“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. So wrote novelist Upton Sinclair, and boy, did he have a clear understanding of human nature.
Last Thursday’ PrimeTime on RTE featured a report on what it called ‘Turf Wars’, the latest skirmish in the ongoing east-west battle to define what country we really are, and perhaps, what century we see ourselves in. I wrote about this at length last August – one para from that article is below:
“Ireland doesn’t have any significant coal deposits to burn. What we have instead are some of the world’s most important bogs. Peatlands comprise almost a fifth of Ireland’s land cover, and lock away a massive 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon. They are also home to around half our endangered bird species and around a quarter of endangered plant species. Peat bogs are amazingly efficient carbon sponges. A healthy bog typically stores 10 times more carbon per hectare than any other system, including forests. Peatland protection, according to the UN Environment Programme is “among the most cost-effective options for mitigating climate change”. Damage to peat bogs is now producing the equivalent of over a tenth of total global fossil-fuel emissions.”
Paddy Concannon, aged 92, has turbary rights to cut peat. He has been on the bogs since 1927. His bog is one of 131 that are to be covered by the EU’s Habitat’s Directive. This was supposed to come into effect in 1999, but the then government got a 10-year derogation, and so the death of Irish peat bogs by a million cuts has continued unabated since then.
Concannon said in the report that, despite his age, he is prepared to be jailed if necessary in defiance of this ban. What he sees himself as trying to protect, ironically, are “the generations that are to follow, to leave them something, and not to leave them in a black hole”. While he may be completely and tragically mistaken, there is at least not doubting Concannon’s personal sincerity. It’s unlikely he could have any real sense that the turfcutters are in fact destroying the bogs and the vital habitats and carbon sinks they contain.
Michael Fitzmaurice of the Turfcutters and Contractors Association (now available on Facebook, no less) cut a rather more menacing figure. He gave the metaphorical two fingers to the law – and the science. “…turfcutting and conservation can work hand in hand”, said Fitzmaurice. “but we will not accept desk-clerk academics ramming stuff down our throats which is untruths” (sic). His ‘data’ however, bears no relation to any scientific finding. It’s just made up, really.
The footage from the PrimeTime report of giant contractors’ machines sweeping across the bogs gave the lie to the quaint notion that this is just a handful of “custodians of the bog” taking a few sods of turf to keep the home fires burning. This is a full-scale local industry, and like all extractive enterprises, it’s highly profitable (it’s easy to make money when you simply take, and put nothing back, unlike farmers, for example, who have a strong vested interest in their land remaining usable from year to year).
But the show was stolen by claimed, over and over again, that bogs that were being cut were in fact GROWING! (The NPWS has lots of information about the bogs of Roscommon and elsewere on its website, but I failed to find any reference to Ming’s magical rapidly expanding bogs).
Even better, he quoted a bog in Lisnageera that, in a ten year reporting period, despite being cut constantly by 40 cutters and contractors using heavy machinery, actually grew by, wait for it: “40.03%”. Flanagan’s own bog, according to his “data”, grew by over 10% in, yes, ten years (a major flaw in the PrimeTime studio debate was that Dr Jim Ryan of the Parks & Wildlife Service, who featured on the film, was not in studio to call out Mayor Ming’s gross misrepresentation of that Service’s data).
Scientifically, a healthy bog may grow in altitude (upwards) by, at most, one millimetre a year. In a decade, therefore, all other things being equal, a 10mm growth might, in theory, be possible. This is translated by Mayor Ming into a FORTY PER CENT growth in said same decade. This, on the planet Mongo, where Ming hails, may well be possible, but in this solar system, and specifically, on this planet and in this country, them’s the facts.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: any chancer who’s prepared to rattle off a bunch of scienc-ey sounding rubbish, and repeat it largely unchallenged, can go a long, long way. However understandable, the inability of the PrimeTime presenter to nail this repeated lie comprehensively turned the “debate” into yet another parody of journalism where objective facts are replaced with “my facts” and the presenter sits in the middle, looking slightly puzzled and ends up saying something anodyne like: “well, it looks like this debate is set to run and run”.
Dr Catherine O’Connell of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council was there to balance up the studio debate, but she struggled in the face of Mayor Ming’s catalogue of false certainties. Still, what do you do? When someone comes out with outrageous whoppers like bogs (that take tens of thousands of years to form) magically increasing in size by 40% in a decade, should you just plain call them out as liars with vested interests (and risk alienating viewers, who think you’re being rude) or, as Dr O’Connell chose, try to politely and calmly debate the points.
In this format, Ming was able to largely monopolise the interview and repeat his dodgy data until some of it actually stuck. When the interviewer pressed him harder about his own personal vested interest towards the end of the interview, Ming climbed up on his dignity and announced that, not alone had he, as a member of the Turfcutters and Contractors Association NOT got a vested interest in the debate, he was himself an ENVIRONMENTALIST!
“If it were the case that cutting turf was going to irreparably damage the bogs, then I would stop it”, huffed Mayor Ming. Luckily, the level of evidence that state agencies, environmental scientists and conservation specialists could ever hope to assemble to prove to a turfcutter’s satisfaction that it was time to put himself out of a job is unlikely ever to be achieved.
Ireland may not have much of a fossil fuel industry, but the stubborn commitment of the turfcutters to wipe out the remaining raised bogs, not to mention Bord na Mona and the ESB’s three joint power generation plants that collectively burn three million tonnes of peat a year to produce (heavily subsidised) electricity and it’s clear that when local politics and vested interests collude, ecological and wider environmental concerns haven’t a prayer.