People who follow the destruction that humans unleash on the world spend a lot of their time immersed in bad news. Traditionally, environmentalists and those advocating for social justice, including homelessness and poverty, stayed in their own, separate corners. However, as Pope Francis asserts in Laudato Si “we are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” (LS139)
While this approach is the only true way of approaching this complex crisis, and is increasingly being practiced (e.g. here and here) it has the unintended effect of opening one’s eyes to a whole host of additional global issues which, when we previously stayed in our respective lanes, we were blinkered to. This is not a failing but an important evolution in our understanding. Only when we can bear witness to the myriad of different issues can we truly understand how they interconnect and interact. “Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” (LS139)
This immersion in constant bad news can make improvement seem impossible and make individual efforts seem inconsequential. The situation is so serious that it can seem like the solutions that we know exist simply won’t be implemented because of greed, and apathy towards our common home. Despair seems a rational response. However, “hope floats”.
Focusing on the positive
But those who pay attention to the destruction of Earth may also see signs of hope. Exciting developments or positive examples of what humans can do to repair the damage caused show us that solutions do exist. The examples below show us that all is not lost.
Can oysters save our coast?
Studying environmental biology at university honed my appreciation of the natural environment and its inherent complexities. I also spent several years of my life studying the impact of oysters on mudflats. Stories which incorporate these two elements are, to me, irresistible, as is The New Yorker’s profile of landscape architect Kate Orff, who argues we should “build with nature, not just in nature”. Orff is currently working on a project which is both social and ecological. A living breakwater, recreating a complex ecosystem including oyster reefs and tide pools that once existed around New York will be built around Staten Island to defend against storm surges. Coupled with an education hub and community outreach this project recognises that to survive we need to value functioning ecosystems while also fostering connections within the communities that this infrastructure protects.
These types of projects are also being examined in Europe, where restoration of native oysters has the potential to improve water quality, increase biodiversity, reduce nitrogen pollution and act as a habitat for other fish species. Protection and restoration of wetlands and kelp forests around Ireland could also offer some protection from storm surges and erosion as well as capture carbon.
Rewilding and farming with nature
While recreating ecosystems is necessary in areas where the ecological function has been completely removed, rewilding has huge potential to increase biodiversity, store carbon and restore ecological function. Increasingly seen as a beacon of hope, rewilding, in all of its forms from reduced management of lawns, rewetting bogs and natural forest regeneration all the way to the concept of protecting 30% of our seas and land for biodiversity is gaining traction.
Rewilding cannot be the only mechanism we use to try and reverse our descent into ecological destruction. As long as we still need to eat, we will still need to farm. In recent decades increased production and intensification of agriculture has resulted in spiraling biodiversity and water quality. We are now in a position where, globally, we produce more food than we can eat. The problem is no longer production but access to food and the environmental impact of the food we produce. Regenerative farming, organic farming and results based agri-schemes are starting to gain in popularity in Ireland. The Burren Programme is the longest running results-based agri-scheme in Ireland and has seen major improvements in the management of farms in the Burren for biodiversity. The newest agri-scheme focuses on how we might best farm on peaty soils with the aim of capturing and storing more carbon in these soils. Considering peat soils and bogs cover 16% of Ireland the potential here is huge.
Retrofitting and housing crisis
The housing crisis and the climate and biodiversity crisis go hand in hand, although the link between the two can be somewhat obscured. In 2018, 23.9% of Irish emissions was associated with residential buildings, with transport making up another 40%. How we build our houses and where we build them relative to services and work has a huge impact on our overall emissions. Another less obvious link between housing and the environmental crisis arises from the sheer cost of housing. A Just Transition aims to transition into a decarbonised society while protecting those most vulnerable. Transitioning can be much more difficult when people are living in poverty due to the cost of housing or are homeless. This can impact how we try to phase out fossil fuel use, fast fashion and cheap food which, while they are devastating for the environment, their loss would have detrimental impacts on those who may rely on them.
Urban decay and dereliction is another area where housing intersects with the climate crisis. A huge proportion of the energy that is associated with a building is its embodied energy. The emissions associated with the mining of the stone, production of concrete, metal and glass and transport of material are all count towards a building’s energy usage. The most sustainable building is one that already exists, while an unused building is a shocking waste of precious resources.
While the housing crisis has been decades in the making there are rays of hope. The Government’s new strategy “Housing for All’ is due to be published soon. Supports for individuals to retrofit disused housing in urban centers are on the cards, however for this to be effective grants and tax incentives must be meaningful otherwise this option will remain beyond the reach of most people. This policy is building on the already existing initiative that some housing bodies, including the Peter McVerry Trust, have with unused buildings being retrofitted for social housing.
Self Organised Architecture have also published a roadmap for a viable community led housing sector in Ireland. “The unique feature of Community-Led Housing is the empowerment of future residents to meaningfully participate in both the design and long-term management of their homes”. Building communities at the same time as building their houses is not only housing provision but also empowering individuals to act as a collective.
Becoming a centre of excellence
Another exciting project which is coming to life is the newly launched ‘Centre of Excellence for Climate action and Sustainability’ (CECAS) in Myross Wood House, West Cork, which is run and managed by Green Skibbereen, a non-profit established in 2019. This exciting initiative aims to support community action on climate change and support the transition to a zero-carbon future. Big plans are afoot here with this house being a demonstration site in the Energy Pathfinder project, and will undergo retrofitting, including heat recovery, water reuse, natural ventilation, insulation etc, in consultation with the community. This centre will be a hub for education, research and business, accommodation for eco-tourism, centre for community events and wellness activities. As well as developing the Centre, Green Skibbereen also hope to develop a Sustainable Energy Community aiming to retrofit homes and business in the region, reducing their overall emissions. It is actions like these, at the community level, which will lead Ireland into its decarbonised future.
COP26 – Glasgow
For 14 days at the start of November, Glasgow will be awash with politicians, civil servants, climate NGOs, businesses and faith-based groups for COP26; the annual UN climate change meeting. Having already passed the 1ᵒC mark, with additional warming already baked in, and the impacts of climate breakdown becoming increasingly obvious in 2021, from record-breaking heat waves, to wild fires, floods and droughts, it is vitally important that this COP meeting represents a turning point where agreements are finalised and ambition is converted into action. The publication of the latest IPCC report is a stark reminder of the consequences of failing to act.
Since its publication there has been some developments which may prove a turning point in the global fight against climate change. Denmark and Costa Rica are seeking alliance to speed up the end of oil and gas. Currently in negotiations with several countries, the Danish and Costa Rica Governments are hoping to fix a date by which oil and gas will be phased out by. This vital piece of the puzzle has the potential to make or break the commitments agreed in Paris. The question of whether Ireland joins this alliance is yet to be answered.
Hope that things will change for the better is part and parcel of events like COP. If change was not possible, if the situation was truly hopeless, these meetings would not happen. What we need now alongside our hope is the will to take action. Everything you read in this blog did not just happen but required dedicated work from people who hoped and believed that things could change for the better. Individuals have the power to act. Contacting your TD asking for more ambitious climate action, joining a local climate or biodiversity group or, where possible, ditching your car in favour of a bike or public transport can turn our collective hope into a safer future.
 Oysters are considered ecosystem engineers, a species that creates, destroys or modifies a habitat by changing its physical or chemical properties. Oysters, for example, can form reefs which create a complex hard surface which can act as the scaffold providing spaces in which other species can grow and shelter. It is exactly this property, this highly complex interaction between the physical environment and other species within the ecosystem.