IN 1784, Matthew Carey, a young man who flirted with the United Irishmen, decided like many republicans at the time to emigrate to the USA and, more importantly, to the hub of American intellectualism, Philadelphia. Fuelled by ideas of solidarity, equality and human rights, Carey hung around taverns and meeting houses, giving talks and listening to others espousing the fundamental rights of man. Like many others he became a pamphleteer, writing short essays on the rights and wrongs of the world as he saw it.

In 1789 — only five years after he had arrived in Philadelphia — Carey published what became the most exciting and influential work of the final decades of that revolutionary century. He printed the first picture of the horribly cruel and degrading conditions on a slave ship. Using a print originally made in Liverpool a year earlier of the slave ship ‘The Brook’, Carey achieved what no other abolitionists had succeeded in doing: he visually depicted the horror. Up until then, abolitionists who argued that the slave trade was inhumane had failed to jolt popular opinion. But Carey understood the power of the picture over the power of the pen and by meticulously producing an image of just how many poor, sick and terrified slaves were packed like sardines into those fetid and cavernous decks Carey changed world history.

Initially 2,500 prints were made, but this number exploded as the scale of the crime became apparent. The print showed hundreds of humans cramped and shackled together with barely enough room to move. Carey wrote: “Here it is presented to our view one of the most horrid spectacles — human creatures packed side by side almost like herrings in a barrel and reduced nearly to a state of being buried alive, with just air enough to preserve a degree of life sufficient to make them sensible of all the horrors of their situation.”

Carey’s ‘Remarks on the Slave Trade’, as the print was called, proved to be a bombshell. He substantiated his accounts by giving readers his own personal testimony of the transatlantic voyage from Ireland, explaining to people who had never travelled across the ocean the horrible conditions on ships from Ireland where the poor were stuck below deck in huge terrifying swells without enough food or water. Bad enough as it was, he argued, it could be nothing like the slave ships.

His work was printed and reprinted across America and gave huge impetus to the abolitionist cause. From then on, the economic arguments that the slave trade was crucial to maintaining the prosperity of American and Britain and Ireland became secondary to the moral arguments about human rights. Many on the pro-slavery side warned of economic Armageddon. They contended that the world economy, or at least the Atlantic part of it, was based on slaves and cheap labour and that to abandon it would be tantamount to economic suicide. Yet the abolitionists appealed to a higher calling and in 1807 slavery was abolished in Britain and 1865 in America. And the man who got the ball rolling was Carey who, like so many other significant Irishmen of the past, seems to have been airbrushed out of our history.

Now consider for a moment the environment and the ongoing degradation of the planet. Could it be possible that countries and companies that continue to pollute and destroy the planet might well face the type of opprobrium that the last of the slave traders suffered? Might the economic arguments about the need for cheap sources of energy be blown away by concerns about the greater needs of the planet? Many environmentalists certainly hope so. People’s attitudes are changing rapidly.

The world is faced with a simple dilemma: how do we reconcile the demands of six billion consumers with the finite resources of the planet? Can we in the West assume that we can continue to take the lion’s share of the world’s energy to support our lifestyles, while the billions in the poorer world go without? More significantly, as the world’s population is due to rise to nine billion by 2014, what will happen to the price of resources then?

It is very clear that, spurred on by events like the Copenhagen Summit, there is a huge groundswell of opinion which is beginning to realise that we can’t continue living as we are. In terms of economics, on-going basic depletion of the world’s resources means that we are not at “the end of oil”, but we are at “the end of cheap oil”. And given the use of petro-chemicals in fertiliser, we are at the end of “cheap food”.

In fact, with the mass use of fertiliser, we are in effect “eating” fossil fuels. The same applies to water and the rest of the world’s resources.

Taken together, it is not pushing it to suggest that we might be at an abolitionist tipping point where all the old rules are torn up in an effort to prevent more damage to the planet and the ecosystem.

This presents a great opportunity because there will be huge increases in investment in green technology in the years ahead and Ireland should try to position itself to garner some of this new business.

As far back as April 2008, this column was arguing that we should prepare ourselves for this tectonic shift in the way the world economy powers itself. Since then, the smart economy fanfare of last Christmas Eve seems to have evaporated. So yes, yet again in Ireland we are late to see the opportunities, but hopefully — given the huge changes that are afoot — someone will wake up and it will be better late than never.