We are lucky to live on an island where nature compensates and corrects for the various follies to which our ignorance and greed give rise. Air pollution generally gets swept off shore by the energetic winds from the Atlantic. Most of our soils are fixed by the sinews of vigorous grass growth, and nutrient loss is real but not catastrophic. Droughts are rare, and plant growth and nature’s web of life are regularly enabled by rainfall, which also re-charges groundwater aquifers and lakes, rivers and streams and the reservoirs we have built to store our supplies. Wetlands – marshes and bogs – store water and release it slowly, removing pollutants and reducing intensity of floods. And then there is how we build. A developer can be defined as someone who cuts down all the trees to build houses, and then names the streets after the trees. Not a bad description of suburbanisation in Ireland, where estate after estate appears first as a lunar landscape, untrammelled by either quality architecture, landscape or mature trees. However, planners do manage typically to secure some open space for residents, and nature over time develops various camouflages, so that an identikit development of 300 houses gradually morphs over a 20 year period into an often surprisingly diverse and green land, as rapidly growing hedges, shrubs and trees, and various building add-ons, transform aesthetic blight into something better. And nature does this for free, with a little nudging from ourselves from time to time.
But can we depend on nature to see us right in the future? There are several reasons for concern. First, our ability to push off our air pollution to the rest of Europe is being increasingly constrained and challenged, both by international agreements (Gothenburg Protocol) and EU ceilings. Secondly, our water supplies are becoming constrained by a multitude of forces; growing income and population in the East is driving a move to pipe water from the Shannon; there are issues and dangers as the hundreds of thousands of houses using groundwater must maintain and renew their septic tank systems and some are on soils and soaks that are inappropriate and very difficult to manage. Contamination becomes difficult and expensive to trace and to correct. Treating water is very energy and chemicals intensive, and requires substantial recurrent funding and skilled management. Our dispersed patterns of development make it very difficult to provide public transport that meets our needs, and which at the same time is environmentally efficient and financially affordable. As regards climate change, we need to both adapt to the manageable change which is now upon us, and reduce our emissions as part of the global effort to forestall catastrophe. To make this transition of in effect being bailed out by nature to being a proactive steward of our patrimony and our destiny we need to take responsibility, and this means three things – getting the incentives, the investments and the institutions right. As regards incentives, we have to adopt the polluter pays principle, where we are charged whenever we impose a burden on nature -this means water charges based on volume of use, waste charges based on weight, a carbon tax that recognises that the ability of the atmosphere to absorb more greenhouse gas is limited, and the recycling of the revenues raised to help people adapt and to innovate. All the evidence shows that we respond best to incentives where we have some choice as to what to do, and how to do it. Secondly, we need to ‘green’ our public and private investment, to support businesses that can produce new and better and less damaging ways of providing everything from roads to electricity to renewable energy, and systems for reducing water and energy use. We need to pay particular attention to green infrastructure – the web of nature which if treated with respect and some knowledge can do so much to enhance the quality of our lives. Thirdly, we need to re-visit our institutions – how we structure our communities and government at various levels to deliver a sustainable future. And this is related also to settlement patterns. Dispersion, unless it is necessary for work, as in the case of farming, makes it very difficult to provide high standards of essential infrastructure such as broadband and public transport or of social support for older people in the home at affordable cost.
And our economy – tourism, the food industry, any highly skilled area where we are trying to attract people of rare talent for whom quality of life is always important – depends on a high quality environment, the fundamental pre-requisite for a sustainable economy.
Frank J. Convery, University College, Dublin, and Comhar Sustainable Development Council