Thursday, 7 May 2009

The Future of Ireland

A couple of days ago I did a radio interview here, talking about -- among other things -- whether Ireland was too consumerist. Today, Rod Dreher pointed me to Christopher Caldwell's article in the Weekly Standard on the same theme.

While I was fairly positive about my adopted country, though, Caldwell paints a harsh portrait --an Ireland that has turned its back on its culture, has lost itself in hedonism, and has been hit by Europe's worst economic collapse. An excerpt:

Over the last 20 years, Ireland found riches a good substitute for its traditional culture. But now the country has been harder hit by the financial downturn than any country in Western Europe. We may be about to discover what happens when a traditionally poor country returns to poverty without its culture.

And that was before this morning's news: the Obama administration plans to discourage U.S. companies from investing in tax havens, and that's a major source of national revenue.

But things don’t look nearly so apocalyptic on the ground here, as I wrote in Rod's comments. Maybe it's just that we've been preparing for so much worse, but life doesn't look very bad or very different to me. Buses and trains have not stopped, banks have not closed, most people are working the same jobs, zombies are not roaming the streets and we've just been approved for a mortgage.

Things could always get worse, of course, but the Irish seem better prepared than most Westerners. They’ve experienced hardship within the lifetimes of most people still living – electricity and plumbing were new and not universal in the 1970s – whereas only the most elderly Americans remember such times. Few Irish expected the window of flagrant prosperity to last long, and are not indignant at the loss of entitlement. They have always been cosmopolitan even in their poverty, with cousins in distant lands, and while many came home during the Celtic Tiger, many are prepared to migrate again.

Most Irish remember their former poverty with less sentiment than those who did not live through it, but also have mixed feelings about the recent window of prosperity. Many think the country has lost some of its old tradition and community, but that recognition is a good start, and such things can be restored. Some lament their own alleged consumerism, but per capita consumption and waste remains far below that of the U.S.

The boom did multiply housing prices here, but now houses are growing affordable again. The Catholic-Protestant “Troubles” in the North largely ended a decade ago, the recent shooting a rare exception decried by both communities. Caldwell seems alarmed by Ireland’s “liberal” environmental policies, but they are moving the country a step closer to energy self-reliance.

Public transportation is widespread here – which may seem like a small thing, but in our rural area it means that people are not stranded in their homes. Pre-globalisation ways of life, like horse-drawn carriages and thatch roofs, still exist in places, common enough that they could be widely re-adopted. There is a widespread movement to deal with the Long Emergency – my group, Transition Towns and others – trying to combine ecological knowledge with the traditional skills that here, more than most places, have been kept alive.

Top photo: New office park near our home, never occupied.

Bottom photo: The view from our bedroom window.


jpbenney said...

Rod Dreher's article is the best I have read from him, and I agree wholeheartedly with many of his points, besides being surprised by the evidence he provides for a culture that looked for an alternative to materialism for a long time. Your point is probably quite valid, though I must say that when you say "per capita consumption and waste remains far below that of the U.S." you ought never to assume this means less materialism. Rather, lower per capita consumption relates purely to the free market providing much more incentive for efficiency: the high energy consumption in Australia, probably the least materialistic and certainly the most conservative country in the OECD, is the clearest proof.

Brian Kaller said...


Good point. Lower per capita may simply mean greater efficiency rather than less consumerism -- although I'm not sure it can only mean greater efficiency. If it does, though, efficiency is good too.