Wild Atlantic Way: it is big and bold, but it also needs to be sensitive and fair

Viewpoint: ‘Calling something “eco-tourism” does not make it so, unless it can offer sustainable employment in these terms’

‘You can enjoy the landscape from the car, but real appreciation requires accepting that we have to learn to live – and tread – more lightly. I’m just not convinced that this can happen through such a strident appeal to the profitability of the enterprise.’ Photograph: Getty Images

The new plan for “Ireland’s Ancient East” is seeking to emulate the success of the Wild Atlantic Way. But a year on from the launch of the 2,500km touring route from Cork to Donegal, now seems a good time to sound a note of caution.

The Wild Atlantic Way is in one sense an attempt to “monetise” the natural beauty of the west coast of Ireland. In the light of a history of emigration, lack of infrastructural and industrial investment, educational, economic and social deprivation, I can perfectly well understand and welcome any attempt to boost the economy and create jobs along the western seaboard. However, two things have been largely overlooked in the development of this initiative. Both are crucial if the Wild Atlantic Way is really to become the sustainable, universally beneficial initiative it proclaims itself to be.

The first issue can be summed up by a paradox (paraphrasing the ecologist and writer Aldo Leopold): the allure of unspoilt beauty is unarguable, but there comes a point, when enough people have visited and experienced a place (particularly when access is made easier, by roads, for instance), when it loses the very wildness that gave it the initial allure. Already, poor planning, and worse implementation of planning laws, has led to widespread one-off housing, and ribbon development that leaves little enough of the landscape free from often unsightly visual impact. Certainly, some traditional human activity has had a positive effect: the Burren is a much-cited example. But on the whole, the visual impact of humanity’s presence has not enhanced the sense of wilderness. In this context, planning yet another development risks destroying the very thing it wants to monetise.

Yes, you can enjoy the landscape from the car, but real appreciation requires accepting that we have to learn to live – and tread – more lightly. I’m just not convinced that this can happen through such a strident appeal to the profitability of the enterprise. It is possible that both tourists and locals will become more sensitive to the beauty of the place when its merits are laid out before them, but it’s not clear that this will happen before the temptation to make access easier — setting up a concrete stand for a picnic bench here, bulldozing flat an area for a car park there – irreversibly tames the experience itself. In Joni Mitchell’s unforgettable words, sometimes “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”.

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In the west of Ireland, there is a strong sense of proprietorship over the land. This is a perfectly understandable response to generations of being disenfranchised. However, there is a sad and somewhat depressing side-effect to the way that land is sometimes viewed here – as owned property that can therefore be exploited, dumped on, driven over, burned, built upon – because the human is not seen as a part of, but as the rightful master of, the place. Unfortunately, this attitude threatens to undermine the very beauty that the Wild Atlantic Way wants to sell.

There are solutions. Seeing the land and sea not as a “thing”, or “property” but as an extension of belonging here would help. “We pass through the land and the land passes through us”, as writer and environmental activist Wendell Berry puts it. The older Celtic and pre-Celtic cultures saw it this way. And even Francis of Assisi recognised that to live as a full Christian is to love all creatures, great and small. A change of attitude can only come if it benefits people, though. Which brings me to the second problem.

The second problem is that of fairness. Tourism in the west of Ireland is seasonal. That is, it is largely low paid, temporary, often non-contract, and the standard of education required is usually minimal, leading to the potential for further “brain drain” as people who seek better, more interesting, opportunities, leave the region, and unattractive conditions put off many others.

There are limits to growth. If an industry is to be built on the fragile beauty of an unspoilt landscape, then the sustainable growth of that industry depends on the protection of that fragile beauty. It depends, too, on an educated workforce that appreciates and understands this fragility. It includes offering work opportunities with the prospects of a decent salary (with rights like maternity leave, pension contributions, and so on), with the possibilities for permanent, full-time positions, to all members of the community, and not just to those with the right connections. It includes creating work that is interesting and challenging, that restores or protects the landscape, that encourages further training and education. It includes developing opportunities for artistic and creative work, tolerating freedom of expression, opening up to different views. This broader approach to developing the Wild Atlantic Way would be a direct investment in the employment prospects for the next generation, and in the protection of the place.

Calling something “eco-tourism” does not make it so, unless it can offer sustainable employment in these terms: that it is developed in tandem with education, with ecologically responsible industries like “grow your own” projects, with biodiversity programmes, including replanting of native species from genetically verifiable stock, with recycling initiatives that develop “cradle-to-cradle” technologies, and with the arts.

The Wild Atlantic Way is big and bold. But it also needs to be sensitive, and fair. In Yeats’s immortal words, if we take this route, we need to “tread softly” because beauty is fragile, and delicate, and fairness is the balance at the heart of a just society.

Lucy Weir has a PhD in Philosophy from UCC and lives in the west of Ireland. She blogs at : www.gamanrad.wordpress.com