May 092011
I voted to change the voting system in last week’s UK referendum, not because I particularly love the Alternative Vote system (or indeed any system), but simply because I wanted to make it harder for politicians to do anything. In general, other than a few global treaties over the decades, politicians are so far behind companies and NGOs on the environment that when they eventually wake up it is usually to obstruct, cause muddle where clarity and consensus reigned, and impose stale old thinking of limited use to anyone, let alone the natural environment. 

The recent botches over solar power, the forest sell-off, Sustainable Development Commission and the Green Investment Bank have all made a mockery of the ‘greenest government ever’. On fundamental issues of food security, eco system services, tropical commodities and their deforestation footprint, resource depletion and biodiversity, renewable energy and countless other policy issues, government is largely asleep. Whatever good thinking comes out of government is commissioned externally. And seldom implemented. 

It’s probably better this way. When I worked in sustainable seafood, nearly all interactions with governments around the world were a disaster. For the fish. Here, the government woke up over palm oil. About six years after multinationals and NGOs were starting to sort out the problem.  When I worked in communications, I learnt not even to contemplate bidding for government contracts, such was the frustration and disappointment involved in winning them. It is simply a sign of the times that business has become the (potential) solutions provider to the planet’s system failures, often working in partnership with NGOs whose policy ambition and credibility far exceed those of any politician, whatever electoral system put them in office. 

So when given the opportunity to create more muddle, confusion and magnify the tradeoffs and stalemates that are inherent in coalition government, I jumped at the chance. The rest of the country didn’t. Let’s hope the ‘strong and stable’ governments that future elections will bring don’t keep getting in the way of what needs to be done. I’ve reached the conclusion that the more government keeps out of the environmental debate the better. The market will decide. That sounds laissez faire and Thatcherite, but it isn’t. The NGOs now act as the framework setter that ought to make markets perform better and deprive them of their excesses. Although this regulatory role was once the role of government, politicians aren’t interested enough in this agenda for them to meet their responsibilities. 

So they should simply own up to the fact they don’t care about or understand sustainability, and get out of the way. The conversations between business and civil society at last week’s Responsible Business Summit underlined again just how behind our politicians are in a world of which they understand little. It used to be said that the problem with business is that it only thinks two quarters ahead. That is no longer the case – companies are having to think decades ahead, to plan for resource scarcity, climate volatility and lock in supply chain resilience. Politicians are now the short term gamblers, with a mere three to five year electoral and budgetary cycle to worry about. In my opinion, that rules them out of the game when it comes to sustainability. 

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