We shouldn’t leave an environmental deficit for the next generation, says Peter Knight

Swallow this: the Tea Party is giving environmentalists lessons on how to communicate about intergenerational equity. Or put it another way, why the survival of pretty pandas, ugly warthogs and tuna fish sandwiches really matters.

Intergenerational equity – allowing future generations the same survival chances as us – is fundamental to the idea of sustainable development. Why bother having children if you’re going to give them and their progeny a parched patch of earth to scratch on?

Our societies will not sustain themselves, the argument goes, unless we protect the environment that provides us with the ability to feed and water ourselves.

Furthermore, those pandas, warthogs and crawly critters that hide under stones are all part of a complicated ecosystem where the individual components are interdependent – remove one from the mix by eating too many of them and whoosh, the system starts misfiring.

This is the reason why we have so many starfish in parts of the Atlantic (we gobbled up all the cod), and plagues of jellyfish (blamed on everything from climate change and pollution run-off to the effects of over-fishing including a surfeit of plankton for the jellyfish to feast on).

The vulnerability of ecosystems seems pretty easy to understand. Why then are we plundering the earth? Why is it so damned difficult to communicate the importance of biodiversity to politicians and business?

The people who have the hardest time getting their message across are those tasked with trying to get business to understand the essential role of “ecosystem services”. The recent UN biodiversity conference in Japan was a brilliant exhibition of academics talking to policy wonks in a language that went way over the heads of business.

Ecosystems services are the basic things we need to live and work every day: water, air, fertile soil, etc. Everyone and every business needs these services. Some, such as farmers, might seem to need them more than others, such as bond traders.

Nature matters

But even the top feeders at Goldman Sachs need a healthy environment: in the end, financial services are just as dependent on nature as the Texan cattleman.

Of course this interdependency is not something that those outside the agriculture business spend much time worrying about. And why should they? The rain won’t stop this quarter or next. The desert advancing on Beijing will not arrive tomorrow or even next year. There might not be a lot of blue fin tuna left, but hey, there’s plenty of yellow fin that tastes similar when dunked in soy sauce.

And this is the problem. It is not us who are going to suffer. Neither will little Johnny who has just got into the classy prep on the Upper East Side – he’ll be rich enough to pay for rare sushi. For most of us the steady degradation of nature is easy to ignore. We don’t have to sacrifice our comfortable lifestyles starting Monday.

Biodiversity campaigners are totally stumped by the short-term thinking of their target audience. That’s why they should start taking communications lessons from the Tea Party.

The Tea Party has been characterised as a bunch of crazy right-wing nutters whose racism has energised their campaign to get rid of Obama. But Tea Party members come in many shapes and sizes. Whatever their failings, they have totally mastered the art of communicating the concept of intergenerational equity.

They got the voters to understand that it is bad to mortgage your future. They have successfully argued that you can’t run an ever-larger national debt, because future generations will have to pay it back. And if subsequent generations inherit debts that are too big for them to service, the whole enterprise capsizes and little Johnny’s Johnny will be sleeping in a plastic tent with some hungry Haitians.

One of the reasons for the Tea Party’s success during the US mid-term elections (for senate, congress and many state governors) is that they rallied their followers behind the idea that big deficits (favoured by the Obama administration) are a bad thing. Not so much for us today, but a problem for little Johnny.

If Tea Party fanatics can get sceptical voters to grasp the concept, why can’t environmentalists?

Perhaps the overeducated academics and policy wonks from the UN and campaigning NGOs should arise from their ergonomic chairs and enjoy a hot beverage with Tea Party strategists. After all, they have something in common: tea needs water and fertile soils. Just like the next generation. And the one after that.

Peter Knight is president of Context America.

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