Five Degrees of Change

Padraic Fogarty: nature needs constitutional protection

The former Irish Wildlife Trust campaigns officer tells the Five Degrees of Change podcast the policy and personal changes he believes are needed to protect the environment

Padraic Fogarty, ecologist: ‘Having nature rights in the constitution would help us have a national discussion about what we are handing over to the next generation.’ Picture: Fergal Phillips

With Ireland facing a biodiversity emergency, Padraic Fogarty believes there is no time to waste in implementing the transformational change needed in our relationship with nature.

Padraic Fogarty, ecologist and long-time nature campaigner, proposed three policy changes and two personal changes for a greener world as part of the Five Degrees of Change podcast which is available online from Monday.

Policy: Rewild 30 per cent of Ireland

If you want to rewild Ireland, the obvious question is what exactly the definition of wild is.

“Wild is a contentious word. Arguably there is no such thing as wild … But what we are trying to achieve is that natural ecosystems have room to function in a way that allows them and their native species to thrive,” Fogarty said.

With the vast majority of Ireland’s land mass now converted for human use, nature and biodiversity is under threat. Rewilding a “modest” 30 per cent of land is the answer, according to Fogarty.

Rewilding will mean different things depending on the natural habitat in question, and it is something that, contrary to how it sounds, needs to be managed very carefully.

“You need to manage grazing animals and remove and control invasive species. It is sometimes confused with walking away and doing nothing. But that is not an option here in Ireland because we have made such a mess of things,” he said.

“The idea of rewilding is you intervene just enough to get the ecosystem back up and running, and it can, over time, look after itself.”

Personal: Flying less

As a travel enthusiast, Fogarty knew one of the areas of his life where he had to make an environmental change was in his flying habits.

“I have flown a lot in my life,” Fogarty admitted. “I never saw a downside to it … But I increasingly have been unable to ignore the dark side of flying which is the enormous pollution burden that it is placing on the atmosphere.

“It is a kind of fairness thing as well. I have listened to farmers in particular talk about why it is unfair and unreasonable for them to have to reduce their emissions … and yet the airline industry is planning to do exactly the opposite.”

To try kick his flying habit, Fogarty has become an advocate for “slow travel”, choosing ferries and trains over flights where possible.

“I have taken the boat to Spain and to France. There are pros and cons. It totally explodes the myth that we can’t go anywhere without flying. You can go anywhere in Europe without flying, it is just a question of time. You just have to be a little bit patient.”

Policy: Put the rights of nature in the constitution

Fogarty sees the damage and destruction that has been done to nature as an “ethical lapse”, and one that could be rectified by putting the rights of nature into the constitution.

“Our relationship with nature hasn’t moved on since the 16th century. We still see nature as an Aladdin’s cave of things we can just take, and an open dump where we can dispose of things we don’t want,” he said.

“There is an argument that by having nature rights in the constitution, it would be a legal bulwark. But more significantly it would help us reset our relationship with nature and have a national discussion about what we are handing over to the next generation.”

Fogarty understands that there would be opposition to such a constitutional change, not least because it would likely require the government to spend substantial resources on the protection of nature, or that the new rights would be seen as an “objectors charter” in the courts.

“But that is not actually how it has played out in the countries that have done this. It is a much more high-level, overarching protection of nature that we would be talking about,” he said.

“But at the same time, I have no problem putting the government under pressure to spend more on this.”

Personal: Stopped eating meat

Going vegetarian was initially a whole family initiative in the Fogarty household, but Padraic is the last one standing.

“It was conversation with my daughter that finally led me to make the vegetarian commitment. But I’m a reluctant vegetarian. I loved eating meat,” he said.

“But the last few years hammered home to me that our whole system of animal agriculture is off the scale in terms of the impact it is having …The reason we have nowhere for nature in Ireland is because of the massive footprint of animal agriculture.”

Despite his fondness for meat, Fogarty hasn’t found the transition too difficult, thanks in particular to his discovery of the Indian dish dahl.

“I have discovered the world of dahl. I am lucky to live very close to a south Asian food market, and the variety of dahl you can make is incredible. It is quick to make, you can freeze it, and it is a great protein source.”

Policy: End industrial fishing

Even Fogarty finds it hard to get his head around the scale of what is happening to oceans.

According to the UN, the number of overfished stocks globally has tripled in half a century and one-third of the world’s assessed fisheries are currently overfished, meaning they are depleting at a faster rate than the fish population can repopulate itself.

“The ocean has just been emptied out by bottom trawling. Super trawlers use nets the size of stadiums. And an awful lot of it has gone unnoticed and unregulated … The only reason they have gotten away with it is because it is somewhat invisible,” he said.

“The ocean has been such a major blind spot in this conversation, because mostly people want to talk about forest or things that they can see on land.”

Fogarty believes that when the environmental destruction of industrial fishing is seen in contrast to its paltry economic contribution, and its devastating impact on local fishing communities, then there is “no case” for it to continue.