Northern Ireland

PLATFORM: Dr Seán Fearon - extinction at Lough Neagh reflects a crisis of values and ideas

Satellite imagery shows the level of algae bloom in Lough Neagh. Picture by Copernicus Open Access Hub
Satellite imagery shows the level of algae bloom in Lough Neagh. Picture by Copernicus Open Access Hub

Lough Neagh is dying. The ecological nerve centre at the heart of Ulster, a cornerstone in our natural heritage, and the fragile but vibrant network of life which once flourished there, is on its knees. Those with an innate local knowledge of the Lough believe we may already have passed the point of no return.

This is not a spontaneous event. It is directly linked to a degradation of values and a poverty of ideas at the heart of economic policymaking in the north.

Last week, an ‘Investment Summit’ visited Belfast. The promise of riches was on the agenda, of investment from multinational corporations which might underpin a new era of surging economic growth. It is this relentless focus on productivity and growth – in manufacturing, in agriculture, and in services - which has defined economic policy in the north since the Good Friday Agreement.

In simple terms, economic growth always means producing more and consuming more. Anyone who has ever raised a family, spent their time in a greenhouse, or run a business knows that growth is only ever possible with a rising use of energy or materials from the earth, in the food we eat or the electricity we consume, for example. All of this produces waste, too, and it must go somewhere. More growth means more waste.

This is a relationship we share with every other species on the planet – we depend on the earth and its bounty for our survival.

But the earth, and one of its ecological jewels in Lough Neagh, has limits. It cannot be plundered and used as wasteland forever without dire ecological consequences. This very basic fact, a non-negotiable scientific reality, is lost upon those charged with developing economic policy in the north, across departments, throughout the civil service, and in all the major political parties.

Stormont’s economic policies, and the values of growth-at-all-costs which underpin them, have direct responsibility for the ecocide at Lough Neagh. The senseless ‘Going for Growth’ agricultural policy in the north from was active from 2011-2017, but the mindset upon which it is based persists today.

As pig and poultry production soared through the 2010s, mountains of animal waste were ejected into our precious ecosystems, bleaching the land and bleeding into our dying waterways. Agricultural emissions rose too.

Industrial policy has allowed corporations to harvest millions of tonnes of sand from the Lough, disfiguring the fragile habitat of our non-human living world. Our communities suffer too, when policy prioritises returns to large corporations and the Earl of Shaftesbury (the owner of the Lough’s bed and banks) over the livelihoods of local fishers.

Ecologists now talk of our ‘planetary boundaries’. As the Investment Summit gathered in Belfast last week to herald the benefits to us of growth in multinational profits, the Stockholm Resilience Centre updated its work on these boundaries with a terrifying conclusion. Six of our nine planetary limits have now been breached, as the world economy grows and intensifies its consumption of resources and production of waste.

In research I am developing on these boundaries in the north of Ireland, it is clear that the materials consumed in, and greenhouse gases emitted from, our economy have broken through these limits on a local scale.

So, what does all this mean? It means, simply, that if economic growth is all that matters at Stormont, particularly of large corporations at any environmental cost, then the tragedy of ecocide at Lough Neagh will not be the last ecological catastrophe to visit us in the North.

We are already home to the largest illegal dump in Europe. Bowing to corporate pressure, Stormont parties have allowed agricultural lobbyists to weaken and contaminate the NI Climate Bill in 2022, the first ever piece of climate legislation passed here.

The Department for the Economy’s headline economic policy, the ‘10X Strategy’, is doubling down on pursuit of growth in sectors with no social value to us. If we are constrained by ecological limits, then we must focus on growth in public housing, the health service, social protection, and renewable energy, not in multinational corporations. Growth of everything for everyone in our era of looming planetary disaster is an impossibility. Such nonsense should be rejected as the stuff of political fantasy.

We are faced with a very clear crisis of values. The majesty of the natural world must truly matter to policymakers in the north, or it will die. In 1972, the Club of Rome memorably stated that we must either impose limits to growth, or nature will. At Lough Neagh, these limits to growth are now clear – extinction. A pivot to new, post-growth values and policy are required, before it’s too late.

Dr Seán Fearon, Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), University of Surrey