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A Manifesto for Democracy and Sustainability

28/03/2013 17:48 GMT | Updated 28/05/2013 10:12 BST

Early this month, Labour published an independent review called 'Overcoming Short-termism within British Business'. The picture was not pretty: "Short-termism has become an entrenched feature of the UK business environment" that "militates against... the UK's future economic prosperity", it warned.

The ensuing debate, barely audible over the sound of no one listening, was gnarled by the semantics of how much and when to pay company bosses. But nobody thought to ask the preceding, more salient questions: what about future social prosperity? What about future environmental prosperity? What, in short, about overcoming short-termism in politics?

To the surprise of a scant hopeful few - along perhaps with shadow chancellor Ed Balls, who praised the report at an EEF National Manufacturing Conference - not a single recommendation from the review made its way into Labour's manifesto. But it bears pointing out that something has gone unusually wrong with politics-as-usual when planning responsibly for tomorrow - to say nothing of the more controversial day after that - proves too risky a gambit for even the opposition to consider.

The Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development demands better. That's why we've a manifesto of our own, the 'Manifesto for Democracy and Sustainability'. Our contention, sharpened by years of research and global consultation, is two-fold: first, world leaders have failed to make democracy fit to tackle the environmental and social threats facing humanity; second, and despite the lot of them, democracy remains the only hope to tackle those threats. But more on that later.

For now, consider the case for immediate action. Just three weeks after the Department of Education revealed plans to remove any explicit reference to climate change from the national curriculum for children under 14, scientists link the UK's bitter spring weather to date to the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice. This after warnings last year from the United Nations Environment Programme that climate change goals remain stubbornly "far from being met". According to numbers from UNEP's GEO-5 report, the developing world would simply have to do us all the favour of giving up if temperatures are to stay inside the so-called "safe" limit of 2°C above pre-industrial levels, past which any number of tipping points are likely to be crossed.

And of course, climate change is only the most obvious challenge to sustainability. Overfishing continues with alacrity, despite the comprehensive collapse of large predatory fish stocks, now down to 10% of their 1900 total. Obesity rates continue to skyrocket, with an additional 76 million obese adults expected in the US and Britain over the next 17 years alone. The UK is again going nuclear after planning consent was granted for two new reactors at Hinkley Point - great for reducing CO2 emissions, less great for reducing nuclear waste. And so on.

But what to do? The better question, we suggest, is the opposite: what not to do? Here, at least, answers are forthcoming.

One response to climate change from the fringe of green politics - often thrown out after a couple of drinks - has been to question democracy itself. Surely a centralised economy such as China's, having grown an astonishing 10% each year for the last three decades, is better suited to confront the urgent need for action on climate change.

This, we submit, is the policy response equivalent of Justin Bieber's recent trip to London - bizarre, reckless and bad for the children.

Pretending for a second that democracy is negotiable - and it's not, even for a second - the pragmatic case against China remains: when governments eschew popular representation for economic growth as a source of legitimacy, the results are anything but sustainable. Just ask the people of Beijing, who can now all but swim through the toxic soup there masquerading as air, or of Shanghai, who earlier this month found the rotting corpses of 16,000 pigs in their water supply.

But if the lure of benign dictatorship is strongest when drunk, the more popular retreat into hyper-localism has been conducted with alarming sobriety. True, there is a certain ring to thinking globally and acting locally. And the grassroots will surely play a vital role in finding broader solutions, whatever those solutions turn out to be. But a million and one Transition Towns will never stop carbon emissions from spilling across international borders. And no matter how good their intentions, delegating the melting ice caps to the fine people of Sioux Falls, South Dakota (or any other place for that matter) just doesn't seem fair. In the end, we're best to work with what we've got - in all its infuriating, improvable imperfection.

Which brings us to the manifesto for democracy and sustainability.

Our proposition, backed by six principles, is simple: the procedural checks and balances of democracy provide the only path to sustainability - but only if meaningful reform can be achieved.
Our ranks, though small, are growing: already our signatories include members of parliament and public officials, among a broad range of concerned citizens, organisations and networks from dozens of countries. And while we don't agree on everything, we do agree on this: it's time to get moving, now.

So please visit the Democracy and Sustainability Platform, where you can read the manifesto (in seven languages, should you wish to do so), watch videos on the case for change, and sign up to get involved. And if you've got anything to add, please share.

This blog post was written by Halina Ward, John Lotherington and Nick Aveling