Strong institutions are vital to make the transition to sustainable development

Published in The House Magazine, in May 2005.

The first is to communicate better. I do not mean more. We understand the environment better than we do people. We often seem to think that if we tell people more about the issues, give them more facts, better pictures, a deeper analysis that is all we have to do to protect the environment.

This means we too often sound as if we are only concerned with our own preoccupations and have no interest in theirs. We need to frame our arguments in terms that resonate more immediately with others.

Without a stable climate national security and economic prosperity are impossible, the world will not be fairer, communities will not be stable, families will be hurt, personal opportunities will be limited, our children’s future will be stolen. But we rarely sound as if we are talking about those everyday concerns.

The second is to get real about political discourse. The dominant language of debate among politicians is over how much gets spent by whom on what. Too often we appear to be more interested in winning the argument than changing the outcome. Changing environmental outcomes in the twenty first Century will require some serious money.

Today, we spend just under three hundred billion pounds a year on social protection, health and education. We spend about fifty five million pounds on internal and external security. We spend a fraction over seven billion pounds on the environment. Do you really believe those are the right proportions to ensure the continued well being of the British people as our environmental problems accumulate faster than we are finding solutions for them?
 
Thirdly, we must build stronger institutions to defend the environment. We build institutions to consolidate and express our values – to make them manifest in the world. It is a strange thought that as environmental problems have become more pressing our national and international environmental institutions have become weaker.

What does it tells us about our government’s real values that on a whim, without a by your leave, it could re-arrange its environmental institutions in a way no-one in the whole environmental community would ever have proposed? The same government is now moving around its institutional assets for nature conservation on the basis of an anecdotal analysis by a businessman with little understanding of either government or the environment.

I make these points not so much to criticise the government – though I did quite enjoy that – as to point out how weak our community’s grasp on political power is in reality. Imagine a government proposing to abolish the Ministry of Defence on the grounds that we had won the Cold War. The Navy could now become part of the Department of Transport to protect our shipping and the Army could go to the Department for International Development to help with the occasional adventure in a small state somewhere. The Air Force could be privatised and sold off to British Airways.

If we do not have strong institutions to promote the environment we have no hope of making a transition to sustainable development. If we cannot protect the ones we have, how can we hope to build the ones we need?