorant views on our evolutionary history as meat-eaters, saying: ‘it is possible to live without hunting and without eating animals meals BUT by doing so we give up part of what our nature expects and we lessen the emotional effect that our body is programmed to produce when we give it what it wants’. Hindus and Buddhists argue the opposite, saying the emotional effect of meat-eating is quite damaging.

Moreover, hunting for food in the Western world is generally limited to scouring the supermarket shelves for half-price offers. The proportion of game meat in the Western diet is miniscule. Even fish is increasingly farmed which can cause serious pollution. Conventional fishing is shockingly wasteful with almost half of most catches simply discarded. Many fish species are now under threat.

Apart from French cuisine most popular culinary traditions, including Italian, Arab, Japanese and Indian are predominantly vegetarian. The appetite for animal proteins is mostly a matter of upbringing, and with over seven billion people (and rising) on the planet many living into their eighties we need to alter tastes, and fast. Our health will certainly not suffer, quite the opposite according to the Harvard Medical School Report who say: ‘there are many nutritionally valid reasons to steer towards a vegetarian diet’.

In fact our evolutionary history suggests meat is an unnecessary part of our diet. As primates with relatively long intestines our bodies are more suited to herbivorous foods. Colin Spencer says: ‘Our hominoid ancestors evolved over a period of 24 million years and, for all but one and a half million of these years, the evidence we have leaves little doubt that their diet was almost completely vegetarian except for insects and grubs.’

Our closest relative in nature is the bonobo to whom we are as close as a dog is to fox.  ‘They live in a peaceful matriarchal society, consuming a wide range of leaves and plants, where any disputes are settled by sexual favours homosexual and heterosexual in all possible permutations’ The bonobo is ‘herbivorous in the wild but in captivity, like other primates, will eat almost anything.’

Prince Charming

The Prince of Wales has campaigned for thirty years on questions relating to food. He has written: ‘I have no intention of being confronted by my grandchildren, demanding to know why on Earth we didn’t do something about the many problems that existed when we knew what was going wrong. The threat of that question, the responsibility of it, is precisely why I have gone on challenging the assumptions of our day.’

Charles has placed a big emphasis on the environmental impact of farming and his views align with the principles of Biodynamic agriculture: ‘Genuinely sustainable farming maintains the resilience of the entire ecosystem by encouraging a rich level of biodiversity in the soil, in its water supply, and in the wildlife – the birds, insects, and bees that maintain the health of the whole system. Sustainable farming also recognizes the importance to the soil of planting trees; of protecting and enhancing water-catchment systems; of mitigating, rather than adding to, climate change.’ There is a wide consensus that radically reducing meat consumption is necessary in order to achieve this sustainability.

Unfortunately, unlike the Middletons, Charles is not suited to the Digital Age. He never became the ‘People’s Prince’ Plastic surgeons don’t talk about the Charles tuck. He has been so mercilessly lampooned that his views exert little influence on the public at large.

One assumes that serious discussions occur at Royal family dinners and that Charles gives vent to his passions. Does he notice that the Middletons are ‘on Dukan’? If so is he aware of the ethical import of that diet? He must know how influential pretty ladies in the public gaze can be. I wonder would he ever be able to persuade Kate and Pippa to start espousing views on food that might take into account the environmental impact of their choices, for the sake of his grandchildren at least. The unethical and unhealthy advice of an exploitative French doctor should be disowned.

(http://www.thelondonmagazine.org/you-cant-dukan/)

Inhuman Folly: The Argument for Veganism

(Published in Village Magazine, September, 2013)

David A. Nibert delivers an impassioned, well-researched and idealistic argument for why humanity should shift to a vegan, or plant-based diet in Animal Domestication & Human Violence: Domescration, Capitalism and Global Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2013). He surveys the impact of meat, dairy and egg consumption through human history and links it to some of our worst behaviour.

Nibert maintains: ‘The emergence and continued practice of capturing, controlling, and genetically manipulating other animals for human use violates the sanctity of life of the sentient beings involved’. He coins a neologism ‘domescration’, used throughout the book, arguing that ‘their minds and bodies are desecrated to facilitate their exploitation: it can be said that they have been domescrated.’

He traces an upsurge in human violence to the practice of stalking and killing animals which ‘began no earlier than ninety thousand years ago – and probably much later’, but fails to acknowledge that this was connected to the expansion of humanity into northern latitudes where edible plants were not available throughout the year, often making hunting a necessity for survival.

His basic thesis is that ‘domescration’ has generated conflict between human societies because the amount of land required for raising animals for human consumption is far greater than that required to grow crops for direct human consumption. He emphasises how ‘domescrated’ animals act as vectors for zoonotic diseases, and displace countless free-living animals.

As an abolitionist he does not envision a scenario where humans could exploit animals in symbiosis with one another and their environment.

He begins his account in 1237 at Riazan near Moscow as the Golden Horde led by Batu Khan lays the city to siege. Nibert links the cruelty of those Mongols to their treatment of animals and shows their reliance on them as weapons of war and mobile sources of food.  Conquest, in turn, was fuelled by a need for more grazing land. They terrorized Eastern Europe and China which saw its population drop from 123 million in 1200 to 65 million in 1393, laying waste to societies engaged primarily in crop cultivation. In all likelihood the Mongols introduced the bubonic plague to Europe which reduced its population by half.

The ‘Greatest Tragedy’

The effect of colonisation of the Americas on its indigenous people was described by Alfred Cosby as the ‘greatest tragedy in the history of the human species.’ Large numbers were displaced to make way for livestock from areas where they cultivated crops or hunted free-living animals; and, with few domesticated animals of their own, they were ravaged by zoonotic diseases, especially smallpox. Their numbers were reduced by two-thirds.

It would be wrong to idealize the lives of indigenous peoples in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. But it seems the virtual absence of domesticated animals curtailed warfare: ‘archaeological evidence suggests that pre-Columian warfare was limited to small-scale raiding, sniping, and ambush’ and that ‘deaths by violence were relatively low.’

Hernán Cortes whose expedition led to the fall of the Aztec Empire in Mexico instantly foresaw the possibility of developing a cattle industry there. Livestock products, especially hides, were integral to the wealth accumulated by the conquistadores.

Nibert contrasts the colonisation of the Americas with the Spanish conquest of the Philippines which is unsuited to livestock production. He says this supports: ‘the thesis that colonisation was much more likely to involve large-scale violence when invasions involved expanding ranching operations.’

Expanding livestock numbers was also the primary motivation for the encroachment of Europeans into North America. The West was won by cowboys who cruelly displaced and often massacred large numbers from nations such as the Creek, Choctaw, Chicksaw, and Cherokee.

In North America the fates of the native population and free-roaming buffalo, vital to their way of life, were intertwined. In the early nineteenth century there were up to thirty million buffalo roaming North America, but by century’s end they had been hunted to virtual extinction to make way for livestock.

Nibert recalls the often wanton violence that accompanied their annihilation. In one account train passengers made a ‘sport’ of it: ‘As they neared a herd, passengers flung open the windows of their cars, pointed their breechloaders, and fired at random into the frightened beasts.’

With the West ‘won’ industrial slaughter houses emerged, especially in Chicago. Rudyard Kipling was horrorstruck by what he saw in the late 1880s and worried ‘about the effect of so mechanical a killing on the human soul’.

English beef

Nibert notes the important role of English capital in the expansion of livestock production into the Western plains of America in the nineteenth century.

He also explores the English colonisation of Ireland and emphasises how Irish salt beef was a critical factor in the ‘profitable sugar production in the Caribbean because it was an important source of food for enslaved labourers on Britain’s plantations’.

In Ireland the nineteenth century witnessed a shift from tillage to pasture which led to depopulation, with the Great Famine the primary catalyst. He quotes Joseph Connolly description of this in Labour in Irish History: ‘Where a hundred families had reaped a sustenance from their small farms, or by hiring out their labour to the owners of large farms, a dozen shepherds now occupied their places.’

Nibert does not discuss the Gaelic Irish mode of food production which was also heavily reliant on cattle. It might be argued that there was some symbiosis in that society between cattle and human beings with animals kept for dairy and rarely slaughtered. But cattle-raiding was endemic in medieval Ireland, and most Irish forests had been removed by the fourteenth century to make way for cattle. The shift to tillage, abetted by the potato that began in the seventeenth century allowed the population to rise exponentially. It was only a change in demand in Britain after the Napoleonic War that caused Ireland to revert to pasture in the nineteenth, a situation that endures.

Unhappy Meals

In 1916 a short order cook called J. Walter Anderson invented the first hamburger in Wichita, Kansas. This product gave a new lease of life to the livestock industry which had come under attack for the poor sanitation and barbarity of the slaughterhouses.

Companies such as White Castle, McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC stimulated a demand for meat products through the use of insidious advertising, often targeting minors. Ronald McDonald was thrust upon the children of the United States in 1966 when he made his national television debut during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – accompanied by the “McDonald’s All-American High School Band”.

The twentieth century witnessed the continued expansion of livestock production with consequent species loss and significant implication for climate change. Surprisingly Nibert cites the conservative estimate of 19% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from the UN Report Livestock’s Long Shadow from 2006 rather than the figure of 51% found by Goodland and Anhang in 2009.

The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) as animals were increasingly fed on grain in cruelly enclosed spaces. Ruth Harrison observed: ‘if one person is unkind to an animal it is considered to be cruelty, but where a lot of people are unkind to animals, especially in the name of commerce, the cruelty is condoned and, once large sums of money are at stake, will be defended to the last by otherwise intelligent people.’

Aside from the obvious barbarity of putting animals in such close confinement, CAFOs are a significant risk to public health because of the enhanced risk of zoonotic diseases especially a deadly influenza virus developing there. According to Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy: ‘An influenza pandemic of even moderate impact will result in the biggest single human disaster ever – far greater than AIDS, 9/11, all wars in the 20th century, and the recent tsunami combined.’

A surfeit of livestock products is also directly implicated in the onset of chronic diseases that are beginning to shorten life expectancies in the Western world. But also indirectly as Nibert links the consumption of obesogenic sodas and meat-eating, quoting Richard Robbins: “The sugar in soft drinks serves as the perfect compliment to hamburgers and hot dogs because it possesses what nutritionists call ‘go-away’ qualities – removing the fat coating and the beef aftertaste from the mouth’

During the twentieth century expansion of livestock continued in Latin America especially Brazil where: ‘cattle pasture accounts for six times more cleared land in the Amazon than crop land; even the notorious [feed] farmers who have ploughed some 5m hectares of former rainforest cover just one-tenth of the ground taken by the beef producers.’

US aid to Latin America was often linked to the extent to which a country could satisfy its insatiable demand for livestock products. Oppressive regimes willing to convert large tracts of arable land and jungle to pasture were supported against political movements, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, opposing it.

Happier Meals?

As an unwavering abolitionist Nibert argues that “new welfarism” ‘actually promotes the continued oppression of domescrated animals and the underlying global injustices’ by ‘appeasing the concerns of the more conscientious citizens, thus blunting movements for more significant social transformation.’

He claims apparently ethical animal products are only accessible to the rich, and states that if the entire population of cows raised for food in the United States were freely ranged, half the land in the country would have to be converted to pasture. Also: ‘the energy resources necessary to raise domescrated animals for local consumption is considerably more than that required to transport plant-based food long distances’.

Controversially he argues that societies that still practise hunting for food should cease doing so. This might sound like excessive interference in ‘traditional’ ways of life: the morality of this hinges on whether we should extend a right to life to other creatures where possible, and if the practice of hunting contributes to inter-human violence.

It also assumes that food will be supplied from elsewhere. Nibbert states: ‘In a more just, vegan global order, a genuine policy of “comparative advantage” could provide nutritious plant-based food and fresh water where it is needed throughout the world, including areas where many now have few alternatives to exploiting animals.’ But it would put societies such as the Innuit in northern Canada at a significant disadvantage and be impossible to enforce. However, of far greater concern is the increasing spread of the Western diet to China and other developing countries.

It is difficult to envisage how a policy of comparative advantage can ‘transcend the capitalist system’ as he advocates. Trade is essential to the realisation of widespread vegan diets and for all its faults capitalism does successfully facilitate the efficient exchange of goods.

It remains to be seen whether a more ethical capitalism emerges. Interestingly Bill Gates has been prominent in funding and advocating ‘analogue’ meat and egg products that could replace the real thing. A company like McDonald’s hardly has an ideological attachment to meat and with sufficient demand, and profit, perhaps a happier meal could be conceived.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2013/10/veganism-makes-us-human/)

 

The Crookedness of Irish Politics

The Crookedness of Irish Politics

(Published in Village Magazine, February, 2016)

In the 2012 documentary Dreamtime Revisited poet-philosopher John Moriarity climbs Derada Hill in his adopted home of Connemara. Observing its hinterland he remarks that all about him is crooked from the contours of the Oranmore River to the crooked coast towards the Aran Islands and the crooked horizon of the Twelve Bens. He calls this his ‘wonderful crooked world’.

Throughout much of the country a rugged, undulating landscape is familiar. And it seems to have found a reflection in a human character where straight lines are avoided: in our literature language has been distorted and remade; traditional Irish music allies bewitching interchange between minor and major keys with polyrhythmic time; in day to day exchanges a sense of humour is often prized above other qualities, including honesty. Travelling west from the Pale into wilder terrain these qualities grow more pronounced: mythos overwhelms logos in the sodden bog of collective memory.

In France terroir connotes the long-standing relationship between a people and their landscape that is said to impart distinctive flavours to the food and wine produced there. In Ireland, where gastronomy has traditionally been awarded a low priority, terrior might be observed in linguistic and musical dissonances that spring from the undulating, even chaotic, landscape. We talk about what the Dutch would do if they lived in Ireland, but perhaps they are a product of the straight lines on their sunken horizon, and the practical concern of keeping the ocean at bay.

Even the Irish weather, grudgingly benign at least until recent time, finds a reflection in the periodically sullen and infuriatingly inconsistent Irish temperament. We might all recognise its description by Samuel Beckett’s character Molloy: ‘I know it was warm again the day I left but that meant nothing in my part of the world where it seemed to be warm or cold or mild at any time of the year’. The poor quality of the built infrastructure here would be insufferable in other parts of Europe at a similar latitude that endure harsher winters.

Observed empirically, to some extent Ireland retains the political economy of a post-colonial outpost, now a tax haven. Une isle derriere une isle according to one French geographer – spared both Roman conquest and barbarian hordes – the country did not join the European mainstream. Ireland was a repository of learning and mysticism during a brief golden age, then passed into a millennium of obscurity before a shuddering encounter with an advanced civilisation of the neighbouring island.

The ensuing appropriation imposed a system of individual private property ‘from Heaven to Hell’ distinct from what had been communal arrangements under native Brehon Law. The arrival of the potato in the seventeenth century saved many from starvation during a calamitous seventeenth century and allowed exponential population growth despite severely restricted access to land. But, sui generis, Ireland is the only country in Europe, and perhaps the world, whose population was greater in the 1840s than today due to the Great Famine and its legacy.

The Irish nation is a product of the late eighteenth century when the movement of the United Irishmen failed to unite all creeds: simultaneously in 1795 the orchestrated emergence of the Orange Order and of Maynooth University that created a quasi-established Catholic Church put paid to the aspirations of Wolf Tone and his colleagues. The Old English descendants of the Normans and the native Gael coalesced inviolably to form an overwhelmingly Catholic nation.

The Normans might have tempered a native tendency towards the fast and loose, but contemporary English observers bemoaned the cultural slippage that attended the medieval wave of colonisation: as if the rivers flowing from the hilly regions inhabited by the Gael imbued the plain-dwelling Normans with their characteristics. Or perhaps it was just the unrelenting drizzle. The Protestant New English that arrived primarily in the seventeenth century descended into a familiar decadence albeit preserving a singular sectarian identity by avoiding miscegenation. Only in the north east corner, within the cultural orbit of lowland Scotland, did a distinct culture emerge.

Ireland’s dramatic landscape is not unique, but what is unique is first an isolation from and then quite sudden absorption of its substantial population (by comparison with the equally untamed Scottish Highlands for instance) into as advanced a polity as early modern England’s. John Locke encountered the banshee with predictable results. An Irishman Other has long acted as a foil to the sober, judicious Englishman and often revels in his allotted role as revolutionary misfit, bard and poet. From this we might trace a cultural tolerance of drunkenness.

The contradictions between the two cultures engendered a great cultural ferment that animated an Irish literary Renaissance that began at the end of the nineteenth century. In its wake Irishmen were awarded a remarkable four Nobel Prizes for literature, and this with James Joyce, widely regarded as the preeminent novelist of the twentieth century, missing out. Even a century later what seem parochial themes resonate beyond our shores such that an unremarkable rock band like U2 compose songs that connect with a global audience.

But translate the crookedness of the Irish character into Irish politics and what do we find? If in literature the distortion of language can be art, in politics it is artifice. Endemic corruption is one aspect, but it runs deeper. It creates a laxity whereby a politician can say one thing to one crowd and another to the next. Enda Kenny can assert Ireland’s commitment to Climate Change while almost in the same breath whisper his continued support for Irish agriculture’s expansionary and carbon-intensive ambitions.

The media hardly demur as they often engage in the same double speak. An Irish Times editorial on December 5th came with the title: ‘Rhetoric must give way to action in push for COP21 deal on climate change’. They criticise Enda Kenny’s hypocrisy but follow his example saying: ‘If that is the case we must make meaningful commitments on other fronts’.

Accounting for the absence of clear ideological demarcation between Irish political parties requires further exploration of Irish history. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars the United Kingdom could resume trade with the Continent making Irish grain relatively expensive and gave a comparative advantage to cattle farming. The Famine accelerated the transformation of the rural economy from labour-intensive tillage to extensive pasture where profitability required a low labour input. Population continued to decline from the 1850s through to the 1950s as emigration denuded rural Ireland especially of its youth who might have brought entrepreneurial creativity or failing that revolted.

The Land War of the 1880s, while destructive to the Protestant Ascendancy that had been at the apex of an almost feudal society since the seventeenth century, did not alter the fundamental economic structures as pastoral agriculture remained dominant. An increasingly petit-bourgeois Irish peasantry sold beef and butter and purchased, mainly imported foods and other goods, on the British imperial market. A declining population, absentee landlords, a lack of state intervention, and distance from markets explain why the Industrial Revolution only arrived in the North East. The large surplus of Irish labour migrated to Lancashire, Glasgow, New York and beyond. Without a substantial urban proletariat socialist movements had little support base.

The arrival of Sinn Fein (We Ourselves) in 1905 presented the possibility of a new kind of politics of self-reliance and re-distribution, but throughout its history and that of its progenies the national card has trumped the egalitarian. An historic opportunity presented itself at the end of World War I when Ireland became independent and a generation mainly in their thirties came to power.

But this unprecedented generational shift descended into a murderous Civil War whose source of contention was a point of doctrine, in what seems a throwback to the arcane disputations of a medieval church council: the Oath of Allegiance to the King. That ‘empty formula of words’, as it was later conceded by Eamon de Valera in another example of linguistic contortion, was the main point of contention in the Treaty debates.

Thus the political lines were drawn between, essentially, two parties that have been the dominant partner in every government since independence. Any individual ambitious to attain high political office has, except in rare, tidal, circumstances, had to work within the confines of these parties. It is not unusual that two parties should dominate the history of a state but ideological incoherence in Ireland creates a gravitational pull towards the centre ground.

Contrast this with the UK where a radical politician such as Jeremy Corbyn can survive in the broad left-wing church of a party of government such as the Labour Party. It has been argued that this political climate favours foreign investment but the absence of genuinely left-wing administrations has delayed the arrival of socialist measures found elsewhere in Europe that could have alleviated the poverty that has haunted the history of the Free State. We have not seen a government like that of the post-War Labour administration in the UK which introduced the Welfare State and the NHS.

An ideology of individual self-reliance has tended to be in the ascendant especially as Sean Lemass’s influence superseded de Valera’s peculiar brand of peasant nationalism. The triumph of individualism was epitomised by the ripping out of Dublin’s tram tracks in the 1960s to make way for the motor car. The economic planning of the 1960s under the guidance of the almost-universally lauded T.K. Whitaker amounted to a liberal rationalisation of the economy. It has reached a point where maintaining the rate of corporation tax at 12.5% in the face of criticism from European partners seems to be the most fiercely guarded part of our sovereignty, and has been agreed to by all the main parties.

The crucible of the Civil War forged political allegiances often owing more to personal loyalty than ideology. We see these tribal loyalties passed down to descendants a century later. Pádraic Pearse, the poet leader of the 1916 Rising whose rhetoric of blood sacrifice invites comparison with fascism, implanted in the body politic enduring notions of nationalist heroism. From the outset, insufficient attention was paid to dreary notions such as building infrastructure or regional development. The Sinn Fein gene pool has generated Cumann na nGaedhal (1922-35), Fianna Fail (1927-), Fine Gael (1935-), arguably Clann na Poblachta (1946-65) and the latest manifestation of Sinn Fein (1969-). Each has played musical chairs with their ideological stances: Fianna Fail swinging between protectionism and open markets; in Fine Gael a tension between the idea of a Just Society and the economic conservatism of Christian democracy. What really distinguishes one from the other is their degree of commitment to the nationalist cause. Even Fine Gael became the party of conciliatory nationalism that captured the former Unionist constituency in the South.

There is little hope that the current incarnation of Sinn Fein won’t bend their current socialist leanings to political expediency. It should be recalled that in 1969 the Provisionals split with the Officials over the former’s commitment to the nationalist cause and the latter’s attention to the workers’ struggle. The Officials became the Workers Party and then Democratic Left. Sinn Fein became the political wing of the nationalist Provisionals.

As a fundamentally nationalist party it is unsurprising that Sinn Fein should in opposition seek radical economic redistribution before being wedded to ‘economic realities’ on entering government. Certainly their record in the Northern Executive and opposition to a Property Tax in the South reveals pragmatic tendencies. That is not to say that parties in coalition should never make concessions to coalition partners, but when a movement’s core value is nationalism genuine commitment to social and economic objectives recedes.

What of the Labour Party, the only mainstream party of the Left throughout the history of the state? Before independence leaders such as James Connolly and James Larkin argued in favour of radical re-distribution in Irish society, but without a significant urban proletariat they could not muster a substantial opposition to the different hues of green. As the state has developed the party has grown unhealthily close to a ‘permanent and pensionable’ civil service and other privileged groups. Instructively, their core support is among the wealthy denizens of South Dublin.

Another problem in Irish politics is that the abstraction of the wider culture permeates the electoral system laid out under the Irish Constitution. Our PR-STV electoral system where 40 constituencies elect 158 TDs gives an opportunity to independent chieftains who jealously guard their generally rural redoubts and show scant regard for the country as a whole, let alone the wider world. Moreover, in order to compete with independents, politicians from the established parties must also seek spoils for their constituencies: again national issues fade in importance, and we muddle on.

The election of 2011 was supposed to be a watershed, but the parties originating in the Sinn Fein movement of the early twentieth century remain ascendant, and this might be even more pronounced after the next election if Labour suffers its predicted bashing.

Many countries have experienced far more brutal recent political histories: a basic decency flows from Irish people that makes living in the country tolerable, and even pleasurable, despite exasperating inefficiencies and sad inequalities. But the want of direct talking, as you usually find in conversation with a Dutch person, results in stasis and ill-equips us for long-term planning. Writing in the Irish Times (31/12/15) planning consultant Diarmuid O’Grada bemoans how the Department of Environment has been incapable of strategic planning: ‘it must be regretted that the Custom House has not been associated with evidence-based innovation since the 1980s when the minister closed down its research wing.’

Ireland confronts Climate Change with a Green Party that is on the brink of extinction. This is not entirely the fault of its well-intentioned, if conservative, leadership. Most of the population displays little support for environmental regulation. We insist on one off housing, private motor cars and pastoral agriculture, a Tragedy of the Commons that generates high energy costs and emissions. Unlike John Moriarty most of us fail to climb the mountain and see the whole picture.

Before the 2007 General Election Enda Kenny offered a form of contract to voters assuring them that if elected Fine Gael would respect undertakings he had given as a business would an agreement with another party. That this was little more than a gimmick imported from the United States was recognised as such by the electorate. But Kenny’s gambit suggested a realisation that people would welcome cast iron guarantees from a party of the original Sinn Fein gene pool with no fixed ideological position. Revealingly his centre-right party was offering measures including free health insurance for all under 16s that one would associate with a left-wing party. In the event the electorate returned Bertie Aherne as the boom grew boomier and despite a gathering storm of revelations about corrupt private dealings and multiple warnings that the economy was over-heating.

It would be a sign of Ireland’s political maturity if we elected parties with clearly delineated ideologies. It is difficult to predict what way Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail or Fine Gael will swing if elected. At least the Progressive Democrats unashamedly spelt out their liberal convictions, but that appears to have been too transparent for the Irish population. Lucinda Creighton’s Renua are seeking to inherit their mantle but lack the authority and depth of a figure like Eddie O’Malley. The newly-formed Social Democrats offer an interesting new dimension on the left as Labour flounder, but they are unlikely to be sufficiently organised before the next election to win a substantial number of seats. A personal preference, however unrealistic, would be for the next government to be a broad alliance of the left excluding Sinn Fein but including the Greens.

A simple electoral reform that could curb aspects of the Tammany Hall excesses in Irish politics would make it necessary for political parties to achieve a minimum threshold of five percent as is the case in many European countries. The likes of Lowry and Healy-Rae would hopefully disappear from the political constellation, and national politicians could start to focus more on issues affecting the whole country rather than seeking to beat the offers of local chieftains.

Any culture is in a constantly dialectical relationship with its social and physical environment. In Joyce’s Ulysses the character of Stephen Daedalus muses that: ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’, and often it seems this country is still in a form of dreamtime where actions are taken haphazardly and reactively. Thus even after the experience of the Celtic Tiger nothing meaningful has been done to curb the onset of another property bubble concentrated in Dublin.

But Irish culture has the capacity to change. Post-colonial legacies fade in time and the originality of the Irish Mind can be deployed constructively. A native crookedness can help us think laterally. Moreover, over ten percent of the population living in the state were born elsewhere, and in time they will exert more of an influence even if our archaic laws excludes non-citizens from voting in General Elections. Most of the population have also travelled widely and recognise better practice in other countries. The bursting of the Tiger Bubble did make many people re-appraise their priorities and the generation coming up are animated by global issues such as Climate Change.

1916 could be a year of renewal in Ireland when we start to think collectively and with a view to the future. Ideally an older generation of tired politicians will exit stage left, with younger and an increasing proportion of female candidates elected. Sadly it seems more likely that we will continue to react rather than plan.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2016/02/the-crookedness-of-irish-politics/)

Bad Pharma and Farming

(Published in Village Magazine October, 2014)

Review of Missing Microbes: How Killing Bacteria Creates Modern Plagues by Martin Blaser

Oneworld Publications 2014

The overuse of antibiotics in humans and other animals combined with other medical interventions such as Caesarian sections is threatening disastrous consequences according to a new book by Martin Blaser, Professor of Translational Medicine and Director of the Human Microbiome Program at NYU.

These treatments act on bacteria which have colonised every corner of the earth, including our bodies, and have been around for nearly four billion years.

We have 30 trillion human cells of our own, but host more than 100 trillion bacterial and fungal cells. This might lead us to wonder who we really are. Indeed, the evolution of our resident bacteria has probably been just as important as the evolution of our own cells according to Blaser.

The welfare of a person’s microbiome, the collective term for resident bacteria, plays a critical role in their health and the last seventy years has seen a progressive weakening of these crucial organs. Blaser links their impoverishment to the onset of a host of modern plagues including obesity, diabetes, heart-burn and GORD, asthma, a host of allergies, IBS and even autism.

Another problem has been the widespread application of Caesarian sections which deny new born babies vital sources of bacteria available through conventional birth. But according to Blaser the main source of the microbiome’s decline has been the invention and subsequent over-use of antibiotics the force of which Blaser likens to the acquisition of the atomic bomb. Moreover, their over-use in humans and in animal agriculture is giving rise to superbugs such as MRSA that already kill thousands each year.

Moulds were used in Ancient Egypt, China and Central American Indians for centuries to treat infections before Alexander Fleming discovered the anti-bacterial effects of penicillium moulds in 1928. This gave Western medicine access to a life-saving medicine first used on a nurse called Anne Miller in 1942. Antibiotics have saved millions of lives and many surgical procedures would not be possible without them.

However, their use by doctors and dentists has surged in most Western countries to the extent that in most Western countries the average twenty year old has taken almost 20 courses, in many cases unnecessarily. Research in 2012 found antibiotic use in Ireland to be in the mid- to high range in comparison to other EU countries.

The fault does not lie entirely with doctors most of whom are aware of the dangers of over-use. Recent research into their use in Ireland showed that 50% of patients request antibiotics when they visit a doctor with upper respiratory infections (colds and sore throats), an area of over-use identified by Blaser. Embattled general practitioners need more support in terms of patient education to stem this demand.

These infections are mainly caused by viruses which do not respond to antibiotics, but the problem is that a throat may already be colonised by bacteria that is not causing the disease.

Usually the reason doctors reflexively prescribe antiobiotics for sore throats is out fear of rheumatic fever which typically occurs two or three weeks after an untreated strep infection and can be fatal.

According to Blaser: ‘Before antibiotics, about one child in three hundred with a strep infection developed rheumatic fever or, if the strep strains were very ‘hot’, one in thirty. Nowadays doctors prescribe an antibiotic for strep throat not to shorten the duration of the infection, because it doesn’t much, but to ward off rheumatic fever.’

He asserts that: ‘Until doctors can readily distinguish viral from bacterial throat infections, they will always follow the safer course.’ He also acknowledges they are pressed for time and fearful of being sued.

Another problem lies with the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Just as in humans, untreatable bacterial infections are emerging in farm animals and these are passing the species barrier into human populations.

Often farmers use antibiotics not to treat disease but in order for these animals to grow more quickly. The practice of using sub-therapeutic doses is now banned in the EU but the law is not enforced.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine does not collect data on antibiotic usage on Irish farms, and according to research by Ella McSweeney antibiotic sales for large animals in Ireland is increasing.

Antibiotics cause the same weight gain in humans. Blaser connects their over-use to the obesity pandemic with compelling evidence from his laboratory experiments, and this is born out in studies showing obese individuals to have far less of a range of bacterial strains compared to individuals of normal weight. An NHS study the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children showed that children who received antibiotics in the first six months of life were likely to have a higher body mass index.

Controversially Blaser hypothesises a link with autism the incidence of which appears to have risen considerably since the development of antibiotics. Today one in sixty-five children is diagnosed as autistic or on the spectrum, a condition that was only identified in 1943. Many of the microbes in the gut also make chemicals that the developing brain needs to function normally and these are being compromised by over-use of antibiotics. That there should be crucial interactions is perhaps unsurprising considering there are as many neurons in our guts as our brains.

Today most bacterial infections are treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics. According to Blaser: ‘It is not profitable for companies to go to the trouble and enormous expense of developing new antibiotics’. Targeted antibiotics only applicable in a small number of cases make little sense for companies concerned by their bottom line.

Fundamental to the understanding of our relationship with bacteria is the concept of amphibiosis: ‘the condition in which two life-forms create relationships that are either symbiotic or parasitic, depending on the context’.

This is apparent in the case of a bacterial strain called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) which has been discovered in our stomachs, and which Blaser has spent much of his research career pursuing.

In 1982 two Australian doctors Dr Robert Warren and Dr Barry Marshall won a Nobel prize for showing for the first time that ulcers could be treated with antibiotics that removed H. pylori. Later it was discovered that individuals with H. pylori were also susceptible to stomach cancer. This led to all out war against a strain that was already declining due to increased sanitation.

But H. pylori performs other roles in our bodies. According to Blaser: ‘it appears that H. pylori is having some general effect on immunity, on people’s ability to turn off an allergic response’: this may explain the increasing incidences of potentially fatal food allergies. It also controls the regulation of the hormones ghrelin and leptin which are both produced in the stomach and are involved in the storage and use of energy. Meaning those without it are often more susceptible to obesity.

Having H. pylori in our stomachs increases the risk of stomach cancer but this is only likely to arise in our 70s or 80s, while we may be losing its beneficial effects for most of our lifetimes. That is amphibiosis in action. Adopting lifestyle changes especially refraining from consumption of red and processed meat would make far more sense.

According to recent studies normal individuals have lost 15-40 percent of their microbial diversity. Blaser warns that: ‘unless we are change our ways we are facing an antibiotic winter … a worldwide plague that we cannot stop’. The problem is not only with the potential for super bugs but also ‘a degraded ecosystem’ could make it more difficult for us to stave off infection.

But Blaser shows that there are ways in which we can begin to recover lost ground. Doctors can be far more selective in their use armed with rapid tests enabling them to sample blood, sputum, exhaled air or urine to look for the chemical signature of particular organisms, and pharmaceutical companies could be compelled to develop more targeted antibiotics. Governments, including our own, can be far more rigorous in ensuring that antibiotics are not used as growth-promoters in animal agriculture.

Moreover, a raft of new treatments enhancing our microbiome could be introduced, including the development of targeted prebiotics and probiotics, and the transfer of bacterial strains between individuals.

Unfortunately Blaser does not give significant attention to the extent to which diet can help our resistance to disease and enhance the health of the microbiome, especially through consumption of fermented foods.

Just like the development of nuclear energy, the development of antibiotics presented humans with astonishing power, which alas they have mishandled. There is sufficient time for this technology to be recovered and for it to be used only in circumstances when it works to our benefit. In the meantime our microbiome will suffer and so will we.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2014/12/biome/)

Environmentalists in Denial

(published in thejournal.ie 1/10/13)

George Monbiot wrote an article recently opposing a campaign to turn England’s Lake District into a World Heritage site (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/02/lake-district-wildlife-desert-blame-wordsworth). He says we should not celebrate a landscape where ‘the forests that once covered them have been reduced by the white plague to bare rock and bowling green’; by the “white plague” he means sheep which have devoured the woodland native to this site.

He dismisses the description of “a harmonious development of interactions between people and their environment” cited by supporters, despite his admiration for Romantic poets like Wordsworth who eulogized that landscape. He argues convincingly that: ‘Farming has done more extensive damage to wildlife and habitats than all the factories ever built’.

This reminded me of an exchange I had in the Burren in County Clare last year with an environmentalist friend who spoke in glowing terms of the interaction there between pastoral farmers practising transhumance and the craterous landscape which has given rise to a variety of flora not observed in other locations.

But for much of the Burren summit vegetation is deciduous forest, of which little remains due to centuries of pastoral farming. At least a small cluster of hazel trees lie around a grotto associated with Saint Colman, and one can see why the holy man sought the sheltered space below the canopy for prayer and contemplation. Alas, in most of the Burren hazel saplings are removed to make way for cattle, ensuring the landscape remains desolate.

It seems there is little to distinguish between the damage wrought by pastoral farming in the Lake District, and its impact on the Burren.

Indeed, despite a reputation for being a wild landscape the island of Ireland has actually experienced extreme modification to its natural habitats since the arrival of human farming. Prior to this the island was almost entirely wooded with climax vegetation of elm/hazel oak/hazel and pine in upland regions. According to Frank Mitchell in Reading the Irish Landscape: ‘from about five thousand years ago when the first tree-felling axes made woodland clearance possible man’s hands have borne down ever more heavily on the Irish landscape’. Insatiable demand for fresh grazing lands in particular left us with a mere 12% of our woodland by the 1400s.

It seems to me there is a blind spot among environmentalist who harp on about the dangers of climate change but fail to acknowledge the hugely important contribution of domesticated animals. A 2009 study by Goodland and Anhang found this responsible for a shocking 51% of anthropogenic global greenhouse gases emitted, far more than the 18% estimated in the 2003 UN report Livestock’s Long Shadow.

Reducing global livestock numbers would be far simpler than converting to a renewable energy infrastructure which would take at least 20 years and cost $18 trillion to develop according to Goodland:  http://www.chompingclimatechange.org/1/post/2013/09/greenwashing-by-the-un-food-and-agriculture-organization.html.

The government’s recent Climate Change Bill 2013 targets an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050. This would leave total annual emissions at 11 million tonnes of carbon equivalent. But agriculture alone currently accounts for 19 million tonnes. That means with everything else reduced to zero, we would still need to substantially reduce the national herd. Unlike cars, it is not possible to engineer energy-efficient livestock.

Further, the emissions of Irish agriculture do not account for the carbon sequester that could occur through reforestation which would also provide significant resources for generations to come and restore lost habitats.

Irish farming is concerned overwhelmingly with the raising of cattle for beef and dairy. There are 6.8 million cattle in Ireland and a mere 8% of agricultural land is devoted to tillage, mostly crops for livestock consumption. A tiny proportion of the fruit and vegetables available in Irish shops are grown here, and we have no exports to speak of.

Ireland has the capacity to produce a lot more food on less land. Consider that prior to the Famine, without using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides it was possible for 3 million inhabitants to eek out a living on 1 million acres of land, often in marginal locations, out of a total potential farming area of 20 million acres. I don’t suggest that the population lives entirely on potatoes but it illustrates the crop yields possible from Irish soil.

There is growing recognition that we need to increase the level of tree cover which at approximately 10% is one of the lowest in the EU. Opposition spokesman Eamon O Cuiv has advocated that farmland owned by NAMA should be converted to forestry (http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/fianna-f%C3%A1il-opposes-coillte-merger-with-bord-na-m%C3%B3na-1.1541652): an initiative that NAMA to Nature, a group I was involved in, began almost a year and a half ago! http://www.thejournal.ie/nama-to-nature-why-we-are-planting-trees-on-ghost-estates-384378-Mar2012/

The long-term economics of livestock farming in most of Ireland simply do not add up. Despite CAP payments of €2.39 billion, a mere 37% of Irish farms are economically viable with 58% of their incomes derived from the Single Farm Payment last year. For beef farmers it amounted to a worrying 80% of income, and 33% of dairy farmers’.

It is often argued in favour of Irish farming that we earn €9 billion in export revenue through it but we also import €5 billion worth of food to one of Europe’s most rural societies. A combination of import substitution, export alternatives and domestic growing initiatives as well as more attractive landscapes for tourism could make up lost jobs and revenue. We could grow many more crops for the home market by changing our subsidy regime, developing labour-intensive horticulture and raising public health in the process.

The psychology of why many environmentalists do no question our present models of food production may reside in a deep attachment to animal products. This even afflicts climate scientists who should now better. James E. McWilliams states: ‘I can understand climate scientists flying in airplanes to conferences or driving cars to work, because they don’t have the time to walk or bike the distance. But I cannot understand climate scientists deliberately choosing to put meat and other animal foods in their mouths when there are perfectly good, low-impact, plant-based alternatives widely available in every corner of the globe.’ [http://james-mcwilliams.com/?p=2760]

The excuse of eating locally ignores that we subsidize certain types of food despite their egregious environmental impact. Studies have shown that food miles are a small percentage of the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with food.[http://news.mongabay.com/2008/0602-ucsc_liaw_food_miles.html#UJvSaCr7ghPZfbCC.99]

The terrible beauty of the Burren landscape serves as a warning for the consequences of intensive grazing. The rest of Ireland should take note. Mitigating climate change and habitat loss is reason enough to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet.

 

A Recipe for World Vegetarian Day

 

Nut and Seed Roast

Serves: 8

Preparation time approximately 40 minutes

8 ounces (225 grams) of cooked millet (breadcrumbs can be used instead – rye bread works best)

4 ounces (115 grams) of ground seeds (mixture of sunflower, pumpkin, sesame and linseed)

4 ounces (115 grams) of ground nuts (mixture of peanuts, cashews, hazelnuts and blanched almonds).

1 tbs of tamari sauce (or soya sauce)

½ teaspoon of salt

½ teaspoon of nutritional yeast fortified with vitamin B12 (optional)

1 leek (finely chopped)

Mixed herbs, dried or fresh e.g. tarragon, oregano, basil, herbs de provence (finely chopped)

1 cup of water (between 200 and 250 ml)

1 tbs of rapeseed oil or other oil appropriate for frying

Directions

  1. Take one cup of millet and put in a saucepan over a low heat for approximately 5-10 minutes, taking care for it not to burn by stirring regularly.
  2. Add 2 cups of water to the millet and bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 minutes by which time all the water should be absorbed.
  3. Wash a leek by cutting a line down the top and run it under a tap to get the dirt out from inside. Remove any parts that are going bad along with the root at the base.
  4. Finely chop the leek and saute over a low heat for about 10 minutes (do this while the millet is cooking)
  5. Finely chop the herbs.
  6. Measure out the millet and put in a bowl along with the ground seeds and nuts, herbs, tamari, water, leek, salt and nutritional yeast and mix thoroughly.
  7. Transfer the mixture into a baking tin, making a smooth top with a spatula (you can decorate the top with a few cherry tomatoes if you like)
  8. Bake for approximately 40 minutes at 180 degrees, or until well-browned.
  9. Cut into 8 portions.
  10. Serve with a sugar-free tomato relish, potato salad, the remainder of the millet and a green salad.
  11. Multiply the ingredients by two or three and freeze a quantity.

(http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/world-vegetarian-day-climate-change-domesticated-animals-1108748-Oct2013/)

Blight of ghost estates remains three years on

(Published in the Irish Times 9/4/15)

We rose before sunrise. A consternation of alarm clocks calling us to action. The first glitch appeared when the motor on the boat intended to ferry us across the lake stubbornly refused to start.

Most of the group of about 20 would have to proceed by car. I enthusiastically volunteered to row the short distance in a smaller vessel blithely ignoring my complete inability to maintain a steady stroke. Fortunately my companion could and the reduced armada meandered unsteadily across in the pale dawn.

The remote village of Keshcarrigan did not seem to notice the small cavalcade bringing hundreds of saplings through the gates of the notorious ‘Waterways’ ghost estate. Posters outside projected a vision of happy families cavorting on blissful summer days. The reality was an eerie scrapheap of unfinished houses and shattered dreams.

Over the course of the day we planted nearly a thousand mainly native tree varieties. But we had not gone unnoticed. Mid-way through a police van trundled through the gates. As a trained barrister I agreed to plead our case. I told them we were asserting the right of a community to plant trees on common land that had fallen into disrepair.

The site of famished hardcore and errant Styrofoam abetted the argument but really I think the constabulary found the charming smiles of the female conspirators more persuasive. Observing this wasn’t a particularly cut-throat bunch of sans-culottes, they let us carry on.

Three years on it is astounding to consider the media furore our small action unleashed. Within hours of an online article appearing the John Murray Show was in touch looking for interviews. We continued with further actions, planting trees on sites in Wicklow near Rathdrum and then Cherrywood, Dublin where RTE news crews turned up.

I was interviewed with a neck tie wrapped around my head. Coated in dust I looked like a cross between a tramp and the Karate Kid. The Irish Times, Independent and Daily Mail featured pictures of us digging in costumes on their front pages. It culminated in Serena Brabazon delivering a TEDx talk at the Bord Gais Theatre.

We were happy to court publicity and played to the cameras. We chose business suits in imitation of the banking elites that had brought the country to ruin and allowed the landscape to be blighted with unfinished developments.

NAMA to Nature’s success can be attributed to the capacity of new media to transform a small action into a much larger spectacle. Online publication and Facebook allowed us to bring images to a wide audience, and mainstream media was attracted by the exotic phenomenon of guerrilla gardening. It also helped that the participants were well-spoken and possessed a sense of humour.

What also made NAMA to Nature a brief hit was it lifted the national mood during a period in 2012 when morale was in a trough, by offering a novel response to problems that seemed intractable. We showed that you could do something quite easily to improve a local environment.

Beyond the burlesque, what we were doing was actually a serious questioning of the inviolability of property rights. We were tentatively identifying grounds under which a right to property might be set aside for the greater good of the community, and even for the sake of the natural environment.

We were saying that the tragedy of the Irish commons where tax breaks and lax planning allowed developments with no regard to infrastructure could be challenged and that ownership only stretched so far. Without proposing anarchy, we were asserting that communities hold rights over all property in their vicinity. We were also pointing to a consistent Irish blind spot: the failure of many property owners to protect biodiversity.

Those of us who were involved in NAMA to Nature are hopeful that attitudes to the environment are changing and there is a growing appreciation of the intrinsic value of biodiversity.

But shockingly, like many such eyesores around the country, nothing has been done to clean the Waterways site. Many of the trees are growing but substantial debris needs to be cleared.

It beggars belief that a state so keen to promote tourism through images of the natural beauty with which we are blessed allows such grotesque edifices to endure. It demands a response from county councils, and if they fail to act then the national government must step in.

Longer term we should anticipate problems before they materialize: just as tax breaks and lax planning allowed the property bubble to develop, today a lack of restraint on farming with the end of milk quotas is set to cause damage to Irish biodiversity and increase our greenhouse gas emissions.

The popularity of NAMA to Nature attested to a deep attachment to nature and an awareness that over time and especially during the Celtic Tiger we paid insufficient attention to it. But the blight of unfinished estates reveals the ghosts that remain in our midst.

(http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/blight-of-ghost-estates-remains-three-years-after-nama-to-nature-tree-planting-1.2168955)