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New Governance in Europe at a Time of Cultural Change / Eamon Ryan

By Sat 2 Feb 2013May 10th, 2017Future of Europe, report & speeches


I am told that the mission of Green Foundation Ireland is to develop a better understanding of the cultural shift we will need for a transition to a greener world. With that in mind, I want to take flight this morning with a very wide assessment of where we are coming from in the hope it might give a better idea as to what might come next.

My thoughts have been influenced by my involvement in another GFI project called The Climate Gathering which will bring people to the village of Ballyvaughan in the Burren on 15-17 February next. The aim of  it is to work out what new narratives will inspire people to support a transformational leap in our response to climate change so we do not tilt our planet out of the Holocene into a traumatic new age.


Our human civilisation evolved with a complex interplay of technological and cultural changes which took place in the benign stability of our current geological era. For 45,000 years we hunted and gathered in a nomadic way, our communications technology the human voice, spoken or sung around a communal fire. We know little about those people but I imagine their culture was defined by their mythological stories, the echoes from which still move us today.

Some 7,000 years ago those nomads started to settle down and farm. The introduction of script allowed them keep a record of their store and to insure it was safely sold rather than stolen. Scripture also moved people into a theological culture, which taught people that life in a village worked better when people learned how to forgive and to share.

Since then we have evolved in a myriad of ways but a big leap took place in this very hall and in meeting places like it right across the western world some two hundred and twenty years ago. The United Irishmen were inspired by being able to read in print humanist ideas from Renaissance Europe, enlightenment from Great British thinkers and scientists, and bold ideas from German Romantics which arose from that country’s tragic experience of war.

All it took was a book published first in New York but soon after in Dublin to push them over the brink into a revolutionary idea that they too had rights as men, in the here and now as well as in the hereafter. Once again a technological shift facilitated a cultural shift to a world which was dominated by left and right political ideology. At the same time an industrial revolution had started with the building of a steam engine to pump water out of English coal mines and which has now grown so vast it exceeds the natural resource limits of our planet.

Adam Curtis referred to the last century as the “century of the self”, when telecommunications took over from print as the critical technology and psychology as explained by Jung and Freud became the key cultural influence trumping political ideology .

The birth of television played a central role in that change, particularly in the 1960s when a Green cultural revolution was born. It was feminist, anti-militarist, openly gay and as ecumenical as Vatican Two. For a short few years people believed that The Times They Were a-Changing and that all you really needed was love to set the world to right. In America, which had just won two world wars, there came a realisation that war was not the answer. That was reinforced by the sight of a young Vietnamese girl running screaming from her village, a napalm bomb having torn off her skin and clothes.

An even bigger explosion occurred in all our heads a couple of years earlier, when for the first time we blasted man off the planet and looked back on our small and fragile blue home. Scientists started to realise how complex and interconnected our living systems are and how we were starting to damage them in the name of progress. As Gandhi said, it was not just that men have rights, they also have responsibilities.


I am old enough to be able to give a living testimony as to what has happened since then. I will have to be honest and say that I am not too sure what exactly was happening in the 1970s. Perhaps the freedoms that were promised in the 1960s were only half-baked. Looking back through the lens of time and seeing Jimmy Saville on Top of the Pops you realise, as Anthony O’Hagan wrote recently, that “women might have worn shorter skirts and been on the pill but society still didn’t – and still doesn’t – sexually know itself as well as it might. “

While there was obviously something not quite right about Saville, John Peel was as cool as you could get. It was great that his favourite song was Teenage Kicks written by young kids from Derry, but cringing now to think of the undertone in that choice. Apparently he suffered abuse himself in a boarding school and is reported to have said that what we thought at that time as freedoms may have only been confusions.

He was Gospel when it came to punk and in south side Dublin we were where it was at. Johnny Finger’s aunt lived down the road, You knew someone who knew Bono. I remember pogoing away to Anarchy in the UK as if we really meant it, but even at the time I think we knew we hadn’t a clue what it meant. Within a few short years punk, like feminism, was subsumed into another political force which believed in less Government, in a very different way.

Starting from the early 1980s market economics effectively ruled the world. Bill Clinton did have a vision of a ‘third way’ which he defined recently as ‘opportunity for all, responsibility for all and community for all’. However, I think history will look back and judge that for all the opportunities that did arise in the 1990s, the responsibility and community bits were found missing.

The free market self-destruct chip was ticking inside debt bubbles right across the western world. It was a world where corporations, including large media corporations, had real power. Rupert Murdoch, the man whose father had defamed the Irish and British soldiers in Gallipoli, told us to hate Johnny Foreigner, don’t worry about climate, greed is good.

The power of the corporation came from the greater mobility that capital has in comparison to the other two factors of production. While money could move at a flick of a switch across a world with little or no capital controls, labour migration remains slow and restricted while nature gets hit because it simply cannot move out of the way.