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?
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.
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?
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.
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.