John Barry: In the context of the severe crisis Ireland faces – which for me goes beyond the current economic/financial crisis but should be viewed as a ‘triple crunch’ – to also include climate change and energy insecurity - it is perhaps timely to ask whether we need a new T.K. Whitaker? I’ve been thinking for a while about whether we need a ‘Green’ Whitaker to show leadership and vision on charting a way of out the current crises. Just as Whitaker penned Economic Development in 1958 which signalled a step change in Irish economic/industrial policy, where is the equivalent today to produce a Sustainable Development policy document? Just as the need for Ireland to promote economic growth, develop and industrial base and begin the shift from a largely inward, partly autarkic and agricultural economy were some of the headline objectives and context of the 1958 report and Programme, surely we are in need today of similar bold, innovative and mould-breaking policy thinking?
Whereas Whitaker’s vision was for a more internationalised, open, competitive industrialised Ireland, what is the vision, or visions, for today? My own preferred indication lies in a Green New Deal –– elements of which one can find in the Building Ireland’s Smart Economy document drafted by Cowen’s chief economic advisor, Peter Clinch (an environmental economist interestingly…), last December – http://www.taoiseach.gov.ie/eng/Publications/Publications_2008/Building_Ireland’s_Smart_Economy.html . While I think a discussion of that document – and whether it does contain a commitment to a ‘Green New Deal’ and marks a step-change in official economic thinking – is best left for another post, I am more interested in what people think about the need for a ‘Green’ Whitaker. In focusing on Whitaker, I am less interested in the equivalent detail of what we need today, than in the issues of intellectual leadership, policy innovation and breaking with previous economic policy.
For it sadly seems to me that there is a desperation within business, most academics and especially the senior policy-making community in Ireland, to cling onto ‘business as usual’, to hope and pray that the current economic crisis will pass and that the only serious issue is how long we have to ride out the storm till it passes and we can go back to where we were. Even Thomas Friedman (once chief cheer-leader for neo-liberal globalisation and author of books popularising neo-liberal globalisation such as The World is Flat http://www.thomaslfriedman.com/bookshelf/the-world-is-flat and The Lexus and the Olive Tree http://www.thomaslfriedman.com/bookshelf/the-lexus-and-the-olive-tree has recognised that perhaps the current crises represent the end of an unthinking commitment to orthodox economic growth at any cost. As he puts it in a piece for the New York in March:
“Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”
This clinging to ‘business as usual’ is a recipe for disaster, where a poverty of imagination and using this crisis to begin our over-due economic detox from carbon, utilising our indigenous sources of renewable energy and develop some fresh thinking about what Ireland’s economic model of development should be in the 21st century, will ensure we miss this once in a generation opportunity, as Whitaker did, to outline a different path and vision for Ireland. So, if there is no ‘Green Whitaker’, surely we need to find one? And fast.
John Barry is Professor of Green Political Economy at Queen's University, Belfast. He is a Green Party councillor on Ards and North Down Borough Council since 2014, and is a former co-chair of the party.
He was Acting Director of the Institute of Governance, Public Policy and Social Research at Queen's University Belfast and is currently Reader in Politics in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy and Assistant Director of the Institute for a Sustainable World.
He has written many books and academic articles on sustainable development, environmental policy and the economics of sustainability. He is co-editor of two academic journals, Environmental Politics and Ecopolitics Online.