Political populism and sustainability

The first response of a scientist or scholar to surprising physical or cultural events is to want to understand them.  And in this spirit, my reaction to the political events of 2016, and potentially to those yet to come, is to seek understanding.  By constructing an explanation for unsettling events, the world seems again a safer place.

So it helps me to understand that political populism has not just arrived, unwelcome, from nowhere.  It is a reaction to the rising globalism of the last 30 years.  The ideology of globalism is rooted in the post-Cold War neo-liberal doctrine of the Washington Consensus.  It envisioned a world moving inextricably toward the adoption of a unified set of rules and standards–in economics, politics, and international relations.  National borders would gradually lose relevance and even disappear.  Cultural distinctions would give way to universal values. Electoral democracy and market capitalism would spread the world over.  Eventually, all countries would be governed in more or less the same way.

Populism is a rejection of this centrist consensus.  Populist politicians speak for those who have felt excluded from conventional politics and who have not seen the benefits of globalism.  Populism favours direct democracy over representative democracy and seeks simple answers to complex problems—whether leaving the EU, building a wall, excluding Muslims or, we might also add, dealing with climate change through one-shot solutions such as taxing carbon or re-engineering the solar climate.

Populism is a rejection of the neo-liberal establishment consensus which has benefitted enough people to count, but too few to matter.  The UK’s Gini Coefficient, for example, has been steadily rising since the late 1970s.  The line “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”–taken from W B Yeats’ 1919 poem Second Coming–would be an apt epitaph for a lost post-War liberal consensus that we baby-boomers grew up with and took for granted.  Interestingly, this line was used by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe as the title for his award-winning 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, a powerful story about the disorienting effects, not of populism on the liberal mind, but of colonialism on rural Nigerian culture.

Maybe the world we are presently moving towards is one of those described by the shared socio-economic pathways (the so-called SSPs) recently put together by an international team of climate change social scientists.  Amongst their family of five narratives is SSP-3, labelled Regional Rivalry: A Rocky Road.  This is how it is described: “A resurgent nationalism, concerns about competitiveness and security, and regional conflicts push countries to increasingly focus on domestic or, at most, regional issues.  Policies shift over time to become increasingly oriented toward national and regional security issues. Countries focus on achieving energy and food security goals within their own regions at the expense of broader-based development. Investments in education and technological development decline. Economic development is slow, consumption is material-intensive, and inequalities persist or worsen. Population growth is low in industrialized and high in developing countries.  A low international priority for addressing environmental concerns leads to strong environmental degradation in some regions.”

So the western liberal assumption of ongoing incremental progress toward ever greater enlightenment, equality and transnationalism, if not dethroned, is certainly challenged.  But as we enlightened post-Copernican liberals know, it is the earth that moves, not the sun; the political world turns, as it has before and will do so again, and again.  We should not be surprised by these political earthquakes, even if we might be unsettled by them.  Turbulence is the norm.

So what should be our response to the apparent rejection of liberal values of tolerance, multi-culturalism and transnationalism?  And what specifically for those of us working in the fields of environment, social justice and sustainability?  Let me offer three responses, not as alternatives, but perhaps as essential complementarities:

  • First, we should adapt to the times. There is a need to re-frame environmental concerns and policy interventions around different agendas; this would include framings benefits of policy interventions as local more than global and would require the recognition of the new geographies of inequality–not North-South or urban-rural, but those based on property rights, skills training, digital access and legacy wealth.
  • Yet, second, at the same time, we should resist the times. It is important to be explicit about the values that drive sustainability narratives, where they arise from and why we hold them; we should not hide behind the veils of science, expertise and technological, economic or epistemic hubris.  We will always know less than we would like, yet we will always be guided by our values.
  • And third, in addition, we should attend to the ethos of the expert, rather than their status. An even more important description of our times than of being “post-truth”, is the notion that we live in a “post-trust” society.  The last few years in the UK alone have seen the ethos of bankers, MPs, sports men and women, priests, journalists and scientists undermined through corruption, deceit, illegality and fake data.  The most valued attribute of the expert is not their qualifications, their training, experience or insight—it is their character, their ethos.  The virtues of honesty, integrity, wisdom, humility, kindness and love apply here-to the expert, to you and to me–as much as they do anywhere.  This is another sort of transformation that is called for.


Mike Hulme, 14 March 2017

* This essay is a transcript of my contribution to the conference Sustainability in Turbulent Times, held at County Hall, London, on Thursday 16 March 2017, organised by the Nexus Network and the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity.  In the session to which I contributed, we were asked to reflect on the implications of recent swings towards populism and nationalism around the world, for the relationship between inequality, democracy and sustainability.