A Green Senate? A Sustainability Commissioner?

posted by Kaihsu Tai on February 24th, 2010

I wrote this note 12 November 2009 and recently sent it to my friend Dr Rupert Read. After discussion with him – who turned out to be in support of a Green Senate or a Sustainability Commissioner – I added a moderating amendment (see below). Rupert and I are going to hear the Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations, Dr Sándor Fülöp, at the Ministry of Justice on Thursday, at an event organized by the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development.

In the past 5 years or so, I have heard from time to time impatient proponents of a Green Senate, a committee for sustainability, a parliamentary chamber with a built-in long-term view and overriding power in favour of measures for sustainability. Famous proponents include Norman Myers, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and (most recently, this past Tuesday) John Strickland. I do not think such a constitutional arrangement would work.

First, who would we appoint to this Senate? Would they be 70-year-olds, having accumulated years of experiences and (one hopes) accompanying wisdom? Or would they be 20-year-olds, or even teenagers, who have a stake, with realistic interests, in the future? Or a mixture thereof? Then, what about the midlifers? Are they totally disinterested, and should only be shoved around by the young and the old?

And quickly you can foresee the second question: How would we appoint them? By popular election with pre-screening? By lot? Very soon I come to my main point, and I hope the reader gets it before I tell. With more than one person in the world, there inevitably comes politics. As much as we would like God to send edicts which we all equally receive with equal clarity, that is not the case.

Either we engage with politics, or we get apathetic and let others (the Pope, the King, the Prime Minister, the political class, etc.) run our lives for us. Politics cannot be circumvented or transcended. Or rather, the only way to transcend politics is to engage. There is no Enabling Act, no Guardian Council, no Workers Vanguard, that can deliver the Final Solution without real politics. There is no such thing as a system so perfect that people do not need to be good.

That means the only way to ensure sustainability is for those who care about sustainability to engage, to talk progressive talk with neighbours, to vote, to go to hustings and meetings, to agitate–educate–organize, to listen and learn, to run for political office and lose (sometimes), to win a few offices and use the power for good ends.

If you do not like the people running the system, aim to replace them. If you do not like the system, change it. But do not expect these to be once-and-for-all, straightforward, and clean. As much as there is no silver bullet, no single technological fix in environmental problems, the same applies to politics. It requires a collective change of mind, which will be messy and will take longer than we would like.

In the words of the prophet Bob Marley: ‘So you think you’ve found the solution, | but it’s just another illusion. | (So before you check out this tide,) | don’t leave another cornerstone | standing there behind. | We’ve got to face the day; | come what may: | We the street people talking; | yeah, we the people struggling.’ (So much trouble in the world)

And on the way, there will be setbacks, losses, defeats, wastage, betrayal, assassinations. (Though I hope the latter ones do not ever visit the present incumbent of the Presidency of the United States of America.) And what is the Christian response but to take these on with courage and hope? (Holy Martyrs, pray for us.) Was that not the way Jesus showed?

‘For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.’ (Romans 8:24,25 KJV)

There are no easy solutions: one can only go out to knock on doors and canvass. With this note, I relied heavily on the thinking of my friend Rupert Read, who taught that theoretical social studies in economics and politics are useless on their own except in praxis. He also demonstrated this brilliantly with his own life. ¡Hasta la victoria siempre!

Amendment after discussing with Rupert:

Yes, I think I should moderate my position.

To speak for the motion, a sustainability commissioner or committee only elevates the idea of sustainability in our constitutional architecture to the level that human rights already occupy. This is long overdue. To expand on the human rights mechanism: a minister certifies each Bill as compatible with the Human Rights Act; then there are enforcement mechanisms through domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights to induce revision of incompatible Acts of Parliament.

Then we might think what are the norms of sustainability to be enumerated? How do we articulate the remit of the Green Senate, the mandate for our commissioner? The bare ‘whether they like it and think it is sustainable’ may not be enough. For human rights, there is the European Convention etc.; this is along the same lines.

Even if we introduce such a commissioner or committee, we should still reserve the right to criticize it. We should stay vigilant and political. Our interlocutors would have no qualms hijacking a ‘Green Senate’, so we should feel free to criticize it if it becomes mere greenwash for expedient projects. I think I am preaching to the converted, as you, Rupert, are the leading critic of liberal neutrality! (A recent example of such a lapse has been pointed out by Chris Goodall: The Committee on Climate Change shouldn’t have answered the question it was asked [about Heathrow expansion].)

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