After Copenhagen

by Michael Bartlet

I was aware of the danger of global warming from childhood. An inspiring geography teacher taught us about the dangers of the destruction of the Amazonian rain forest. I first experienced it for myself, in 1988, on a visit to the Central Bank’s national gallery in Quito, Ecuador. We had been walking in the Sierra and were looking at eighteenth century paintings of the Andean volcanoes. It was striking that the mantle of snow was deeper and more extensive in each of the paintings than on every peak we knew. The same experience reverberated, on a deeper level, twenty years later, climbing the Alps above Chamonix. Walking in the Aiguille du Midi, in the shadow of the glaciers on Mont Blanc, in June, the stillness of the mountain air was torn by the rumble of avalanches and the crash of rocks echoing around the valley. The mountains were quite literally crumbling. The fabric of the Alps is falling apart as the ice that has been the glue, cementing ridges together for thousands of years, begins to melt. 

During the negotiation of a climate treaty in Copenhagen, an important conversation about climate change briefly sputtered into flame and caught fire on a political level. The failure of those negotiations has led to fragmentation and fear within the environmental movement. There is a need, now, to find a common language to engage with the environmental crisis, a language that is truthful and acknowledges the possibility of political change. It is not a task for any one political party, newspaper or NGO. It is a task for everyone who cares. It is only with a shared language that we can grieve over past failures and then create the policies for future generations.   

Last chance saloon

At Copenhagen the message shouted from the roof tops was, this is ‘the last chance to save the planet.’ What now that this last chance has passed? The movement has been bitten by its own sound bite. Rather like a millenarian sect left behind when the last trumpet has failed to sound, there are no longer the resources to face the future. What remains is a Babel of voices lacking any coherent political grammar.

Industrialists like Ted Nordhaus put their faith in salvation by the ‘white heat’ of twenty-first century technology. He advocates agro-industrialism and ‘large central station power technologies that can meet the needs of billions of people increasingly living in the dense mega cities of the global south.’ For George Monbiot, the Japanese earthquake and the “the crisis at Fukushima has converted (him) to the cause of nuclear power.” Romantics, such as Paul Kingsnorth, oppose any engagement with a system in crisis and have retreated into the sanctuary of a ‘personal conviction,’ built on “feelings”, and “responses that go back to the moors of northern England.”  His is a conviction unsullied by the dark and messy compromises of politics. New puritans prioritise the power of personal example, believing in the capacity of individuals to inspire collective changes in behaviour. Old socialists favour regulation. But the need, surely, is to combine feeling with thought, neither denying the seriousness of the crisis nor closing our minds to a ‘radical hope’ that deep political change is possible. Imagination is as necessary as science.    

What we need today is to bring together, with a common purpose, people thinking about social justice, democracy and the environmental movement. If democracy is narrowed to a sense of winning elections, it is intrinsically short term and often antithetical to long term thinking about sustainability. On a deeper level democracy, equality and sustainability become part of a coherent vision of the public good. The word democracy needs to be reclaimed in its philosophical sense. It is, in essence, a capacity for collective self-criticism, in which society can learn from the past. It is also the practice of equality: representative elections are only its most ephemeral expression.

Equality between people, whether social or geographical, requires an exercise of empathy. When extended imaginatively into the future, it implies sustainability because it is requires the continuity of access to a vitality and variety of resources for future generations equivalent at least, to that which we have for our own. Democracy, in its deep sense, involves a political conversation and interaction between people, their contested ideas and interests, premised on respect for their right to live together. Human rights are the hallmark of democracy. But thinking about these foundational rights needs to be congruent with the environmental context, ‘the foundation’ of life itself. Sustainability however elusive implies, not mortgaging the present to the future. In the words of the Brundtland commission not, “compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”            

Rebalancing politics

Rebalancing politics to meet these challenges, will require the imagination to articulate a new generation of ecological rights. This would become a third generation of human rights that builds on the first generation of civil and political rights and the second of economic and social rights. Such rights would become a rational counterpart to the principle of equality extended to future generations. They would need to be entrenched in the constitution, not only of this country, but of all democratic nations. These rights cannot be allowed to extinguish the rights and liberties that give the environmental and democratic movement both its energy and legitimacy. But neither can they be ignored in the name of a laissez-faire liberalism.

The right of an individual to self-expression is the hallmark of John Stuart Mill’s Liberty. But neither human rights nor the rule of law imply the right to unfettered corporate advertising in determining the outcome of elections.  For Wendell Holmes in paraphrasing Mill, “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” In the twenty first century the right to melt the polar ice-caps ends where the Maldives drown.

Political literacy is harder than political correctness. It means learning to think. What is required is deep public support for a rational matrix of rights and responsibilities that can only be limited for a legitimate end. The concept of proportionality offers a key to this understanding. To limit a right, there needs to be a legitimate end, a rational connection with that end, and the means used needs to be both proportionate and the least restrictive alternative.   

New ways of collective action

If the environmental movement is to offer a vision of ‘radical hope’ it will need to engage with the democratic and human rights movements to find new ways of collective action so as to hold the irresponsible exercise of power to account. Redistribution and sustainability will need to go hand in hand. There will need to be a new alliance between those in the affluent north (and for this purpose north is a shorthand for all those with an abundance of wealth) who are prepared to prioritise respect for environmental limits over unlimited standards of living, in the developing world and in northern cities, and the poorest who will only respect the need for sustainability and the needs of future generations once their most basic needs are met.

The challenge is to protect and develop the rights and liberties available for citizens in affluent western democracies today and extend these entitlements to those in the developing world and to future generations. For Edmund Burke, ‘patron saint’ of the Conservative Party, society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”. We are each of us in our personal relationships, our hopes and fears, a living bridge between the past and the future. We need to become more deeply aware of the ways in which our decisions today, our patterns of consumption, our needs and greeds, shape the kind of world in which our descendants live tomorrow.

To meet this challenge we will need the imagination to create a rational and optimistic narrative that is open to new forms of representative politics alongside the insights of classical democracy. The Equality Act and the Climate Change Bill are recent examples of where the UK government has used legislative processes to better  itself or create positive obligations to act. Finland already has a Parliamentary ‘Committee for the Future’. Hungary has an Ombudsman for future generations. Such action is not just the prerogative of the rich North. In Latin America, Ecuador, became, in 2008, the first country to recognise legally enforceable rights of nature or ecosystem rights.  Another concept would apply Plato’s idea of ‘Guardians’, above sectarian political divisions, to Burke’s cross-generational social partnership by appointing, ‘Guardians for the future’ – to guarantee inter-generational fairness and protect environmental rights.

Neither submission to the irresponsible demands of global finance nor retreat to the moors is possible. Personal experience and reason need to go hand in hand. We face a shared task of creating the political momentum for an international movement that is democratic, sustainable and just and that one that is based on a deep commitment to environmental rights. 

This article is published by Michael Bartlet, and under a Creative Commons licence. It is republished here with attribution for non-commercial purposes following the CC guidelines. Michael Bartlet lives in St Albans. He is a member of Westminster Quaker Meeting and works as Parliamentary Liaison Secretary for Quakers in Britain.

The author wishes to thank Tim Baster for his very helpful comments in developing his thinking on these issues.


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