Tom Burke: ‘We are challenged by a democratic dilemma’

Published on SustainAbility, on 2nd February 2008

This is a great theme that is massively under discussed.

At its highest level we are challenged by a democratic dilemma. To tackle the suite of issues surrounding a transition to sustainable development we must agree and adopt public policies governing many aspects of personal, economic and political behaviour that will be consistently maintained over at least several decades. However, democracy thrives on there being an axis of choice around which to bring together contesting policy programmes. If your core policies must be pursued consistently and vigorously for very long periods to be effective, what then do you choose?

We can already see the consequences of these dynamics in contemporary British politics. So broad and successful has been the agreement on the core policies for economic development that the axis of choice between Labour and Conservative, or left and right, has all but collapsed. The result is that in a time when the prosperity and security of 60 million Britons is increasingly threatened by a vast range of problems from the collapsing pillars of prosperity ( see attached lecture ) to terrorism, failing states, growing inequity between and within countries and the teetering global financial imbalances the dominant topic of political discourse in Britain is which celebrity politician you would prefer to micromanage marginal improvements in public services which are already quite good. This collapse in the axis of choice is reflected in the collapse in the membership of political parties which is now down to about 600,000 in total in Britain.

With political parties that have no roots in the base of society it is hardly surprising that our public policy priorities are today more determined by the views and interests of the editoriate who run the print and broadcast infotainment channels that these days pass for a free press than by the interests of the vast mass of decent citizens who do care about their own and their children’s future but have no way of expressing this politically. Thus there is a rapidly developing crisis of democratic legitimacy. Without legitimacy, a government cannot have the affective authority to act in the long term interests of its citizens.

Sustainable development, above all, requires the governments with the legitimate authority that can no longer be provided by our disembowelled democracy. My fear is that if we do not find a resolution to this dilemma, and quite soon, events not choices will determine outcomes and we will all be the worse for that. In Winston Churchill’s words ‘If something be not done it will do itself and in a way that pleases no-one.’

You might also find the attached animated PowerPoint slide (a version of which is in the text of the lecture) which sets sustainable development in its historical context interesting. My own answer to the question posed by the last step is a mix of authoritarianism and anarchy.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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