January 2016 (supplement)
|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]
Building the alternative, with stamina
Trying to build the alternative social and political reality that we want to see is often a heartbreaking task because the current polity, and economy, normalises violence and injustice in so many ways. Struggling to build the vision that we want to see in a system or systems which will continually knock us back, deliberately or inadvertently, is not easy. But perseverance and dedication can win through, and at times the cards we are dealt may give us a better hand than others.
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØBuilding the seeds of the new in a forest of the old can be thankless as well as heartbreaking. Just as few new business enterprises are successful, so few social and political projects can expect to have more than a fairly short term future. Sam Beckett’s quote “Fail again. Fail better” in its original context may be fatalistic rather than motivational but we have to be accustomed to failure while striving for success. In other words, we should not be so cast down by failure that we fail to rise up to the same challenge in a different way, or fail to rise to a new challenge.
Sometimes it is a matter of continuing to plough on until something clicks, or something changes, and there is a period where the wind is in our sails. This should not be a matter of doing the same old things (though some same old things may be necessary) but continually exploring new ways of achieving the same goal. In conflict one adage is to think of interests, not positions, because if we think of people’s interests we may find innovative ways of addressing them. We may feel stymied by realities and supposed failure yet thinking of our own goals in a wide, lateral-thinking sense, can give us so many possibilities for action. Listening to people (perhaps in a ‘listening project’) can connect with people’s reality in a way that pinpoints ways forward.
There are so many aspects of building a new alternative, and any one of us can only get involved in a limited number, even if we offer encouragement to others. While building new practical projects and initiatives will always be at the heart of building a viable alternative, theory or exploration (as in art) is also important. Take the ‘Building Peace Together’ book mentioned in the news section of this issue of ‘Nonviolent News’, and reviewed in “Readings in Nonviolence”; this is about practical projects in a myriad of fields but by putting this information together in such a wide-ranging context the book is saying “Peace is intensely relevant to all these areas – and these areas are relevant to peace”.
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØNot all conflict is amenable to mediation, or needs mediation, but mediation in Ireland has gone from virtually zero (apart from traditional, informal, and intuitive mediation) four decades ago to being a legally recognised alternative to litigation, North and Republic, and the adversarial situation in the courts. Of course mediation cannot deal with many pressing issues but people who believed in a better way of addressing conflict got up and did it, and built it up gradually to be the viable option it is today for many people in many different kinds of conflict.
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØGreen activists who believed in a different way of being ecological in society set up Cloughjordan Eco Village, while Christian greenies have set up Jubilee Farm in Larne. These are very different entities but are part of a shared concern to be a practising as well as a preaching green activist. Scientists and inventors of all sorts are inventing the next generation of green machines and, if the political will was there – which it hasn’t been to date - Ireland could be a truly green country.
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØIn 1965, before the Troubles in the North were even a nightmare in someone’s head, the Corrymeela Community had been set up to work for all different sorts of reconciliation, though not surprisingly in the context Protestant-Catholic issues became the main focus. It is still going strong today.
All sorts of local community centres and associations have been set up around the country because people had the vision to do something positive for their locality. Their work may be on poverty, with young people, elderly people, those affected by drugs and alcohol addiction, work with new migrants, or general community development issues, including community relations and integration. All of this work is badly needed and despite in most cases being very poorly resourced, those involved struggle on.
It may be when a project fails that it was the wrong project or the wrong time. It may be that it was exactly the right project but the necessary funding and people to run it could not be found. It may be that such a project will not work in the immediate future because nothing will have changed or it may be that it requires someone to keep on banging on doors, literally and metaphorically, until it eventually takes off. It may be that work in the same subject area is required but any new project needs tweaked and adapted from an old one.
There are no easy rules when it comes to being innovative and a social and political entrepreneur. Your judgement and experience can be called on, and that of other people, but in the end of the day, despite planning and analysis the success of a project cannot be preordained.
However those who are determined to achieve something are likely to have some success in the long run, perhaps not in exactly the way they envisage but in some way. ‘Giving up’ is a disappointing response to setbacks. ‘The law of averages’ favours you in the long run if you avoid some of the same mistakes another time. To adapt Sam Beckett’s phraseology, we should learn to succeed minimally, succeed better (the next time).
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØThis requires will power and stamina and we can get that in many different ways – from sheer stubbornness, from our philosophical or religious beliefs, our politics, from other people, and from having planned and schemed as carefully as we can. We can and should also take pride in, and celebrate, what successes we do have; knowing that we have been able to make a positive difference, for an individual, a group or a wider entity, is the greatest feeling there is.
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This editorial essay is the third in a short series looking at feminism, ecology, human rights, religion and secularism, democracy, and radicalism in general, and their relationship to nonviolence.
‘Human rights’ is a modern concept, having been developed in the period since the end of the Second World War. However the values underlying human rights are ancient ones such as justice and fairness which have both secular and religious underpinnings. Nonviolence is an older concept though with modern interpretations, again with both secular and religious origins, the latter including both Buddhism (as explored in the last issue of Nonviolent News) and Christianity where Christians in the first couple of centuries after Jesus rejected armies and armed violence.
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØIn comparing and analysing the relationship between the two approaches it is necessary to look at similarities and differences, and to have brief definitions. We are not trying to imply that the two are fully comparable or the same kind of entity. In both cases there is no definition which will be agreed by everyone, even if there are definitions which would be common.
The 70th anniversary of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human rights is currently being celebrated. A short United Nations definition is that “Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.” (*1) What the ‘many more’ entails is where some of the disagreement may come in, though it is generally agreed to cover civic, economic, political and cultural rights. The UN goes on to say “International human rights law lays down the obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.”
Nonviolence is perhaps open to wider varieties of definition. One definition is “The absence of violence and the creative use, and resolution, of conflict." (*2) This may need clarified as ‘the absence of violence on the part of those espousing nonviolence’ because they may be engaged in a situation which is very violent. “Active nonviolence” is sometimes used as a clarifying term to be clear it is not ‘passivism’ but a striving form of action for peace and justice. (*3) Nonviolence can be, and often is, used in the service of the development of human rights. Human rights law can protect the use of nonviolent action. While human rights are value laden it is expressed in legal terms unlike nonviolence which might have core tenets but is not so tightly defined. Nonviolence, like human rights, seeks to be universal.
Acting outside the law
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØWhere nonviolence acts outside of the law, as it is prepared to do, then obviously the state is likely to apply the law. However the protection of human rights can be important in demanding that the response is fair and proportionate, and where nonviolent activists have broken the law with a reason they will make their case as to why they have done so, whether it is an unjust law or situation which needs changed, or even a law which is not unjust by itself but which is being defied as part of a wider campaign for change. Human rights are oriented towards fair and just laws and a human rights approach would seek to change unjust laws; human rights are about building just laws. Nonviolence says laws should be defied as necessary, not for the purpose of acting illegally but to draw attention to an unjust situation or law, and this is an inherent part of its approach. There is thus a clear difference of approach in this regard between human rights and nonviolence though they would be pointed in the same direction.
In the instance of Shannon Airport there have been numerous actions by nonviolent activists in challenging the Irish government’s policy in allowing US military flights stopover, ‘no questions asked’ (and no searching for weapons which are not meant to be carried). Dave Donnellan, Colm Roddy, Dan Dowling and Edward Horgan are currently on bail (*4) for nonviolent walks there in 2016 and 2017. Both in particular (illegal renditions which passed through Shannon) and in general (US involvement in wars which have resulted in huge numbers of deaths, displacement, torture and misery) there is a pre-eminent human rights aspect. Shannon is a prime example of nonviolence being used in the cause of human rights.
But the reality is that big and little powers ignore many of the rights which they wish to avoid whenever they can. How can the USA or Britain engage in the wars they have this century and adhere to ‘the right to life’? The reality is that even where human rights law might be seen to be generally applied, it may not apply in actions by such countries in other areas of the world where human rights law is generally ignored (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria). Many states can use violence and systematic human rights abuses with impunity.
International developments in human rights
However the development of the International Criminal Court (one of numerous bodies to bear the abbreviation ICC) is an important one even if very limited at this stage. (*5) While the volume of verdicts the ICC has issued is small – just six cases since 2002 when it was founded - it is working on increasing its reach including the extremely important area of sexual violence and rape in war and conflict. The prospect of there being ‘no hiding place’ for perpetrators of human rights crimes, because there is an international court where they can be tried, is a very long way from being a universal reality but the fact that the ICC exists at all is an important advance for human rights.
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØThe right to conscientious objection is an important human right for those who believe in nonviolence, i.e. that no one can be forced to engage in war. There are many issues still in this area. However what should be a concomitant right, the right to avoid paying taxes for war, does not yet exist. In an era of professional armies much more than conscription this is an important issue which has yet to be transformed into a legal right. However it should also be clear nonviolence goes beyond this rejection of conscription to a much more general rejection of militarism which is one of the main sources of human rights abuses (e.g. Myanmar, Egypt).
Ireland and Northern Ireland
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØThere is a key difference between Ireland and the UK in that the Republic has a written constitution which can only be amended by popular vote; this means ‘the people’ have some say aside from TDs. In the UK there is no written constitution and ‘the constitution’ is the amalgamation of the different national and international laws which apply. While Brexit is a departure from the EU rather than international law per se, it is clear it has huge legal repercussions.
It is also clear that the current British government wishes in due course to get rid of the (UK) Human Rights Act of 2000 and depart from the European Convention on Human Rights and its strictures, including the ability to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. This is a serious diminution in human rights and there are difficulties for such a course of action in relation to Northern Ireland where certain rights were enshrined in the international treaty between the UK and Ireland as part of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. There are thus threats to aspects of human rights law in Northern Ireland, and difficulties about what will apply to whom when ‘Irish citizens’ may theoretically have more, or different, rights than ‘British citizens’ and how this can be squared in the light of the Good Friday Agreement. (*6)
Human rights were a key concept in the peace process in Northern Ireland; this was not just about the right to life but equality before the law and the state, and equal recognition for all. However unionist representatives in Northern Ireland have been markedly less interested in, and sometimes much more antagonistic towards, human rights than their nationalist counterparts. While this is understandable from an historical point of view, where unionist representatives tended to support the status quo in Northern Ireland, it is incredibly short sighted at the current point in time when the Catholic and Protestant ‘communities’ in the North are approaching parity in numbers.
There is also generally very little difference between Protestant and Catholic communities in the North regarding their attitudes to human rights so there is a mismatch between people on the Protestant side and their representatives. Unionist politicians should also be calling for all the rights they can possibly get for the situation when demographic parity is reached or they are in a minority; it has to be said that the existence of ‘others’ in the mix, from outside Ireland or who do not identify as either nationalist or unionist, needs to be taken into account. In the words of Colm Sands, the time has come to count higher up than two. (*7) However it can also be said that while unionist politicians do not even talk the talk, nationalist politicians can talk (support human rights) but not walk (act to fulfil them).
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØClearly human rights are for all and the lack of a promised Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland (promised in the Good Friday Agreement) has been a considerable disadvantage for taking politics and the peace process forward. The existence of a specific Northern Ireland rights act could have avoided the conflicts which have arisen over Irish language funding and a language act because what was necessary would have been clear and unambiguous, at least in general terms, and we could have avoided major political fallout. Similarly equality for women in politics and the peace process could have been given a very considerable advance in a situation where the UK government has – incredibly - been unwilling to apply UNSCR 1325 (*8) to Northern Ireland.
Human rights and civil liberties suffered very considerably in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, including most obviously loss of life and the right to life but there were also ludicrous (though also serious) levels to it, e.g. ‘internal exile’ (UK citizens denied the right to travel to Britain). There was also a certain amount of departures from previously accepted human rights norms in the Republic. But it is essential to try to uphold human rights in all circumstances because without them grievances and injustice pile up on injustices and grievances, and further exacerbate the violence. This is a lesson that Britain was slow to learn in Northern Ireland (*9) – and seems unable to remember internationally.
The issue of abortion is one which is a major issue in Ireland currently for both the Republic and the North. It has human rights implications without there being a defined right to abortion in international law, e.g. the European Convention on Human Rights does not confer a right to abortion. (*10) It illustrates at a very personal level the clash of different perceptions of rights. For those who support abortion there is the concept of “a woman’s rights to choose” and individual freedom on a major personal matter. For those who oppose abortion, the right to life of the unborn embryo or baby is considered more important than personal freedom to choose. The right to life of the mother is of course another issue here.
Social and economic rights
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØConsidering social and economic rights, in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (*11) socio-economic issues actually come first: food, water, warmth and rest are the first level needing met. Next up are security and safety. If you are on the bottom rung of the ladder, or not on the ladder at all, even in a rich western society then decent food, warmth, and possibly rest are going to be problematic. You may not be able to afford wholesome food, or have time and energy to cook it, and heating your abode properly may be unaffordable. If you are part of the working poor – and more people in poverty are working than not – then rest is likely to be problematic, you and your partner may be working all the hours you can, with resultant strains on family life, and running to stand still or even slide backwards.
So it seems eminently reasonable to include social and economic rights as being part of human rights.
This does not dilute the concept; extending it arguably strengthens it to deal with the real life situations of so many people who are struggling to get by, perhaps existing rather than living what they would consider a fully meaningful life. The CAJ (Committee on the Administration of Justice) had a legal victory in determining that the NI Executive in 2015 had acted illegally, under the Good Friday Agreement, in not having a proper anti-poverty strategy. (*12) The area of social and economic rights is perhaps not an area where nonviolence at a theoretical level has a lot to say and it should, though nonviolent action and tactics would frequently be used in struggles for economic and social justice (strikes are one obvious example, mobilisation against water charges in the Republic another).
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØIt should be clear that while human rights law might be seen to exist at a high level, its effects (or lack of them) are felt by people at every level of society and particularly among the poor. In terms of everyday life a ‘rights based approach’, as used by the likes of Participation and the Practice of Rights (*13), has a huge amount to offer. There are many rules, regulations and laws, at all levels, which are more honoured in the breach than in the observance, and forcing the responsible authorities to live up to their obligations is a huge task but a very worthwhile one. If we include social and economic rights in human rights then the latter should not be seen as something dim and distant but a real and vibrant approach to the world.
The issue of whether each approach is universal is an important one in regard to both human rights and nonviolence. The 1948 Declaration was declared to be one of ‘Universal’ Human Rights. Some outside ‘the West’ allege that it is a ‘Western’ set of human rights and there are at times possibly elements of truth in this in that it reflects ‘Western’ values more in terms of personal freedom as opposed to society-wide justice. However, to slide completely into relativism on this matter is dangerous and undermines the terrible price which those standing up for justice and fair treatment meet in many parts of the world – e.g. ecological activists in parts of Latin America who are hounded and even killed, pro-democracy and justice activists in China who are abducted, imprisoned and often treated brutally. Human rights are universal; recognition of them is not. Peace Brigades International is one interesting and effective nonviolent initiative in defence of human rights where activists are under threat, and demands international law protects non-violent activists. (*14)
But if you look at human rights in a broader picture, universal application can be as damning of ‘the west’ as any other society. The wars fought by the USA, Britain and others in the 21st century, while nominally fought in some cases partly for human rights (e.g. laughably if it was not so serious, “women’s rights” in relation to Afghanistan) have been apocalyptic in terms of destroying the right to life, destroying societal norms and making conditions for ordinary people far worse. Torture was used in Guantanamo and other ‘black’ sites. There is currently a US president who clearly supports the use of torture by the USA. Powerful countries get away with murder, e.g. in wars and use of drone killings. The Irish state, in its policy of permitting the US military use of Shannon airport, and not policing what is coming through there, has colluded with these abuses. But these are reasons why human rights concepts and practice need to be developed even more.
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØSo far as Europe is concerned, the European Convention on Human Rights and its European Court of Human Rights (part of the Council of Europe) are an illustration of how human rights could develop more widely in the future. The Court is the final court of appeal regarding human rights in Europe and it can overrule decisions of national courts and order compensation. Its rulings also set precedents. It is a good illustration of the internationalisation of human rights law working reasonably well though there are nationalist moves to ditch membership, e.g. in Britain. (*15)
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØIn relation to universality, there are those who declare that nonviolence is only effective in liberal, western societies. However reading Gene Sharp’s “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” should disabuse anyone of this notion. (*16) Nonviolence can be most effective in totalitarian societies even if the way it used is likely to differ (perhaps hidden as opposed to overt resistance but with elements of the latter possible at times).
Sue Williams has often spoken of how disempowering it is for people who are acting nonviolently in situations where any protest or work for change is extremely difficult to be told ‘nonviolence is impossible’ in their situation or type of situation. This is not so. There are always people who will work nonviolently for change. To be told that their work cannot change things is both extremely negative and damaging. There were those who said only violence would change apartheid in South Africa; international and internal non-violent pressure was much more effective. And it was largely nonviolent people power which in 1989 toppled the totalitarian communist regimes in Eastern Europe. It was also dialogue and not violence that primarily ended the little war in Northern Ireland.
Violence, effectiveness, non-state protagonists
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØSpeaking of eastern Europe, and looking at various uprisings against Communist regimes after the Second World War it is clear that there were times when neither violence nor nonviolence could ‘work’ for liberation. But it is also clear that using nonviolence was likely to be less destructive for society and likely to lead to less repression. Violence by the disenchanted can give the powerful the excuse to increase human rights abuses dramatically and to use whatever level of violence it sees fit; nonviolence may be seen as a reason for repression by the powerful (cf USA civil rights movement) but a repressive response is more difficult to justify, and may in turn advance the cause of change by exposing the violence of the oppressor. Arguably nonviolence can free both oppressed and oppressors. (*17)
If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance there are a variety of human rights groups in Ireland, the most prominent in the Republic being the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) and in the North the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ). (*18) There are others including ones specialising in dealing with the past, such as the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry. There are other bodies which have an international human rights remit such as Amnesty International (though it also now deals with internal issues) and Front Line Defenders. While human rights groups will understand matters in context, they are primarily concerned with the actions and policies of the state (this includes inaction by the state as well as its actions).
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØIn Northern Ireland and the Republic during the Troubles there were groups and individuals who tried to address paramilitary violence (i.e. political violence by non-state protagonists) in a variety of ways which varied from outright vehement condemnation through attempts to engage with them and involve them in less violent methodologies. Such groups may or may not have described themselves as concerned with human rights – and some would have advocated a more draconian approach which would have been the antithesis of a human rights approach – while others would have been more in accord with peace and nonviolence. So ‘human rights’ does extend beyond the actions of the state but demanding accountability for actions is much more difficult with non-state actors – it can still be extremely difficult with belligerent states. Accountability can be demanded of non-state actors but mechanisms to achieve it may be extremely difficult to implement.
Human rights are about allowing the individual to be fully human and treated as such, especially by the state and those in authority, so human rights activists and groups are unlikely to be the state’s favourites even if they have the wellbeing of all citizens at heart. Nonviolence is about the importance of every human life and it can often clash with the state, indeed the policies of the state may be the main object of its attention. The two approaches may take different routes but in orientation they are not that dissimilar, and nonviolence can be used in the service of human rights, just as human rights can be used to try to overcome and avoid violence.
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØNonviolence must include an active concern for human rights. However even in a western, considered ‘liberal’, country like Britain such rights can be woefully abrogated as shown by the current tribunal about police spies gathering intelligence on political activists; this affected political, peace, ecological and other groups and included intimate and sexual relationships under false pretences perpetrated by agents of the state (which seems comparable to rape). (*19)
Human rights may have emerged from the Second World War which ended over seven decades ago but it is still ‘in its early stages’ compared to where it can go. Nonviolence as an approach has also made a certain amount of progress in the same time. What is now a long time ago, Gandhi said “We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence”. (*20) Gandhi’s quote hopefully can cover both nonviolence and developments in human rights.
- (*1) The UN Declaration of Human Rights is available widely including at
- (*2) http://nbzjfc.com/workshops/nonviolencedefinitions.shtml For Wikipedia’s exploration see
- (*3) http://nbzjfc.com/readings/2008_10.shtml
- (*6) See e.g. “Protecting the Agreement from Brexit – Practical Solutions” in CAJ’s ‘Just News’ for August/September 2017, page 10
- (*7) http://nbzjfc.com
- (*8) United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (of the year 2000) which covers the role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction. See e.g. or do a web search. There are other related resolutions such as UNSCR 1820, 1888, 1889.
- (*9) CAJ’s ‘War on Terror: Lessons from Northern Ireland’ See also ‘Protecting Human Rights While Countering Terrorism’ on page 6 of CAJ’s ‘Just News’ for October 2017
- (*11) See e.g.
- (*12) See and
- (*14) includes the contacts for PBI Ireland.
- (*15) A good amount can be found online. The middle part of Gene Sharp’s “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” (published by Porter Sargent, 1973) entitled “The Methods of Nonviolent Action” includes historical examples for his 198 nonviolent methods; while quite detailed these could be extensively extended.
- (*16) For a short guide to the ECHR and its importance see
- (*17) http://nbzjfc.com
- (*18) ICCL https://www.iccl.ie/ CAJ Pat Finucane Centre Amnesty International https://www.amnesty.ie and Front Line Defenders
- (*19) See e.g. and
- (*20) http://nbzjfc.com
Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
A cornfield did not just contain corn, it contained blood-red poppies and glowing cornflowers as well, and clouded yellow butterflies flew about it and skylarks sang above. It was a landscape that delighted.
The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy, 2015, p.86
On the day I sat down to write this column I saw a fox, three hares, a grey heron, a pair of ducks, a pigeon, a magpie and a hooded crow on my morning run. I would not have been surprised if I had seen red deer, delighted if I had seen a red squirrel or a pine martin, all of which are common in this part of County Fermanagh. I had the good fortune to hear a rich variety of bird song during my five-mile run. There were twitters, tweets, wheats and whistles. They were both soft and loud, short, drawn out and in rapid succession. An exuberance of tunes and tones that coalesced into a clear fluid joyous melody that flooded field and forest.
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØAn eerie sequence of screeching sounds coming from deep among the trees whose source I could not identify aroused in me a primeval sense of curiosity and alertness. Were the sounds from a large bird or perhaps from a creature which long ago learnt to hide itself from humankind. Along the narrow road far from carbon dioxide emitting vehicles were primroses, cowslips and snowdrops galore. The soft dawn and the tingle in the breeze enhanced my sense of jubilation at being alive and in good health in such a place as this. All, however, was not well. On the short stretch of main road I saw innumerable dead frogs, their bodies leaking their moist guts onto the tarmac. There was also litter left by people who felt no emotional attachment to or sense of their dependency on nonhuman nature. For such folk a car-drive is akin to virtual reality experienced through wrap-around visors whilst sitting in a comfortable chair. The hedges and water courses are their trash cans into which they toss their unwanted plastic food wrappings and containers.
In ecology there is a term called “shifting baseline syndrome”. It describes how people accept as normal a degradation of an ecosystem to which the previous generation would respond with horror, dismay and a sense of impoverishment. In other words we don’t miss what we have never known. (The Patterning Instinct, Jeremy Lent, 2017, p. 414) This is illustrated by the fact that no one in Ireland today feels a sense of loss for the wolves that once roamed the mountains and glades and it has been thousands of years since anyone thought fondly of the majestic Giant Irish Elk, romanced as it is in songs and poetry.
There is, however, an oft spoken regret for the regional extinction across these islands of birds, insects and wild flowers people were familiar with in their youth. The curlew, black bird, thrush, snipe, skylark, cuckoo and house sparrow are some of the birds children today will probably never directly experience. The rich bio-world our grandparents would have known has gone and because of the shifting baseline syndrome no one laments and few campaign for government policies to protect and enhance what biodiversity is left. Even when the loss is monitored and aerial images of the desecration of bog, hedgerows and rainforest appear on our digital screens we act as if the demise of nonhuman life has nothing to do with us. The common response by governments and corporations to rigorously conducted research of environmental problems is to dampen public concern with platitudes and action that amounts to green wash.
An example out of many that could be given is the case of biomass fuels. The Channel 4 program Dispatches, The True Cost of Green Energy, broadcast on the 16 April 2018, highlighted the ecological and financial folly of clear-felling bio-rich hardwood forests in the south east of the United States to turn into woodchips destined for UK power stations. The process of converting logs into wood chips consumes 20% of the energy embodied in the chips. The woodchips are brought to the UK by the most polluting of all forms of transport, ships, then transported by diesel lorries to power plants to generate electricity in replacement of coal. Burning woodchips emits one and a half times as much carbon dioxide as burning coal.
The taxpayer subsidises this bio-carnage and significant emission of planet-warming gasses. The sum paid to DRAX, the UK’s largest power station, is £1.3 million a day with more than £2 billion paid to power stations in the last two years. In terms of an eco-audit this is a negative for nonhuman nature. It is, however, regarded as a success by the government as it gives the public the impression that it is responding to their environmental concerns. The chipping of bio-rich forests to generate energy is common practice not only in the UK but across the European Union. (Letters: The Guardian, 14 December 2017)
Then, almost inevitably, we will petition for change using every nonviolent protest and educational means we can. The various rights movements of the past 100-years or so show that protest, lobbying and education work. We should feel empowered by the fact that although we may be invisible and unknown we are co-authors of the world we live in and bequeath to future generations.
The question is will this feigning of environmental concern continue to the point when genuine concern won’t matter. This will almost certainly happen if ordinary folk don’t waken to the delights and importance of the nonhuman world. The last few decades has produced research which shows we act more on the basis of our emotions than our rationality, that we use rationality after the fact. This means, to use a term popular in the late 1960s and 70s, we need ‘to switch on’ to nonhuman nature. We need to fall in love with it, be enriched by it, feel its pulse and understand it directly as well as through the learning resources at our finger-tips.