The lost connection between Ireland’s people and its environment: can it be restored?

Ireland has one of the lowest percentage woodland covers in the EU. Our roadside verges that could become the homes of beautiful wildflowers frequently become the homes of bags of rubbish and broken electrical goods. Wildfires are lit during the bird nesting season and devastate local wildlife populations. Rivers are polluted and ancient trees are felled. Only when the general public feels a connection and a desire to spend time in nature will there be the drive to protect it. How do we stop people from feeling like they are visitors to the environment? How do you help someone to start feeling connected and engaged with the nature around them?

By the river in NPWS Knocksink Woods, Wicklow. Photo- Rebecca Doyle
By the river in NPWS Knocksink Woods, Wicklow. Photo – Rebecca Doyle

Obviously, the place to start is schools. In school we learn about history to teach us how we got to where we are and to teach us not to make the same mistakes again. Why are children not learning more about the crisis that is happening now? Our planet is warming, species are going extinct at an alarming rate, people worldwide are suffering from the effects of a changing climate… the list goes on. Why are we not learning more about this in our schools, before a future generation is reading in history class about how we failed to protect the planet we live on and left a devastating world for them to clean up?

While education in schools will pave the way for younger children to protect and care for the planet… what about the post-school generations? These groups are in a position to act now, to make changes. We need to look at why so many people just do not care about climate change. Why, in our latest election, was this global crisis so rarely mentioned? Perhaps, it is because we live in a world where we’re constantly bombarded by stresses and so many people choose to deal with the ones that they see as directly affecting them- medical care, wages, education, etc. Climate change however, is starting to make itself more apparent in Ireland. The recent flooding was the first warning sign for many people. It’s time for an education of the public to show that these are not the only effects of climate change and that this is an issue that is current and vital- not something for future generations to deal with.

TV engagement is one way to start. We need programmes that draw the viewer in, that allow you to feel a part of something. This is accessible nature. We need inclusive, accessible nature shows. The BBC have hit the nail on the head with the popular Springwatch series. They talk about nature in your back garden, in your local woods, on your local beach. This isn’t nature that requires you to have ten years of training to identify a mushroom. This is something everyone can take an interest in right away. While there is most certainly a need for more intense environmental programmes that do teach us about the effects of our actions on climate change, I believe these are needed in addition to the accessible nature ones.

Ireland’s national broadcasters need to up their game with nature engagement. They need to choose the right personalities that will draw viewers in rather than personalities that people feel disconnected from or feel like they are being lectured to. There should also be more reporting from the media on environmental issues. The media has a certain level of power over what news is reaching us and the environment should be one of the frontrunning topics. If the media took the country’s environmental problems seriously that would hopefully lead to the general public doing the same.

Political parties also need to take note. Lead by example, as the saying goes. It is most definitely time for our government to lead by example in the protection of our nature. This most certainly does not mean making decisions such as extending the hedge-cutting period into nesting season. It means having the political will and drive to make environmentally conscious decisions and being aware of the importance of nature to the Irish people and to the Irish economy.

Bundoran Beach in Sligo. A beautiful spot for a west coast walk by the sea. Photo- Rebecca Doyle
Bundoran Beach in Sligo. A beautiful spot for a west coast walk by the sea. Photo – Rebecca Doyle

One area where the environment needs a helping hand is marketing. Shops, bars, cinemas- the standard indoor attractions- have business minds behind them, promoting them to the public. But, who is promoting the environment? Sure, we’re promoted to tourists as the “Emerald Isle,” but who is pitching the green countryside to us? Where are the advertisements telling us to experience the wildness of Killarney National Park or the splendour of the Wicklow mountains? The Wild Atlantic Way is a good start but how much is it really pushing a love for the environment?

I know that when I head off for the day to hike the Spinc Walk at Glendalough with friends, that we’ll also stop off and get some hot food at a cosy pub on the way home. Or maybe I would make a weekend trip out of a visit to Connemara; my motivation being to hike through the wild west of Ireland, but the results of this being money spent in B&Bs and pubs. Not that engaging with nature has to cost anything- that’s the best part, you can do it for FREE- but it has the potential to bring in revenue for rural (and not so rural) businesses. So why not promote it more, market time spent in the environment the way you would market a trip to the cinema?

iPhone shot taken along the route above one of the Glendalough lakes. Incredibly enjoyable hike with great wildlife encounters and spectacular views. Photo- Rebecca Doyle
iPhone shot taken along the route above one of the Glendalough lakes. Incredibly enjoyable hike with great wildlife encounters and spectacular views. Photo – Rebecca Doyle

What the Irish environment needs is a collaborative effort, a coordinated approach amongst education, commercial, health, and NGO sectors, to promote getting outdoors. Outdoor activities can have physical and mental health benefits. A greater emphasis on environmental education could bring a more conscientious generation forward.

Nature selfie in the Wicklow mountains with one of my hiking friends (Disha Choudhury). Photo- Rebecca Doyle
Nature selfie in the Wicklow mountains with one of my hiking friends (Disha Choudhury). Photo – Rebecca Doyle

Commercial interests could also play a role regarding businesses located in rural areas where outdoor pursuits could be strong. There are over 25 organisations in the Irish Environmental Network- these organisations could be utilised for their experience in protecting the environment and engaging the public. A collaborative approach to foster a desire to spend time in nature and a love for the Irish environment may have the potential to bring positive results in numerous areas, not just to the environment itself.

There are many people in Ireland who are making changes and who do care about the environment. Lots of people spend time outdoors over the weekends. Many members of the public are making environmentally conscientious decisions. But not enough. There needs to be a change of mindframe across all groups in our country- from the politicians and policy makers down to the individual voter. Can the lost connection between the general public and the environment be restored? I certainly think so, but one NGO or one government policy or one public advertisement for our parks won’t be enough to do it. It’s time to dig deep and not just acknowledge but attack the environmental challenges that are facing our country.

Rebecca Doyle
About Rebecca Doyle 13 Articles
Rebecca has a B.Sc. zoology and M.Sc. wildlife conservation and management. Experience includes working with the Barbados Sea Turtle Project, Native Woodland Trust, Marine Dimensions and SeaLife. Passionate about wildlife conservation and community involvement.
Contact: Website

13 Comments on The lost connection between Ireland’s people and its environment: can it be restored?

  1. Excellent article with very important issues highlighted. I agree, the only way we are going to start taking how we treat the environment seriously and start taking steps to change this is by reconnecting with nature on a meaningful and productive level. I think this needs to be in ways that do not exploit nature, however. I have seen it time and time again that those who wish to gain from spending time in nature (relaxation, mental health, exercise) miss the point and end up exploiting or abusing nature solely for their own gain…the interconnection bit gets lost somewhere along the way. I think you hit the nail on the head with regards to the importance of the role education and media have in fostering knowledge and appreciation of our interconnectivity with nature.

    • Thanks for the feedback, April! I definitely agree that there needs to be a balance so that nature benefits people but doesn’t get exploited or abused. It’s sad too that some people need to be shown what nature does for them in order for them to want to protect it, rather than protecting it because it’s the right thing to do. Maybe if younger generations are given the opportunity to engage more with nature they’ll have a higher appreciation and desire to protect it than many generations around have now.

      • Hi Rebecca, I admire your stance, I really do. Unfortunately in this country there is not enough money to be made from environmental policy so while we posture and appear to be doing all we should with regard to EU Directives, the truth is we are really under performing very badly indeed – Heather Humphrey’s decision to extend hedge cutting, as you mentioned, is an example. Ireland will never become an environmentally friendly country so long as the agricultural sector maintains its stranglehold on policymakers. The result of which is an extended hedge cutting season or, far more worryingly, in the run up to the general election three different government ministers all declared “Economics are far more important than the environment”.
        You want to know the really depressing part? One of them was the minister for the environment at the time. Our ‘dear leader’ asked for an Irish exemption at the last climate change conference!!!
        Many damaging practices in the agricultural sector are slowly stripping away wild and natural habitat and enrichment of our waters is playing havoc with aquatic ecosystems. Here’s a piece I wrote a few weeks ago on the issue:

        http://kayakfishermanireland.com/portfolio-type/the-elephant-in-the-room/

  2. Thank you for a very thought provoking article Rebecca. On reading it, my first thoughts were to ask myself when or how did the disconnect between “us” and our environment / biodiversity become so deep, so pronounced? As to when , I feel it’s very much a generational thing. From a rural background, my parents and folk of their generation had a greater “feel” (albeit perhaps less of a scientific understanding) for nature and biodiversity. They marked seasons with the arrival of spring flowers or the first swallow or the harvest moon or leaf fall. They “read” nature ( perhaps some of it a mix of fact and fable) in a way that appears to be lost on many these days, certainly on our young people.
    As to why the disconnect between nature and “us”, the answers are everywhere, changing lifestyles, faster pace of living, the “competitiveness” for our attention and spare time, the seemingly irreconcilable challenge of complementing and maintaining progress and intensification in production and output, while at the same time safeguarding and protecting our habitats and biodiversity as witnessed in the current CAP “green washing”.
    Possible solutions have been already identified in your article and by others here in their comments. I agree that we need to start in education, by fostering an awareness and understanding of the value of nature and biodiversity, the dividends for society in maintaining and engaging with our natural environment and our responsibilities as “minders” of nature and biodiversity, not exploiters of our natural resources. If this means promoting appropriate modules in environmental science and awareness learning from early age, educating our young people in all these values, perhaps it would be a start ? Our children of today become our policy makers of tomorrow, perhaps sowing the seeds of wonder and valuing our environment now in young minds will bear fruit in years to come and help to rediscover and mend the lost connection with our environmental heritage you described so succinctly in your article. Well done !

    • Some really good points there, Tom. It definitely is so important to start teaching more environmental education in schools- not just teaching it, but fostering a love of the environment in young people. Maybe they would be more likely to protect the environment in the future if they had a love of it.
      Thanks for the great feedback!

  3. Great article Rebecca, interesting reading for me as I have a foot in both camps in that I have spent much of the last 10 years promoting Sustainability, Community Resilience and care for the environment through projects and groups here in West Cork and at festivals such as Electric Picnic & Body & Soul; I am now in the set up stage of an Eco Tourism business Goleen Harbour. The idea of a collective marketing of the environment is very appealing, there has been a lot of research work carried out by various bodies on the economic impact of hill walking and other activities so the awareness is there. I believe that by bringing families to our bit of beautiful West Cork where they can stay in a luxurious, contemporary Geodome looking our at the Atlantic and Fastnet Rock, providing environmentally friendly activities and locally sourced Organic food whilst subtly giving them messages about the importance of this precious environment many of them will return home with a better understanding and appreciation of it. See http://www.goleenharbour.ie for info I’d love to hear what you think. Matt

  4. Thank you for this article. I have been sickened recently by the brutality of the hedge cutting going on along roads recently brancehs and trunks bashed and splintered. It’s as if someone designed a machine to do as much damage as possible to the trees and shrubs. Why? Is it just economics? People can’t afford to do the job right any more? People are scared of being sued for trees falling on the road. I think that there is an emotional element here. In some way we are acting out our own trauma and taking it out on the land and that a strategy to change things must address this as well. Looking at it purely in economic terms will only lead to more exploitation. Wish I had time to write more now.

    • Thanks for the feedback, John! From discussions I’ve had with people sadly part of it is that they are afraid of being sued for trees falling on the road. Definitely not the only reason though! I agree that if you look at it purely from an economic perspective it can cause even more damage, but an awareness of the financial advantages the environment brings us (e.g. the cost that would result if bees decline further and plants have to be hand-pollinated) is good too. If you do get some time we would love you to write a piece for BioWeb.ie- the more people writing about the environment and getting the discussion going the better!

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