Humans cannot keep destroying nature and species, Higgins says

‘If we were coal miners, we would be up to our knees in dead canaries,’ forum told

Human beings "have been living an incredible contradiction" in believing their modern existence can continue unchanged, separate to destruction of nature and species loss, President Michael D Higgins has said.

“What is now rightly referred to as the ‘extinction crisis’ is due to us,” he told the National Biodiversity Conference in Dublin Castle on Thursday. Confronting the threat, he suggested, required “a respect for wisdom”; all stakeholders talking and listening to each other, and an end to hubris.

“The strides we have made over the past 100 years in the provision of healthcare, education, transport and information technology have not prevented us from, at the same time, wreaking havoc in the natural world, a world on which we rely for water, for food, for wellbeing,” Mr Higgins said.

Over the past half century, humanity had witnessed the destruction of 60 per cent of mammal, bird, fish and reptile populations around the world, he said. “The examples of how Ireland’s biodiversity is suffering are also many and vivid. Our raised and blanket bogs have been systematically degraded through peat extraction, drainage and inappropriate tree planting.”


The European eel, which once arrived from the Sargasso Sea to Irish rivers in numbers vast enough to support an industry, was now critically endangered, he observed. The “beautiful pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly”, one of the symbols of the Burren, was now endangered.

Urban centres

He cited Government reports that 91 per cent of internationally important habitats in Ireland have "bad" or "inadequate" conservation status, while the loss of butterflies and bees was occurring at a faster rate than in the rest of the world. "If we were coal miners, we would be up to our knees in dead canaries."

In this 21st century, more and more people were living in urban centres that can seem far removed from the natural world, he said. “And in rural Ireland, how many of us take time out of our cars and our modern lives to notice the changes that are happening all around?”

This was part of the hubris of modern civilisation, and modern consumption, he added. “We have come to see ourselves as somehow separate from nature, or in competition with it, or even the assumption that we inhabit a distinct ecosystem that is immune from the damage that we are causing around us.”

Mr Higgins said he did not want to sound too pessimistic but there was a necessity for honesty.

He singled out the role of conservationists, environmentalists and specialists informed by scientific evidence who needed to be listened to if biodiversity loss was to be addressed.

“They were often viewed as an inconvenient voice, a crank or an obstacle to what some call progress. NGOs, individual citizens and concerned voices within the public service have too frequently been greeted with a dismissive distain when they pointed to the environmental consequences of a proposed course of action,” he said.

Biodiversity projects

He paid tribute to “many, many people” across Ireland already working for nature; “communities and individuals who give up their time to help wildlife, whether it’s cleaning a beach or restoring a bog or through the appropriate planting of trees; the organic farmers, the nature-friendly gardeners, [and] the Tidy Towns committees, who have embraced biodiversity projects.

"To secure life on Earth, we need bold transformative action, underpinned by sound science and effective policy," said Dr Inger Andersen, head of International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Because society had taken nature for granted for so long, there was a flawed belief all would continue unaltered, added Dr Andersen, who was appointed as head of the UN Environment Programme this week.

“We assume that season will follow season; that our fields will be pollinated and yield bountiful harvests; that the soil will be fertile and that the rains will come. We assume this very fine web of life on which our very existence depends will remain unaltered. Even as we carelessly pave over, extract, emit, cause effluents, fragment and exterminate,” she added.

To make the systemic shifts needed, bold actions were required, she said. “Our message needs to resonate beyond the conservation community; we need to shift financial and policy incentives so all citizens, including farmers and land owners, communities and cities will reap real benefits from biodiversity positive actions.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times