12 August 2012

It's the Legacy that matters

No I’m not talking about the Olympic Games, but the much wider issue of what kind of legacy we are leaving our children and future generations. It’s a natural human instinct for people to make sacrifices for the benefit of their children; who doesn’t want to think that they will have better lives, more opportunity, greater success than was available to us. But is it what we are really providing them with today?

A few months ago I attended an event at which Jonathan Porritt, former Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission – a body which our government in its wisdom decided we no longer needed – and co-founder of Forum for the Future, lamented the fact that the green agenda had failed to create a compelling story to inspire people to live a more sustainable life. This failure has left sustainability and environmentalism as peripheral issues in a world which continues to be dominated by an obsession with economic growth.

I think a key element missing from the green story may have been a failure to challenge the economic approach to securing our children’s future. Get a job, work hard, buy a house, raise your kids, push them to work hard at school so they can go to University, so they get a better job ... repeat ad infinitum. It’s a recipe which in recent generations has played out positively thanks to the rapid economic growth we have achieved, but it’s a very narrow definition of success and one which doesn’t work in a world of lower or zero growth. All the focus is on the material aspects of life, little or none on the unquantifiable elements of relationships, happiness, connection to society and the natural world.

So surely this is fertile ground on which those of a green/progressive persuasion should be building. For all the economic growth of recent decades, studies show we are no happier than we were in the 1970’s. The Happy Planet index, calculated by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) based on life expectancy, experienced well-being and ecological footprint; doesn’t have Switzerland, the UAE, America or any of the other richest countries in the world at the top, but rather Costa Rica and Vietnam. The distribution of wealth in our current society is becoming increasingly unequal, yet everything points to people being happier when such inequalities are smaller rather than greater.

Perhaps most crucial to my mind is the state of the Earth that we are bequeathing our children. This may not be something which parents have traditionally given much thought to, but perhaps they should. Do we want future generations to live in a world without large wild animals – the populations of almost all are collapsing at an alarming rate. A world with no fish in the oceans – without action all major fish populations could be fished out by the middle of the century. With no ice in the Arctic in the summer – goodbye to polar bears and walrus – and this year there is a record low ice extent for the time of the year. With rainforests replaced by palm oil plantations.

What will it benefit our children if we do manage to drag the growth machine back for one last encore – which is what all the major governments of the world are obsessed with doing – if we continue to destroy the planet as a result? 

The message of sustainability should be uniquely well adapted to talking to parents about their hopes for their children and grandchildren. Now has to be the time to seize on the failure of the current economic model and offer a better future for everyone. One focused not on material wealth but on what really makes us content in our lives.

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