Planetary what?! How can we all flourish without pushing the earth to the limit?

Networking with non NGO folk is always interesting, and a welcome change.  Last week I found myself honing my networking skills with scientists and lawyers. There was a bit of stumbling on my part when I had to scratch around for a follow up question after a scientist had shared with me their specialism. It was an insightful time.

It was organised by the Planetary Boundaries Initiative.  Planetary Boundaries (see picture) rockstrometalare rising up the wonk vernacular but other than that it still only sounds interesting to my Trekkie or Doctor Who friends. If you haven’t come across this term yet, it basically refers to the systems that help keep the earth habitable for humans. The problem is human activity is now biting the hand that feeds it, so to speak, so much so that we are causing some of those systems to break down. The PBI was set up to explore how a legal governance response could help us live within our limits, and therefore keep those systems functioning. For example, one of those systems is CO2 levels and this week marks the publication of the latest scientific findings on the projections for climate change and impact on us – a governance response for that would be legally binding UN resolutions.

Here are a few of reflections from the event:

1.     Are we prepared to face the real problem?

Absolute poverty has decreased but social equity and environmental degradation have worsened. Is this the future we desire? These problems – associated with PBs – are symptomatic of something deeper: the system we’re locked into.  What’s driving it? Growth came up a lot when discussing barriers for change. Economic growth ultimately, but growth in so many areas – population, continued growth in our incomes, the desire to have more stuff and the latest version of multiple gadgets, growth in industries, GDPs etc. We’re not content with what we have and this incessant pursuit of growth means that the earth is bulging at the seams and could be tipped over into unknown consequences for humans within my lifetime.

But the solutions seem to be too slow, only scratch the surface or, quite frankly, viewed as too barmy. One participant admitted she had wanted to raise the issue of no-growth economics at an EC meeting in Brussels recently but didn’t want to be laughed out of the room. Is it a viable option or can we make capitalism work for us in new and better ways? Either way, if we want to flourish without pushing the earth’s limits, it requires major changes in the lifestyles of the world’s rich – mostly us in the west. There are also big implications for the growth trajectories of developing countries. Both of these are bitter pills to swallow and what politician wants to be the first to taste that medicine?

2.     Rational arguments rarely win on their own

As one participant asked, “if the public aren’t taking note of the science, what will make them change?” For some, mostly those convinced by evidence and logical arguments, can’t believe that science won’t win people over. This reminded me of a quote I saw in the Guardian last week by the Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He placed firm support in the fact that ‘rational people’ will be convinced by the report due out at the end of this week. While I eagerly await the findings (though not much will be a surprise due to the amount of leaks), I’m in the minority – if my friends are even aware of the report, it certainly won’t change their lifestyles.

Another participant got a bit closer by asking how we get an article in Metro newspaper. But that’s still just one part in bringing about change in people’s behaviour and for me; some key people were missing in the room that would have helped us in our discussions

3.    We need a wide range of help

Behavioural scientists, psychologists, political economists, communications experts and more of civil society, to name a few who need to be round the table. The event with PBI was a great starting point but we need to get to grips with what changes people’s values and behaviours if we are going to see radical change. This is often the long route to change, but arguably longer lasting. Civil society has a key role to play too – and it was great to see a couple of other NGOs there and also a representative from trade unions.


At one point I had that depressing sinking feeling, after I had chatted with an academic over lunch and I reflected on the enormity of the problems, and the political and business inertia to really respond at scale and in time. But overall I came away hopeful and ready to get back to the office as we dig deeper into all this and explore how our advocacy experience and global networks can help bring about change.


What will be the development “buzz words” of 2013?

Apart from being the year of the wonderful London Olympics, 2012 has been the year of the doughnut and sustainable development goals; land grabs and tax dodgers; debate about whether we should give aid to India or to Rwanda; and a new focus on inequality – in the international development NGO bubble, at least.

We didn’t get legislation on 0.7%, or any real progress at the UN climate talks in Doha.  But we did get a Number 10 High Level Meeting on Hunger and a new focus from David Cameron on the “golden thread” of development – whatever that actually means. We’ve been talking about the scourge of hunger and a need for investment in agriculture overseas, at the same time seeing alarming demand for food banks here in the UK.


Justine Greening MP (picture from DFID website)

We have had a new Secretary of State for International Development here in the UK in the form of Justine Greening, an EU in economic crisis and a re-elected US President who we’re all willing to do something a bit more radical on climate and development – but we’re not holding our breath.

So, it’s that time of year where we look forward to what we might be talking about in 2013.  Here’s my best guess, which is obviously bound to look horribly out of date by around April…

1. Transparency

In his Wall Street Journal article, David Cameron set out why he feels transparency has such an important role to play in development. Our partners in Tanzania, carrying out public expenditure projects to ensure that schools and clinics get the funding they need, couldn’t agree more. The UK is chair of the G8 and of the Open Government Partnership in 2013 and is in a strong position to drive forward initiatives that can increase transparency, both in how governments raise money (particularly tax payments and money for natural resources) and how they spend it – with more open budgets. The EU are also in the final stage of debating the expected legislation to make oil, gas and mining companies publish what they pay to governments, which is something Tearfund has been campaigning for and which should really help communities to track how the money is spent.

2013 could be a really good year for transparency. But transparency should not be seen as a panacea.  Making financial information public is a great start, but it needs to be in a format which is easily accessed and understood by local communities.  Capacity has to be built so that people can digest it and then speak out.  And a free press and accountable governance structures are vital.  Tearfund will be working with our partners on new research on how best to build on transparency to bring about lasting change over the next year.

2. Planetary Boundaries

ImageThe global climate change talks have all but ground to a halt.  There is a fundamental disagreement about how to balance the cost of putting development on a more sustainable footing – between developed nations who are responsible for nearly all carbon emissions historically, or the rapidly developing middle income countries whose future carbon emissions could be substantial. And carbon is but one of 9 planetary boundaries which have already been breached or are likely to be soon.

Oxfam have done a brilliant job of bringing life to the science behind this concept and of making it relevant to the international development debate. And Alex Evans has written about the importance of bringing this thinking into the debate on the new framework for development which will succeed the Millennium Development Goals (and should bring in the new sustainable development goals).  I’m confident that this issue will continue to rise up the development agenda given it’s urgency and because – as the poorest communities are affected first and most deeply when the environment deteriorates – it is fundamentally about justice. We need to continue to work together to re-frame the climate change debate and to build a public mandate for truly sustainable development across the globe.

3. Predistribution

A bit left-field here, but predistribution is an idea initially put forward by US academic Jacob Hacker but gaining popularity with the centre-Left in the UK and elsewhere.  Basically it is the idea that the state should try to prevent inequalities occurring in the first place rather than trying to reduce them through the tax and benefits system. In the UK it is an idea that has become quite strongly linked to the living wage campaign.

But to me, predistribution is the essence of what the development debate should be about. Rather than squabbling about a minimal aid budget, we should be focused on tackling the root causes of inequality – both between and within nations. And of course, that is what many NGO campaigns are about.  But we still need to make that idea more popular and palatable – and I suppose wonk words like predistribution may not help that cause! But it could give these ideas more political saliency, at least in some quarters.

So, those are my thoughts, but what do you think?  What are the obvious things missing from this list?