GUEST COLUMNIST: We need sustainability treatymore than a fiscal treaty
By Paddy Woodworth

IT’S VERY hard, isn’t it, to keep your nerve steady these days?

The daily doses of menacing news would almost drive you demented.

My bathroom radio does no favours to the blood pressure. I’ve tried to drown it in the shower, but it’s waterproof.

There are signs of panic almost everywhere. You can hear it in the edgy voices of our political establishment. They insist that we must vote for the “stability” treaty. Yet they know full well that the system that underlies that looks less stable by the day, sometimes by the hour.

You can hear the fear among the no campaigners, too. Their anger, righteously directed as it often is, cannot quite mask their anxiety about what will really happen if we walk away from ESM funding.

I hate to say this, but I must. Things are considerably worse than either camp is telling us.

We face not one crisis, but three. Two of them feature in the news every day. The third is no less menacing for being, at the moment, almost invisible.

Firstly, the banking system has gone completely out of control, and our democracies appear powerless to curb its excesses.

Secondly, our public spending exceeds our public income, by a constellation of billions. The same ideologues who cut the banks endless slack are demanding, very successfully so far, that the poor and middle classes must somehow pay off the debts incurred by both crises. This means wrecking our health, education and social services, while the perpetrators of the calamity walk off with the loot.

The world’s leaders squabble about whether “austerity” or “growth” is the best route forward. Each route, however, is based on a deeply flawed model: the fantasy that the natural world is a bottomless ATM.

And this is third crisis: our massive debt to nature.

We need to apply the same standards to our natural capital accounts as we are belatedly attempting to apply to our banks and national accounts. Then we would immediately see that our hidden deficit to the environment already threatens not only our economies, but the survival of our species.

We draw down natural capital in the forms of fertile earth, forests, and grasslands. That would be fine if we invested in restoring it in equal measure, the way farmers used to fallow. But we don’t, and that capital is vanishing as populations and consumer demand continue to soar.

And so the vast range of vital goods and services supplied by our ecosystems, from natural filtration of our water to the pollination of our crops, are also disappearing fast. The coming environmental crisis — it has already arrived in much of the developing world — will dwarf our current woes.

These are not new arguments, and they are not unknown to our leaders. The recent and groundbreaking TEEB reports, showed that some governments, and some corporations, are beginning to take the value of nature seriously. But there is a long way to go.

Back in 1987, the UN issued the Brundtland report, which showed that we were already taking more from the planet than it could continue to give.

This report also noted that some of us are taking a great deal more than others. And it gave us a straightforward — and challenging — definition of a route forward: “Sustainable development means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The report stressed that priority should be given to meeting the needs of the world’s poor, alongside the recognition that the environment’s capacity to meet human needs was close to exhaustion.

If we could stitch sustainable development principles into a binding international treaty, then we might stand a chance of surviving all three crises.

Indeed, sustainability is the bedrock principle on which we need to rebuild our world. It is unsustainable bank debt, unsustainable public debt, and unsustainable exploitation of the environment that have pushed us to the edge of a precipice.

We need to take a calm, thoughtful and long-term view of these three crises and their inter-relationships. We need to stop making panicky decisions based on the nanosecond flickers of stock market computer screens.

Instead of being slaves to the markets, we must again become their masters. We invented these vehicles for commerce, and it is not beyond our powers to reinvent them, to slow them down and change their direction. A return to “business as usual” is a certain recipe for more, and worse, disasters.

We need a big vision for the challenging future promised by the 21st century, not a quick fix for a bad puncture.

This is a big ask, of course, and is likely to fall on deaf ears in Leinster House and other parliaments. Our politicians have become allergic to big ideas and long-term planning, just when we need such thinking most urgently.

In fairness to our politicians, the allergy to big ideas and planning is an infection from recent history. The last century’s great utopian visions led to firestorms that make the current crises — so far — seem like a very tolerable discomfort.

The stench of death from fascism and communism should indeed give us plenty of pause before following any prophet who promises us an earthly paradise just down the road.

But it should not blind us to the fact that the real business of politics is indeed to envisage and prepare for a good and affordable future, and not just to manage the present opportunistically until the next election.

Shfting gears to sustainability thinking will not be easy. The future is indeed unpredictable, and we will get some things wrong. But we are better equipped today than ever before, through scientific advances and especially through information technology, to map out credible futures for decades to come.

These same tools greatly enhance our capacity to communicate complex scenarios to our citizens, and to enable citizens to make their own interactive contributions. The potential of the internet and social media for extending democratic participation has not even begun to be exploited.

But these valuable tools will only get us into more and more trouble unless a majority of us radically change our priorities. There are compelling arguments for doing so, but they are not yet part of the cultural mainstream.

Most of us are more consumers than we are citizens these days, and the same forces that brought about the banking crisis want to keep us that way. But there is a chance — a slim one I admit — that the depth of the economic crises may wake us up, to rethink what we most value in life.

We may indeed accept some austerity, in the sense of less extravagant lifestyles, but only on the guarantee that this austerity is democratically shared.

We may even learn that simpler, slower ways of living are more satisfying than the grasping, anxiously avaricious culture that dominates the globe today. Better relationships, with each other, and with the natural world, may bring unsuspected rewards.

So let’s hear it for a sustainability treaty! It would sure help to steady our nerves.

* Some sustainability treaties proposals:


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