Next generation: Sustainable development victim of ‘short-termism’


If the world is to make any real progress on sustainable development with the renewed momentum sparked by the Rio+20 Earth summit next year, policies need to be better connected to people's daily activities and given teeth by means of proper accountability and enforcement mechanisms, the World Future Council's Maja Göpel told EURACTIV in an interview.


Maja Göpel is 'future justice director' at the World Future Council, which seeks to ensure that the interests of future generations are represented in today's policymaking.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Please describe your organisation in two sentences. Could you also detail where your funding comes from? Who are your major donors?

The World Future Council is an international 'think and do tank' working to bring the interests of future generations into our short-term governance structures. Supported by philanthropists, foundations and government grants, it operates independently to raise awareness and to advise decision-makers on future just policy design and implementation.

Do you think the general public is aware how much resources we're currently using and that our way of life may already be using up the resources of future generations? Even if they do know, do you think they care? Do you see any difference in attitudes from one continent to another, for example, or between different generations?

Overall, concern about environmental degradation is back on the public agenda in most rich countries. Compared to the discourse and declarations of the 1980s and early 1990s, one may of course be frustrated by how little has moved. But the wave today is different because scientific evidence is much stronger and the impacts are beginning to be visible to the public.

In terms of caring about the issue, only the rich on this planet can still afford not to. 

For the poor majority of people in poor countries, environmental degradation is often a matter of survival: they live right off the land, water and fish available to them. So resource overconsumption is a matter of intra- and intergenerational justice alike: the rich – this will include most of your readers and myself – can still afford not to care, while it is our consumption patterns that threaten our future. At the same time we are also the ones whose degree of wealth enables us to drive a change in course.

European [opinion] on this matter is mixed: whilst 71% of Europeans agree that politics should protect future generations even if that means some sacrifices for current generations (Eurobarometer August 2010), only 48% are willing to change their own lifestyles. We see a lot of the typical 'why should I be first, others are far worse' reflected in those numbers, and this attitude does not help.

Some debates also get hostile when it comes to limiting my own consumption in favour of individuals or groups I may never meet and that cannot claim it from me. This is much stronger in so-called 'liberal' cultures of individualism. Many emerging market societies also adopt these values now, and it fires right back at the 'enlightened' West: why should they voluntarily stop their consumption levels while we stand to make an honest effort and still use up much more per capita?

Among young people, many are very concerned and the equation less is stress is not much of a lifestyle issue yet. On the other hand, a large proportion are worringly convinced that technological innovation will fix our problems before they get too grave.

Among those groups business as usual can continue if we change the fuel in the tank – and the responsibility to make that happen lies with politicians and businesses. The rebound effect has not entered their realm of perception and personal responsibility feelings remain weak or are even slumping.

Taking this together, I would argue that our increasingly decentralised and automated supply chains with anonymous relationships and opaque chains of consequences threaten an important human trait for sustainability: without experiencing the consequences, without someone reflecting back what our behaviour means for them, it is difficult for us to judge what a fair share may be.

You call for ombudspersons for future generations – why? Who would these people be and how would they be appointed or elected? What would they do exactly and how can they change anything?

The term 'ombudsman' originates in old Norwegian and means citizens' representative, or representative of the public interest. The first mandate is the more widely established and these ombudspersons' offices receive citizens' complaints about maladministration of political programmes or access to information, and worries about the effects of certain policies or projects.

They improve the transparency and accountability of our governance systems and provide important feedback on where policies or governance fails to meet citizens' concerns.

The second mandate is more pro-active and ususally designed to tackle a recognised problem with achieving declared public goals and interests. For example, there are several Ombudspersons for Human Rights or rights of minorities in Europe. In particular, in post-conflict situations they help to educate the public about their rights and how they can protect themselves against violations.

In addition, representatives of these offices have a watchdog mandate that allows for them to enter administrations, hospitals, prisons. These societies found that the public interest of protecting human rights needs more active advocacy and monitoring in order to become a real new norm with a guiding influence.

So we argue that if we witness a continued failure to deliver on our public interest to create long-term sustainable societies, we should equally provide this goal with more institutional backup. In the Hungarian case, we see this commitment reflected in an individual human right to a healthy environment, which is then protected by an Ombudsman for Future Generations to ensure its securing over the long term, including citizens without the ability to protest today.

Sustainable development has been declared the overarching policy goal of the European Union and most constitutions in the world include a state duty to protect the environment. But in almost all countries we do not even define concrete targets and milestones on what delivering on this duty means – and all statistics show that we fail miserably.

Since ministers of the Council of Europe failed to agree on bringing individual rights to a healthy environment into all European constitutions last summer, one solution to protect long-term goals could be an Ombudsperson mandate around those.

The Rio+20 Summit on sustainability provides a perfect opportunity for this: the world community will have to acknowledge that we do not implement the right measures and policies to meet the targets we have agreed on.

And the connection between sustainable development and human rights has been widely lost in the last decade, even though the original definition of 1992 emerged from this link: every generation should satisfy its needs while protecting the means of future generations to do the same. Today we treat sustainable development primarily as a business case and technological fix.

The Brundtland report 'Our Common Future' in 1987 also highlighted the absence of future voices to be at the core of unsustainable use of resources: "We borrow environmental capital from future generations with no intention or prospect of repaying […] We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions."

With the future generations of 1987 being 24 years old now, we need to tackle this implementation problem head on – and Ombudspersons for Future Generations would be an important mechanism for this.

Learning from the existing Future Generations Ombudsman in Hungary, they should be elected by parliament and act completely independently, with citizens' complaints indicating where goverance fails to deliver sustainability.

Mediating across government departments and between sectors would increase knowledge about the integrated nature of environmental, economic and social concerns that still remains weak in our silos of policymaking.

Equipped with a mandate to stop projects and policies whose impacts are doubtful from the long-term point of view, they counter the current pressure in policymaking to cave in to short-term benefit lobbying.

If need be, these Ombudspersons can represent the long-view in front of a court to challenge the continuation of a project, but in practice the shadow of enforcement is often sufficient to agree alternatives.

So overall, such interventions rather speed up conflict resolution and avoid costly court procedures while improving policy coherence.

The more resources allocated to the offices, the more effective they will be. In any case, they will fill the thundering silence on how our decisions today impact the quality of life of citizens living tomorrow, which allows for our ethical judgement on fair shares to improve.

You are concerned about short-termism in general, whether in business or in policy. What, in your view, needs to change? Who needs to do what to overcome this short-termism?

In order to set up governance and market structures that help us stay within the safe operating space that our planetary boundaries provide, we need no less than what has been called a 'Great Transformation'.

A participatory definition of how we want to live together on one planet given the new scientific evidence on unsustainable trends needs to lead into long-term targets, roadmaps entailing updated guidelines and incentives and trust-improving transparency and accountability in the monitoring of the trajectory and milestones.

Long, loud, legal signals are what pioneering businesses are demanding for them to help accellerate the transition – and the population is fed up with the reactive zig-zag courses of many governments in the last few years of crises.

This is of course a big task. It includes the revamping of our accounting, monitoring and policymaking processes as well as some urgent changes in current market structures. Without better transparency on the short-term versus long-term costs of our decisions today, we will not create the political momentum and the business case for a transformation of our policies to guide us onto a sustainable development path.

We need this shift to show that many 'costs' should actually be perceived as 'investments' in a safe future.

The European Environment Agency, but also the TEEB Study and the Stern report, were really clear that the current levels of natural degradation mean that we cannot afford to discount projected price and technology developments from the calculations of costs to protect our environment any longer: waiting longer means much higher costs or even irreversible damage in the future.

This is not reflected in our national accounting systems, nor our more elaborate models of forecasting trends from a systemic point of view. These are better equipped to capture complex systems than the linear economic models we are still applying.

Building on such scientific bases we have to scrutise where our policies and incentives are blocking long-term orientation: subsidies for unsustainable sectors and practices come to mind, but also competition rules and corporate regulation in reporting, standards and rating, as well as the excessive domination of the financial sector, with its myopic speculative disruptions of the real economy.

With better transparency on the intricate links between many of these trends, we will also be able to form new coalitions and new political will behind a future just vision.

The last important component is that we find the courage to install accountability and enforcement mechanisms that actually provide our new goals with teeth: breaking free from the old path dependencies is a hard task that will involve losers and new winners.

Mechanisms to solve those political concerns fairly are crucial for broad support – in particular under the highly unequal and unsustainable distribution of wealth, power and market shares of today.

What do you think needs to be done for 'green demand' to contribute to sustainable development?

The most important measure for green demand is to get the prices to reflect all of their costs, including social and environmental ones. Once again, transparency is key here, both for consumers at the point of sale but also for regulators or even peer-to-peer controlling and meaningful CSR [corporate social responsibility] reporting.

We see a lot of resistance on making costs transparent, even though it is the one single measure that is competition neutral and would lead to some form of effective consumer influence on production.

So pioneering businesses like Puma or Unilever or the social banks showing where their investments flow need to work with policymakers and consumer plattforms to scale this up or, even better, make it binding.

Then again, we should not be fooled [into believing] that consumer choice can make our economies green: we are all working jobs and raising kids etc., occupations that simply do not give us the time to read and check and control all the information on the products out there.

The division of labour in our societies does include the public sector, whose role it has to be to formulate standards and regulations that ensure we have a menu to choose from on which only products that will not threaten our future are offered. Then we can help the pioneers to raise the bar, but not without binding floors.

Another element is the social justice aspect: many consumers are simply not able to pay any higher prices for products. So the poorer parts of our population cannot participate in 'greening demand' strategies unless we have good 'greening supply' strategies ensuring equitable participation in our markets.

Do you have any specific hopes or message regarding Rio+20?

My big hope for Rio+20 is that we will finally liberate ourselves from the misguided perception that very rapid, but admittedly destructive economic growth now will allow us to pay for environmental and social damage later.

For us to live good lives in the future, finance needs to be a servant of the real economy, which in return needs to serve healthy communities that produce and consume in harmony with a healthy planet. The current lense with which we look at feasible desirable and just development has turned this fact entirely on its head. This keeps us from seeing and developing truly sustainable solutions.

So my biggest hope is that we can re-connect with the spirit of 1992, where people and planet were the centre of attention and benchmark for promising proposals. We need to wake up to the fact that all the financial wealth cannot buy back melted glaciers or collapsed oceans, and that people will not live well on eating money.

With that new lens we can define principles and a roadmap for a Green Economy serving Poverty Eradication and Sustainable Development. This roadmap then really needs strong accountability and institutional teeth on all governance levels, so that trust in responsible leadership is renewed, monitored change becomes visible, and citizens worldwide can engage to ensure implementation finally happens.

Looking at the EU Commission Communication, I fear the rich West will shy away from those teeth in their own backyard: all the concrete institutional proposals sit on the UN level, far away from citizens.

I would urge for mechanisms to be added at the national and local level – be it Ombudspersons or something else – that will leave a legacy for meaningful participation for the people in the streets. Otherwise they will never create the new energy for sustainability that the Summit is supposed to generate.

The EU itself should also seize this opportunity to strengthen democratic accountability. The World Future Council commissioned a legislative proposal on how an Ombudsperson for Future Generations could be set up at EU level – without a Treaty amendment. 

We would be glad to see it kick-start a debate about the eradication of short-termism with the Commission and Parliament.

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