Leave the Short Term at the Door

04 October 2012

Blue earth
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It was a daunting gathering: one of the most senior economic ministers of China, former Presidents of the European Central Bank and the UK's Royal Society, India's inspiring techno-entrepreneur behind its Unique Identification project, former government leaders from South America and the UK, one of Africa's most successful businessmen and philanthropists, leading academics from Europe, and the editor of a global newspaper. They came together at the invitation of Mr Pascal Lamy, Director-General of the World Trade Organization and Professor Ian Goldin, Director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. They were connected by a shared frustration at the growing short-term preoccupations of modern politics and business.

This was the first gathering of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, chaired by Lamy, which met in Oxford last month. Any short-term priorities, whilst undoubtedly important, had to be left at the door. This meeting was to look to the longer-term horizon to consider how we can overcome the gridlocks that render the global system unable to deal with the major challenges of the 21st century. From climate change and the security of food and water, to economic inequality and energy systems, to technology, geopolitics and security, the Commissioners and some of Oxford's leading academics were forced to focus on identifying sustainable solutions, rather than recapping the well-known issues that we collectively face.

Potential solutions on the table were vast. On issues of inequality, there was discussion about the need to relegitimize the use of taxation to achieve a greater level of social justice. This would include identifying new ways of organizing economic activity without divorcing economic and social policy. On questions of climate, policy levers such as carbon pricing, R&D and other investments were deemed critical to break current unnecessary tensions between production and consumption on one hand, and the environment on the other. With energy use to rise by 40 percent in 2030 and the difficulties of moving away from fossil fuels, nuclear energy seems set to remain a critical ingredient in our future energy mix. But just as occurs with aircrafts, perhaps it is time for a global nuclear regulator to license reactors and demand world standards for safety. To avoid a crisis in our global food system comparable to the banking sector, we need to identify new production techniques without undermining the continued capacity of the land to produce food. This is particularly important given that increasing global demand for food needs to be met on existing land, but we must also begin a positive dialogue on consumption patterns in the rich world -- which is increasingly unsustainable.

This is just the beginning of the Commission's deliberations, but there are solutions available to many of today's global challenges. The question is how to shift common political mindsets to ensure that short-term crisis management doesn't overwhelm our responsibility to act on these solutions. All of these issues require longer-term perspectives that we are simply not seeing today. This Commission wants to understand why. Is it purely a vivid lack of imagination and courage amongst global leaders? Must 'the urgency of now' always overwhelm? How do we translate genuine public concern about our grandchildren's future into action today? Do we need a shared set of global values to help us frame and push forward these critical discussions?

As Lamy admits, we have set ourselves a pretty challenging task. But there is an urgent need to help policy makers and business leaders to rebalance debate and take action to ensure they are able to grapple with today's major long-term issues, whilst also rebuilding public dialogue and engagement in deliberations about the future. Through the work of the Commission, we hope to find ways to break the current gridlock. We have to try.

Natalie used to be Head of Policy at the Oxford Martin School. She is now Head of Strategy and Communications at SPRU.

More information on the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations

This blog first appeared in The Huffington Post

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.