Political decisions and sustainability (Why on Earth would you want this?)

This blog has a lot of posts on gaps: the sustainability gap, the yield gap, the research implementation gap, the connections among them and the possible solutions. Here I argue that political decisions could explain at least part of this “knowing doing gap”. In doing so, I will not bring so many pertinent references but rely on my young professional path so far.

First what is a political decision? Political decisions could be defined as decisions whose result is the emergence of power. In any particular historical situation they would be those decisions whose result is a modification of the previously existing power situation (Leoni, 1957). A more down-to-earth definition presents a political decision as „based on or motivated by partisan or self-serving objectives”. From my experience so far I would say that this second definition applies without fail to our everyday life.

Now how does a political decision work? Well I really don’t know and I am not sure I would like to know. My total lack of political finesse (short for reading in between the lines) prevents me from understanding any of the mechanisms behind it. Probably there are some good references discussing the subject in depth from a theoretical perspective but of doubtful utility. The situation on the ground is dramatically different. You need to possess an innate ability or at least a special character to grasp any of its mechanisms.

Political decisions are used as a panacea for explaining anything from class rules, to the dress code of a company, to financial crisis and the faith of humanity. (Who is familiar with Bucharest will probably know that even the new curbs of the pavements come from a political decision). Thus political decisions are uncomfortable for some, irrational for others and generally advantageous for a minority. During my training in an NGO, a public institution and an international organisation I was permanently confused by the same thing: the collocation “political decision” (with its alternative “strategic” decision) has substituted the plain terms like “bias”, “unfair” and even the plastic „partisan”.

I also learnt that political actors usually have different motivations, agendas, time schedules and limits. My biggest shock was at the COP 15 climate negotiations in Copenhagen when I heard all those chief of states, state representatives and civil servants stating so fervently that they want a legally binding global agreement. The contrast between what they said and the political decision taken at the end was as big as the newly discovered NGC 4889 galaxy in the Coma constellation. Moreover, what I heard from the official speeches didn’t match at any point what the „experts” understood. The same happened to me during the short contact I had with the world of environmental diplomacy. The tone with which political decision were explained to me was the same as in 1+1 = 2, but my astonishment was as big as if I have seen a two headed half giraffe, half hippopotamus wearing a pink dotted pyjamas walking on the ceiling.

Understanding political decisions and confronting them could be of use not only for bridging the research implementation gap but also for filling the sustainability gap along with finding ways to building consensus between policy and science, between policy makers and society. Political ecology is potentially rising as a promising discipline to do this. It can’t be blamed for making environmental issues political because they are already so.

Another way to go about sustainability would be to fundament political decisions on research results. Thus, one key to sustainability could be filling the space between knowing and acting with (if possible!) non destructive decisions and long term rigorously argumented choices. The question remains who would be “silly” enough to do such a thing knowing that in the best case scenario, political decisions have to make sense only from a political point of view and are solely based on political facts? To put it bluntly and simplistically if it doesn’t make sense for humankind, it’s probably a political decision.

Leoni, B., 1957. The Meaning of ‘Political’ in Political Decisions. Political Studies, 5: 225–239.

The Free Online Dictionary. www.thefreedictionary.com accessed 10.01.2012.

4 thoughts on “Political decisions and sustainability (Why on Earth would you want this?)

  1. Have you read Paul Robbins’s Political Ecology? I consider it a masterful work, and it deals, to some extent, with some of the ideas you put here.

    The unintelligibility of “political” decisions always seems odd to me — they often seem perfectly in line with what I would expect given the combinations of incentives and institutions at hand. For example, at COP15–it wouldn’t do for most countries to say “we don’t care what happens” or “we want optional limits”, and indeed, they probably *did* want binding limits to some extent; that is, if somehow binding limits were set over everybody, it may stop anybody from being singularly, overly disadvantaged by having some limits be voluntary. (That is, the only way anyone will want to undergo some of the relevant “pain” is everybody has to undergo some of the “pain.”)

    But, while realizing that they must (should?) voice the “reasonable” opinion that there should be binding limits, and possibly even hoping such limits would magically manifest, it is of course in many of the countries (and more relevantly, their heads of states) manifest interest to *not* agree to specific limits. The resources to provide their citizens with whatever standards of life are deemed appropriate depend not just on continuing to exploit resources, but depends heavily on *the powerful private concerns who are conducting the exploiting of resources*.

    Said another way, I’ve heard the expression “A politician will always make the right choice… as long as it’s the only choice left available to them.” No doubt many (though not all) of the politicians at COP15 knew that action on climate change was the “right” choice, but at the same time, few of them would face electoral defeat if they came home without a deal (and no few of them *would* face defeat if they did). It represents what could be viewed as a collective action problem on a huge scale — and while many, many possible solutions to CA problems are known, how to apply it at the scale of 185 countries is… not. La Via Campesina, Occupy Wall Street, and other growing movements, I think, represent part of the future answer; Hardt & Negri’s “Multitude” speaks to this as well. (Not a perfect work, but has many useful conceptualizations.)

  2. Pingback: Happy birthday to our blog: One year of “Ideas4Sustainability” | Ideas for Sustainability

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