In a recent informal conversation with sustainability policy experts, someone offered the private assessment that only a “green Hitler” could now prevent a planetary ecological disaster. (The context may have also involved the dangers of an orange Hitler.)
The supporting argument went as follows.
“Government-as-usual”, “business-as-usual” – and, for that matter – “protest-as-usual” had failed to arrest – or even significantly slow – the decimation of the planet’s life support mechanisms. Even before Covid-19, the UN system seemed increasingly powerless.
We were on track to exit the safety of the relatively stable climate envelope of the last 10,000 years, and barrel into an era of weather, ecosystem and planetary boundary chaos that would affect everyone and everything, everywhere, sooner rather than later.
Democracy was not working. Decision-making was too slow, too conservative, and too beholden to the pressures of political and corporate powers whose interests lay in maintaining the status quo (and unevenly shared profits), for however long that lasted.
Added to this was the adverse impact of social media, that allowed non-fact-based conspiracy theories and stories to undermine support for science-based policy. Or the failure of protest groups to ignite sufficient voter concern to change governments.
So far, so accurate. And depressing.
While the superficial appeal of an omnipotent and benevolent “strong man” (or woman…) coming along to ram through and implement the needed changes to financial, economic and energy policies and infrastructure is clear, the real-world limitations are equally clear.
From an historical viewpoint, the track record of dictators is far from good. The ecological contributions of modern “strong men”, whether in Brazil, China, Russia (or currently in the US) are arguably just as bad as the slash and burn imperialism of ancient Persia, Greece or Italy. The pro fossil fuel policies of Donald Trump were a case in point.
Indeed, the “conquering and colonising” business model has always been one of access to cheap raw materials and energy, human or otherwise. Protest nowadays is often not wrong in seeing globalisation as colonisation in another form. Same business model; new blue suit.
Nor, by contrast, were all traditional societies necessarily always nurturing of nature. Easter Island is perhaps the best example of how a traditional society with limited resources logged and carved itself out of existence. Examples of true system sustainability are hard to find.
Least worst solution?
The fact of the matter is that there is little alternative to existing governance systems in the coming decisive decade. And, indeed, the competition between political parties offers the best hope of developing and deploying the radical ideas needed to avoid collapse.
The Democratic party primaries in the US were a case in point.
There, in the country that developed the modern model of a predatory capitalism that has increasingly divided societies, distorted economies and gutted the environment, the outlines of a positive governance and policy revolution were laid out.
There, some of the best of American thinkers were honest and direct about:
· the parlous state of world and the US in terms of health and welfare;
· the science on climate change and its current and future impacts;
· the need to see the sun and wind as new untapped natural/national resources; and
· the need for radical and urgent reforms, including to the limits of corporate power and the uncontrolled peddling of fake news in the social media.
Art of the (green) deal
Moreover, with programmes such as the green new deal, there were concrete proposals for the policy reforms that would be needed to redress the systemic social, economic and environmental breakdowns. In turn, this encouraged the EU with its own green deal plans.
While internationalism is out of fashion in some capitals, there is still broad-based recognition that UN and other intergovernmental forums, such as the IPCC, World Health Organisation and World Bank, offer our last best chance to develop and deploy coordinated and effective policy responses to the various global emergencies.
Here, again, an “every man for himself” approach – while tempting for some at a national level – can only end in tears.
Yes, we are still some way from seeing these proposals being adopted and implemented widely, but the fact is that key democratic political processes now have ideas such as these on the agenda. Cities, towns and local communities are also acting. Covid-19 has shown governments can respond dramatically and decisively to protect, even where knowledge is incomplete.
Facts, facts, facts
Increasingly, too, we see the business community squaring up to the enormity of the challenges, not to mention the opportunities. For all the commercial spin that business is capable of, good corporate governance is based on hard facts. There is no room for fake news or wishful thinking in business plans. Nor in democratic decision-making.
The fact of the matter is that governments do business a favour when they deliver science-based hard news and the clear policies, and then work – selectively if necessary – with the businesses that seem able to offer the best investments, technologies and communications expertise needed to deliver those solutions. And there are signs that the incoming Biden administration's approach in the US may well be to do business that favour.
Business leaders now need to be more open and proactive in supporting governance of this kind. The alternatives, whether or not involving a green Hitler, including nationalisations, rationing and other limitations, may come all too soon if the social and climate breakdowns we are witnessing are not effectively addressed in time.
It was once famously said that “the business of business is business”. That remains true, but there can be no healthy business without healthy governance on a healthy planet.
A former diplomat and associate fellow of the Royal Institute for International Affairs at Chatham House, Paul Hohnen has advised governments, international organisations and business on high level sustainability policy issues over a 40 year career