The Green movement was born when we looked back on our planet for the first time and realised the threat we posed to our own natural world. It was a child of the 1960s, embracing and promoting civil, racial, feminist, gay, and animal rights. It was into making love not war and thinking globally, while acting locally.
The movement was inspired by Rachel Carson and her warnings that we faced a ‘Silent Spring’ if the use of pesticides and fertilisers by industrial agriculture went on unchecked. It came of age with ‘systems thinking’ from the Club of Rome in the early 1970s, which used the most advanced computers to look ahead 100 years and measure our future use of resources – and came back with the rational conclusion that there are real limits to growth on this finite planet of ours.
Green economics is not easily categorised on a left/right ideological divide. It assumes that future progress must be made in terms of the things that really count rather than the things that are merely countable. It values our quality of life rather than just increases in the quantity of goods that are consumed.
The movement found political form in the late 1970s and early 1980s as Green parties were set up in just about every country. In Ireland the Ecology Party of Ireland was formed at a meeting in Dublin’s Central Hotel in 1981. The founding principles were agreed at a second meeting a few months later in the Glencree Peace and Reconciliation centre.
Those principles are still relevant today.
• We have the responsibility to pass the Earth on to our successors in a fit and healthy state.
• Unrestricted economic growth must be replaced by an ecologically and socially regulated economy.
• Decisions should as far as possible be on the basis of consensus and respect for the rights of minorities.
• Society should be guided by self-reliance and cooperation at all levels.
• The need for world peace and justice overrides national and commercial interests.
• There is no place for violence or threat of violence in the democratic political process.
The fortunes of the party have ebbed and flowed over the last three decades in tandem with varying levels of public support for the wider environmental agenda. The first Green Party councillor was elected in Killarney at the same time the Bruntland commission defined sustainable development – as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Our first TD was elected in 1991, just before the signing of the Rio declaration, which combined commitments to protect our environment with ambitions to address global poverty. The tide then ebbed during the boom years of the late nineties as oil became cheap again. We were told we were at the end of history and all public services had to do was clear the path so markets could pave the way.
Our Dáil representation grew with the greater understanding of the scale and importance of this climate issue. We entered Government in 2007 determined to do what we could to position Ireland as a leader in responding to the challenge we all face.
We learnt a lot in the process and it was not all negative. First of all, it imbued us with a healthy dose of humility. The last thing anyone wants is public representatives who think they know it all. We also learnt how you can get things done in Government. It requires showing respect to both colleagues and officials so you earn their trust, while still sticking up for your convictions and asking the right awkward questions, so that big ideas can be progressed and that decisions do not go through on the nod.
I stand up for Green politics because I have seen how we have made a real difference over the years. In the last four decades road deaths have fallen by two thirds. We can’t claim responsibility for that outcome but we were there every step of the way supporting better road designs and new safety regulations. We also changed waste policy. I remember a Council engineer arguing against the introduction of green and brown bins in Dublin, on the grounds that Irish people would never take to recycling. I like the fact that we all proved him wrong.
Similarly, I look at the way my German Green colleagues changed the course of history by initiating a clean renewable-energy revolution that will not now be stopped. I am equally happy we were there at Pride Parade long before most other parties or big corporations showed up for the day. Last but not least, I like the fact that we are an all-island party, which gets to canvass on both the Shankill and the Falls. That non sectarian outlook comes from our 1960s roots.
We may not be the biggest party but we are friends with every other European Green Party and are based in every county here at home. We now have two great teams back in the Oireachtas and Stormont. We are disciplined and motivated with a new ambition to become a mainstream political choice for people right across this island.
In the North the first job is to get the Assembly back in action. In the South we want to triple our representation in the next Dáil and perhaps more importantly triple the number of Green Party Councillors who are elected at the next local elections in 2019.
We are setting ourselves such goals because in truth we are losing on the big battles which inspired us into action in the first place. For all the achievements I have mentioned, the reality is that the world has lost almost half of all wildlife over the last forty years. In the same geological blink of an eye, we’ve seen the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase by a third. For the first time in years, the global number of people suffering malnutrition is again on the rise. Climate migration is now happening at scale, and the security threats from environmental degradation are growing by the day.
At a local level the number of Irish rivers with pristine water quality has fallen from 500 down to just 21. We are losing our song birds and have depleted every fish stock from our seas. Two thirds of children are now driven to school when the same percentage used to walk and cycle. We have applied an American economic model which has seen the richest 10% of the population get a large increase in their share of all income and wealth. Younger people face an uncertain future as career structures disappear and they cannot even get the mortgage their parents could once just about afford.
We must divert from this destructive path, or the fabric of our natural world and society will slowly but surely be torn apart. The scale of change we have to make is unprecedented but we have the advantage that technological innovations in energy, communications and transport systems are happening at speed. We have this one historic chance to make the evolutionary leap we need to make. The availability of technology on its own will not ensure we make the grade. What we need is a new cultural, ethical and political impetus so we are inspired into effective action.
The prize is to deliver a just transition, which protects our natural world and brings a fairer economic model. The future role for the Green Party is to help with the practical measures that deliver this transition. Our work will be in helping create well-paid new jobs as a clean industrial revolution takes hold. We can also help new communities by building urban environments which are designed around the needs of local people rather than the motor car. The new National Planning Framework is all talk about meeting these two objectives but there was nothing in the recent budget to turn such a plan into reality.
The new Taoiseach too is all talk about placing Ireland at the centre of the world, and making climate change a government priority, but just when the world is looking for future leadership, he is bringing us back to the same unsustainable model that caused our recent economic crash.
We can’t continue to be seen internationally as a low corporate tax haven, or a climate laggard. We cannot follow the UK or US in a race to the bottom which opts out from proper regulation of global capitalism. The answer to the ills of the current model cannot be a retreat to beggar-thyneighbour nationalism. We must stand up for fair-trade globalisation, where Ireland becomes a model for a more ethical business approach.
Dáil Eireann is an uncertain place at the moment when it comes to delivering this or any other change. However the cross-party numbers needed to gain a voting majority suits our form of consensus politics. Because we want to change everything, we need to involve everyone. We work best when people are willing to share ideas and learn from mistakes together.
We have made it clear we will work with all other parties on this collaborative basis. To those who say those parties might steal our clothes, we say bring it on. If they do take up the transition then we will have an even bigger role helping to lead the way.
It is our job to try and convince the Irish public that this alternative future is within reach. We can only do that if we have greater political representation. Not only would we make a bigger contribution to public decision making but our success would be the strongest possible signal to the other parties that it is time for us to all go green.
Eamon Ryan TD is leader of the Green Party