Wanted: A political leader with a vision for a sustainable future

28 August 2013 | Helen Camakaris*

This article first appeared in The Conversation on 28 August 2013.

Our brains predispose us to a quick fix, but with the right leadership we could choose a path to different future. PHOTO SCOTT OGILVIE

A sustainable future remains within our grasp but – thanks to the way human brains work – only governments can implement many of the necessary strategies. Our political leaders have a unique responsibility.

Consensus politics and compromise may well be the only way that we can deal with existential threats such as climate change, food and water scarcity, and the social disruption that would inevitably follow. If the current election campaign is anything to go by, these concepts do not come easily to Australia’s political leaders. But perhaps that will change.

Humanity’s approach to these problems is limited by the way our brains have evolved. Climate change presents a challenge to our evolved altruism, which is circumscribed by expectations of benefit to kin or reciprocal reward and an obsession with fairness.

Similarly, our drives to seek status and consume goods are largely instinctive; our evolved intelligence has simply taken them to a higher level. Unfortunately contemplating the long-term future is not on our radar. That is why good government is so important.

So can our current political leaders guide us toward a safer world?

We need leaders who are prepared to put forward long-term plans for decades, even centuries, something which does not come naturally since we evolved to live in the present, and our instincts encourage us to discount the future and underestimate risk. They must resist the temptation to appeal only to immediate self-interest, a shortcoming of our current adversarial democracy and short election cycles where leaders appeal constantly to the hip-pocket nerve.

Consensus on intractable problems could be achieved by a commitment to multi-party committees. Bi-partisan think tanks that include Members of Parliament and independent experts can help circumvent parochial attitudes, and foster rational decision-making for the long-term future. Indeed, a party that commits to such a model for helping to formulate policy for intractable problems might well win support in the electorate.

Governments must extend the use of incentives and disincentives to satisfy our desire for fairness. Where policy to promote long-term sustainability conflicts with immediate self-interest, clever strategies can guide behaviour while still providing choice. In Australia, the carbon tax was coupled with compensation for most citizens and some industries, making the personal cost minimal.

Unfortunately, the Liberal Party’s Direct Action Plan fails to offer any incentive to individuals to decrease fossil fuel energy use. It would also fail to deliver the minimum 5% cut by 2020 without an injection of a further $4 billion. It would be necessary to either increase taxes or decrease services and, since paying for a secure future does not come naturally, there is a significant risk that Australia would abandon its pledge.

The Direct Action Plan also demonstrates our genetic predisposition to live in the present. There would be no mechanism for Australia to achieve the necessary further cuts beyond 2020. In contrast, Labor’s emissions trading scheme links our efforts to global action, and the introduction of a cap would ensure that we meet future obligations.

The government must also recognise our responsibility toward citizens of future generations, and those beyond our borders who will be affected by our actions. Such attitudes are not instinctive because of the origins of altruism, but they are morally equitable. The disadvantaged in developing nations have a right to move toward a reasonable standard of living. Sanitation, health care, and adequate food and water are basic human rights, and the simple comforts of life could all be provided by green electricity with support from the developed world.

Stewardship of Earth must be seen as a government responsibility. Currently both parties promote growth but continuing growth is impossible on a finite planet, a fact that is not intuitively apparent to many people. Might we able to able to move toward the goal of sustainability if the government incorporated gradual changes that move us in the right direction?

The developed world must ultimately move toward a steady state economy. Many countries already have a per capita GDP close to zero – such a situation could be normalised and still provide a good quality of life. There are a number of strategies that would move us in this direction.

Gradually introduced cradle-to-grave pricing incorporating social and environmental costs would decrease consumption and moderate growth, and might be a more acceptable way to increase government revenue than an across-the-board increase in GST.

Reduced working hours as an optional alternative to increased salaries would also moderate consumption, ease unemployment, reduce inequity and increase leisure time, and would undoubtedly be popular with sections of the electorate. Research has shown that happiness does not increase above a modest income, but is a product of the quality of our relationships, our engagement with community, and time for pursuing our interests.

Runaway growth is also fed by the salary “arms race”, particularly in the corporate sector. The instinctive drive to demonstrate status is then made visible by the purchase of inordinately expensive homes and prestige cars, driving conspicuous consumption. Instead status could be recognised by relative salaries maintained within limits by regulation or taxation, complemented by honours and significant privileges.

The rush to exploit our natural resources should also be slowed down to provide for the future, again something we instinctively tend to ignore. A significant tax on mining profits that creates a healthy future fund would leave more resources in the ground, provide income for new industries for the future, and decrease the extraordinary incomes and extravagant lifestyles that flow to the lucky few through happenstance.

We must frame this debate in the context of leaving a habitable world for future generations, and highlighting humanity’s common heritage. The world desperately needs countries that will lead: there’s no reason why ours shouldn’t be one of them.

* Helen Camakaris is an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Melbourne

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