Books I read – No. 1 – Ireland’s Burning
The Irish Times interview with James Lovelock gave me a nudge to finish the final chapter of RTE Paul Cunningham’s book called Ireland’s Burning. James Lovelock is a world thinker on environmental issues and takes a very grim view of the earths future – that global warming is in fact irreversible.
Paul Cunninghams book take a slightly less pessimistic and more hopeful view of things. Paul is RTEs environmental correspondent and his book reflects the years of covering environmental stories on behalf of RTE. Overall the book is a collection of 20 or so interviews/essays on people/initiatives from around the country that give guidance on environmental issues or are doing something to help reduce our impact on the environment. Some of them are extended versions of news items that would have at some point been aired on RTE. In the book he can obviously go into more details than a 30 second news item. The stories themselves are pretty varied with some featuring ground breaking steps (tidal energy projects) and some that feel extremely mundane. In each of the stories he takes time to build a detailed personal profile of the person concerned while explaining the areas they have action in or their expert opinion. Some gave interesting backgrounds into international government negotiations on environmental treaties where Environmental Minister at the time Noel Dempsey and current John Gormley detailed the late nights and almost horse trading/blackmail in reaching consensus. More mundane accounts were also given in other chapters such as the efforts made by the tourism industry in Donegal which really appeared very inadequate against the drama of global warming. It is important to have examples at the two extremities and in general he covers most of the key areas.
The books is obviously designed to raise awareness on the impending crisis which is an extremely difficult balance to get right. Too much doom and gloom and people switch off or are too frightened to think straight. Too low a level and people reject the need for any pain as the danger does not appear great enough.
Telling this story responsibly from an Irish perspective is even more difficult. I was expecting some more of the Lovelock type doomsdays stories but the impact of global warming in Ireland will not be as severe as else where- some issues for potato growers, some small changes in rain fall and some coastal erosion- all means that in the short term Ireland will do fare pretty ok. This is also reflected by Lovelocks hypothesis that Ireland could become ‘a life boat for humanity’ and our biggest challenge could be deciding who to save.
This presents a problem in getting people to take the issue seriously. Our recent reluctance to bear a reduction in our lifestyles in accordance with the economic collapse does not bode well for taking serious measures to save the environment. Even in the face of disaster we tend to want to cling to what we have and leave action for others. Lofty ideals of helping to save the planet have to compete with our creature comforts. The economic crisis is a lot more real for people than global warming where individual action can appear insignificant. People are happy to recycle while its free but you would face rebellion if you tried to limit car/plane journeys, increase taxes or impact on comfortable living. If we feel that we may be ok then we forget that if everyone took that perspective the entire planet would be at great risk.
I do feel that all the awareness programmes are important but even if Irish people took the most extreme measure for these it would still be scratching at the surface. People need some level of fear coupled with some element of empowerment where they can effect change. Problem is that no one really knows how serious it all is.
Paul does put this succinctly where he says “focusing on the concerns of today rather than the consequences of inaction tomorrow” poses real danger.
There is an interesting web chat on RTEs site with Paul Cunningham. Although a huge amount of work went into this book I dont imagine it will be his last one on the topic as grim predictions become a reality.