The Future started yesterday

 

The term “sustainable development”  forms part of the contemporary poltical lexicon.

It is unfortunately generally a greenwash engaged upon by politicians whose gaze cannot consider more than a three to four year timeframe.  To make any sense the politics of sustainable development must be and in fact is measured in terms of generations and is commonly referred to as a “long term view”.

The Brundtland report which  is credited with setting the sustainable development ball rolling in contemporary politics was presented to the United Nations General Secretary in 1987. Entitled “Our Common Future” it was the result of the deliberations of the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland former Norwegian Prime Minister.

The Brundtland report is very clear in its first pages.  In the introductory chapter  we are told that “We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote ; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.”

This one sentence encapsulates the significance and objectives of the politics of sustainable development:  the future has to be factored in today’s decisons. We cannot plan the present without considering its impacts on the future. Future generations have a right to take their own decisions.They need to be in a position to take their decisions without being obstructed by limitations imposed by their ancestors.

During the preparatory meetings for the Rio 1992 Earth Summit, delegations  discussed the impacts of development on various vulnerable groups. Sustainable development requires new forms of participation in decision making as a result of which those sectors of society which are normally on the fringes are reintegrated into the process.  Women, children, youth, indigenous groups, NGOs and local authorities were identified by Agenda 21 at Rio in 1992 as vulnerable groups. Other sectors such as trade unions and business/industry require a strengthened role such that there voice is heard and forms an integral part of the decision taking process.

In the process leading to the Rio 1992 Earth Summit Malta presented the UN with submissions focusing with another vulnerable group, future generations. This was done in a document dated 21 February 1992 submitted to Working GroupIII of the Preparatory Committee of the UN Rio Conference which met in New York  in early March 1992.

In paragraph 17 of its document Malta proposed to go beyond rhetoric through the inclusion in the 1992 Rio Declaration on the Environment of the following:

“ We declare that each generation has, in particular, the responsibility to ensure that in any national or international forum, where it is likely that a decision is taken affecting the interests of future generations, access be given to an authorised person appointed as “Guardian” of future generations to appear and make submissions on their behalf, so that account be taken of the responsibilities stated in this Declaration and the obligations created thereby.”

Malta’s proposal was developed by the International Environment Institute of the University of Malta within the framework of its “Future Generations Programme”.  In 1992 Malta’s proposal was not taken up in the Rio Declaration on the Environment however it has resurfaced in the current Rio+20 process.

In what is known as the zero draft, that is the draft final document of the Rio+20 sustainable development conference due to be held next June,  the international community is proposing to consider the setting up of an “Ombudsperson or High Commissioner for Future Generations to promote Sustainable Development” (paragraph 57 of the document The Future We Want).  This proposal, if implemented, would eventually lead to consider impacts on Future Generations of international initiatives.

In parallel with the developments on a international level which may eventualy lead to the United Nations focusing on the rights of future generations to promote Sustainable Development the Government in Malta has published draft legislation which introduces a Guardian of Future Generations. This was proposed by the Greens in Malta during consultations carried out by the Minsitry for the Environment and was taken up by government when the final draft of the legislation was drawn up.

The Bill, entitled “Sustainable Development Act”  recognizes for the first time that Future Generations (in Malta) have rights which can be impaired by today’s decisions. It provides for the creation of a Commission to be known as the Guardian for Future Generations which is to be made up of a President appointed by the Prime Minister and three other members hailing from environmental NGOs, business fora and social and community NGOs.

The Guardian for Future Generations will be assigned duties related to sustainable development ranging from sustainable development advocacy across national policymaking to encouraging NGOs and the private sector to participate in sustainable development initiatives. Given the functions and role of the Guardian I think that it would be more appropriate and effective if instead of a Commission it is just one person  appointed by the Head of State rather than by the Prime Minister.

It is unfortunate that the Bill confirms the abolition of the National Commission for Sustainable Development and in its stead proposes the creation of a Network made up of 8 persons, these being a mix of public officers and representatives of civil society. The National Commission was much larger and had the advantage of being composed of a wider cross section of civil society together with representatives of all the Ministries. Whilst it is clear that government’s objective in creating the Network is to create a lean, efficient  and effective structure, I submit that this is not incompatible with retaining the National Commission which through its extensive reach was and can still be an effective sounding board where the politics of sustainable development is moulded.  The involvement of a wide range of stakeholders is imperative in creating or reinforcing structures for sustainable development.

These developments signify that present generations are slowly coming to their senses and recognising the fact that the impacts of today’s decisions will be felt far into the future. Giving a role to future generations today would ensure that their right to take their own decisions tomorrow is not restricted by the decisions we take today. Then we can proceed to mitigate the impacts of decisions taken in the past.  As the future began yesterday!

published in The Independent on Sunday – Environment Supplement, January 29, 2012

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