For many, blissfully rambling across a peatland, exhilarated by the abundance of wide open space, rich aromas of myrtle and musical calls of wading birds, the experience is priceless. Yet, a lack of recognition of the true costs associated with the services provided by peatlands in traditional economics has led to widespread degradation. Recent work by economists attempts to solve this, with new, measurable values for peatlands now available.
In 2011, the UK National Ecosystem Assessment calculated the benefit peatlands bring to water quality as being worth £1.5 billion per year and the amenity benefits worth another £1.3 billion. UK water companies are acting on this and now spend tens of £millions repairing peat bogs in drinking water catchments, as a more cost effective solution to ‘brown water’ treatment works downstream.
The cost of climate change to society extends into the £billions and is seen by major business leaders as a real threat to our economy. However, we have allowed our largest terrestrial carbon store to degrade and release more carbon into the atmosphere rather than help remove it as a healthy system would.
For centuries financial reward has encouraged damaging practices through subsidies for agriculture, forestry and energy production or markets for peat fuel and horticulture products. These failed to recognise the much greater cost of degraded peatlands. Our challenge now is to translate the benefits of natural systems to society into tangible support for those who manage them.
Recent initiatives have seen new approaches seeking to ensure the benefits of healthy peatlands are better reflected in Government funding for land managers. Alongside, we have the emergence of private markets that allow businesses to pay for peatland ‘ecosystem services’. The Peatland Code is one example where carbon savings resulting from the repair of damaged peatlands can provide new income for often economically challenged rural areas.
We are beginning to see a future where a healthy bog is recognised as worth more than a damaged one.
Our fourth blog post is by invited speaker and artist Kathy Herbert, who will also be displaying some of her work at the Conference…
Seeing the marks of cultural practices in the landscape. Seeing the marks of the changes in those practices also in the landscape.
As turf is used less and less for fuel, as people move to more convenient heating – central heating from oil or gas – less turf is cut and the marks – the sleán cuts – are beginning to disappear. The footed turf can be found abandoned and returning to the earth.
So I find these traces and I work from them. Like picking a tiny thread and drawing it out: am I unravelling something or following a lead to something? Tracing those traces.
Our third blog post is by invited speaker, archaeologist Dr Roy Van Beek, Wageningen University, The Netherlands.
The Low Countries are internationally renowned for their wetlands and water management schemes. Vast areas of the country were once covered by marshes, fens and bogs. The Bourtanger Moor, with an estimated surface of 1600 square kilometers, may even have been the largest raised bog of Europe before commercial peat exploitation started in the 16th century.[i]
Dutch bogs have produced many spectacular archaeological finds, such as bog bodies, wooden trackways and the famous Bronze Age ‘sanctuary’ of Bargeroosterveld [ii]. These provide key data that cannot be retrieved anywhere from other (‘dry’) landscape contexts.
As such, the Netherlands are ideally suited to make a key contribution to wider discussions on prehistoric and early historic human-land relations, and – as the vast majority of finds have a ‘sacrificial’ character – especially the human perception and relationship to these areas through time.
In this view it is remarkable that Dutch bog archaeology has hardly moved beyond studies intended for a general audience, environmental determinism and a fixation on specific sites and object categories, rather than focusing on contextualisation in the widest sense of the word (e.g. studying the ideological and socio-economical position of bogs, reconstructing their physical appearance and development through time, integrating cultural wetland and dryland patterns). One could argue that some of these issues relate to the early discovery of most archaeological bog finds. After all, the very limited remaining Dutch bog areas (probably representing less than 10 % of the original peat cover) are nature reserves now, and hardly any new exciting discoveries have been made for decades. Therefore, most archaeological finds were done in a completely different scientific era. However, this is too simplistic. Especially the landscape-related problems reflect a wider academic issue: the lack of integration of data from the humanities and ‘sciences’.
In order to move forward, truly interdisciplinary research designs are of the utmost importance, and – given the current threats that European bogs are witnessing – these should also aim at designing proactive strategies for the sustainable management of bog-related cultural phenomena and historical bog (reclamation) landscapes. If we do not succeed in that we are at risk of losing essential parts of our cultural heritage without being identified properly. It is very exciting to see that these themes are among the key topics to be addressed at the Transdisciplinary Conversation on Peatlands in Cork.
[i] Casparie, W.A. (1972), Bog development in southeastern Drenthe (The Netherlands), PhD thesis Groningen University.
[ii] Waterbolk, H.T. en W. van Zeist (1961), A Bronze Age sanctuary in the raised bog at Bargeroosterveld (Dr.), Helinium 1, 5-19.
Peatlands are vital wetland ecosystems around the planet. Covering approximately 400-500 million hectares of the world’s surface (about 8%), though largely found in northern latitudes, peatlands are as significant to the world’s landmass as are tropical forests or deserts in terms of surface area. Peatlands are particularly of focus right now because of how they reduce global climate change. They act as carbon sequestration units (or sinks) – which are places where carbon dioxide is captured from the atmosphere. In fact, 20% of the world’s terrestrial carbon is captured and stored in peatlands located in the northern hemisphere. This is why the destruction of peatlands – through mismanagement, urban development, and peat extraction for fuel – accelerates climate change. Removing peatlands not only reduces the landmasses where carbon can be captured and stored, but it also releases stored carbon for several millennia back into the atmosphere. It’s an exponential problem related to the Earth’s ecological future.
If peatlands widely benefit both humans and non-humans, as well as the Earth, then why are they continually neglected or relegated as wasted space for development or fuel production? In Europe, for example, 90% of wetlands (mostly consisting of peatland) have been destroyed. This figure parallels Ireland’s overall peatland loss at 92%. Much like glaciers on the poles of the Earth, peatlands are a barometer for a healthy planet both past and future.
Changing the ecological futures of peatlands directly relates to changing the ways in which people perceive and value them. Understanding and addressing this issue is a trans-disciplinary process, one that unifies a range of critical frameworks beyond one disciplinary perspective. It’s collective and multifaceted. In order to reduce climate change, we must first address cultural change.
When approached from an environmental humanities perspective, we might uncover the significance and pervasiveness of peatlands in culture and society. The aim of the environmental humanities is to understand the relationship among human values, perception, and imagination as it relates to surrounding environments through social action. However, the trans-disciplinary link between the sciences and humanities remains somewhat disconnected. Humans draw on language, narrative, imagination, and cognitive models in order to conceptualise problems and mobilise change as much as they do, if not more, then interpreting data. Mobilising change and influencing behavioural shifts emerges from cultural influence.
There already exists a rich history of peatlands represented in cultural production within the arts and humanities. What would Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) be without Heathcliff traipsing across the Yorkshire Moors? How could we receive Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native (1887) without the living character of Edgon Heath or Sherlock confronting the real and imagined mysteries of Dartmoor in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)? Even more recent television programmes, such as Outlander (see image above), Shetland, or Sherlock (see image below), uses peatlands as representative settings and symbols. In all of these examples, among many others, peatlands hover in the consciousness of our cultural imagination. But it’s not because they function as carbon sinks or because they are some of the biodiverse ecosystems on the Earth, but because peatlands remain implanted in our memories through story, imagery, and cultural history.
Global climate action is not only about science and facts; it’s also about changing perceptions and values. Climate change is associated with cultural change. In the same way, the ecological futures of peatlands coincide with our cultural futures as much as they have with our cultural pasts. The environmental activist and author Bill McKibben argues, ‘The real fight — all real fights — are over the zeitgeist. They’re about who controls the vision of the future.’ In other words, whoever controls the narrative of the present can change the future?
How we change the ways we perceive and imagine our environmental and energy futures depends upon social framing and responses. Film, literature, art, and media, just to offer a few examples in the arts and humanities, have the power to alter such perceptions and shift the climate narrative for the future. Similarly, we must write, imagine, and perceive our future in the trans-disciplinary ways that benefit the survival of humans and non-humans by constructing narratives that depict sustainable social and ecological futures. In turn, we must resist stories that say this is impossible. The remaining peatlands around the globe function as such narratives that reveal some of the potentially unanswered questions in both cultural and environmental history.
 Stuart McLean, ‘“To Dream Profoundly”: Irish Boglands and the Imagination of Matter’, Irish Journal of Anthropology 10.2 (2007): 61.
 Peter Foss and Catherine O’Connell, ‘Bogland: Study and Utilization’, in John Wilson Foster (ed.), Nature in Ireland: A Scientific and Cultural History (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997): 195. See also P.J. Foss and C. A. O’Connell, Irish Peatland Conservation Plan 2000 (Dublin: Irish Peatland Conservation Council, 1996).
 Poul Holm, Joni Adamson, Hsinya Huang, Lars Kirdan, Sally Kitch, Iain McCalman, James Ogude, Marisa Ronan, Dominic Scott, Kirill Ole Thompson, Charles Travis, and Kirsten Wehner, ‘Humanities for the Environment – A Manifesto for Research and Action’, Humanities 4 (2015): 977-992.
 Bill McKibben, ‘With the Rise of Trump, Is it Game Over for the Climate Fight?’, Yale Environment 360, 23 January 2017. http://e360.yale.edu/features/with-the-ascent-of-trump-is-it-game-over-for-the-climate-fight.
Our first blog post is by writer, broadcaster and invited Peatlands Conference speaker Manchán Magan…
Ireland’s peatlands may not be regarded as the heart and soul of the nation – they are more aptly considered its liver and kidneys – a crucial part of our anatomy and psyche that we give far too little attention to. These richly pigmented ecosystems represent a complex bio-diverse realm hiding beneath a tweed-textured cloak as dark as crème brûlée and as complex as the most fraught fractal. They ought to be our greatest treasure and yet for decades we’ve either ignored, exploited or actively destroyed them. They are an endangered species that needs our protection – a collective effort by all sections of society, from citizen scientists to tourism providers, to begin to learn more about them.
The most exciting element of this event at UCC focusing on Transdisciplinary Conversation on Peatlands is the fact that it brings together academics with artists, writers, nature-lovers and bogophiles (if such a term exists) to share ideas and insights and imagine new futures.
For Irish artists and creatives who were bewitched for so long with the Atlantic coastline as their inspiration, it took the arrival in Ireland of one of the world’s most influential post-war avant-garde artists, Joseph Beuys, in 1974 to refocus our attention on these massive sponges of decaying trees and plants. He arrived in Ireland from Germany on a mission to make pilgrimage to the bog, lured here by the sheer wonder of these fibrous almanacs that loyally record every fallen pollen grain, spore and Neolithic wheel rut.
For Beuys bogs were: “the liveliest elements in the European landscape, not just from the point of view of flora, fauna, birds and animals, but as storing places of life, mystery and chemical change, preservers of ancient history.”
It’s about time, all of us beyond the realm of peatland conservationists and academic biologists begin to engage with the bog, and the hope is that this conference can be a further step along this road.