Europe and Central Asia
25 Apr 2017

A renaissance of civil society

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By Danilo Selvaggi

From Rome, Danilo Selvaggi – Director of LIPU (BirdLife Italy) – makes a passionate case for why both Europe and the environment desperately need a ‘renaissance’ of civil society.

The success of #NatureAlert still resonates in the air – this landmark campaign to the save the EU’s vital nature laws which saw half a million European citizens sing out in loud chorus ‘Hands off the Nature Directives!’ And throughout the two-year battle cry, amplified by some 200 NGOs, the whole BirdLife family was in the front row pumping up the volume with a symphony of chirps, cheeps and chatter.

This victory taught us a great many things, not least of which is that the power of civil society is a force to be reckoned with – David can beat Goliath. By acting together, we can uphold our values in the face of ill winds, no matter how ferocious the storm.

Civil society is not a cliché. It is perhaps the most fundamentally human of societal phenomena – the expression of our search for the common good; an expression that has evolved with society. In the classical era, Cicero’s civil society was synonymous with the state, but during the Enlightenment it transformed into a space parallel to yet separate from the state – a space where citizens associate according to their own wishes and interests. After the horrors of two world wars, the concept came to incarnate a special realm of independent political activity, the epicentre of the struggle for freedom against all forms of tyranny.

"Civil society is not a cliché. It is perhaps the most fundamentally human of societal phenomena – the expression of our search for the common good."

Sapere aude! People ‘dare to know’ – to question, to be informed, to think for themselves and contribute to public life, not only by voting but through a constant and active engagement with each other collectively. In doing so, civil society brings extraordinary strength to the vessels of democratic government. Similarly, civil society’s contribution to the environment is enormous. It is thanks to e-NGOs that ‘environmental’ values are increasingly recognised as being inseparable from ‘social’ values. After all, one of the fundamental characteristics of civil society is to be at the avant-garde, to anticipate the future and help the world take a step forward on the road to meet it.

But the space for civil society is closing in on us and great dangers loom ominously on the horizon. Here in Europe, we can feel the creeping onset of fear: the body politic is squeezing out the participatory process and people are retreating to the margins in fear. All our hard-won social and environmental achievements seem to be teetering on the edge of a precipice….and it’s a long way down.  

A more subtle and complex problem also stems from the new channels of communication that have taken hold of our daily lives. Social networking platforms are extremely useful tools but they can also suffocate real dialogue, rendering communication artificial and even violent. Knowledge risks becoming the simple accumulation of information, awareness risks becoming arrogance, and the power of communication risks being vulgarised by populism into something perverse and sterile.

"Let’s inspire a renaissance of civil society in which we realise an even higher level of participation and quality, a society where everyone ‘dares to know’"

Together, these two threats – civic constraints and cultural populism – pose a great danger to our society.  There is a lot of talk right now about the ‘external’ threats that trouble Europeans (the economic crisis, migration, terrorism…) but the problems that truly weaken us are far more insidious: the loss of values and the slow death of social cohesion. What we need is a more just and intelligent world. A world that is fair, sustainable, respectful and diverse – both culturally and environmentally. Right now, it feels like a world away from us, but it is possible.

So what can we do? More than ever, the answer lies in renewing the power of knowledge and strengthening civic communication and participation. In short, we need a renaissance of civil society. Over the years, NGOs have amassed huge knowledge reserves and impressive organisation skills. The time has come to rethink and relaunch – to communicate our knowledge by shouting out loud at the tops of our voices. Our nature laws are under threat? Europe’s food and farming system is broken? Biodiversity is off the political agenda? Then urliamolo! – we shout out! By shouting out our values loud and clear, let’s strive to become even better at organizing ourselves, communicating our message and conversing constructively with political institutions. Let’s inspire a renaissance of civil society in which we realise an even higher level of participation and quality, a society where everyone ‘dares to know’. 

 

Danilo Selvaggi is Director of LIPU (BirdLife Italy) 


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.