Our approach was more pragmatic than philosophical. Our belief was that local communities (as our complainants) are best-placed to know their respective environmental problems. Community procedures can filter out successfully any selfish, shortsighted economic interests and can forge viable solutions for the whole community (‘community’ includes the young and the unborn).
Another pragmatic consideration is that for the near future we have a stronger responsibility than for further in the future (where we share this responsibility with future generations). Many current environmental and social issues can also be considered as intergenerational justice issues.
Did the work of the Ombudsman strengthen the links between democracy and sustainability? Or was it forced to be technocratic?
We were convinced that well-discussed, deliberative decision-making procedures are beneficial for the environment and for coming generations. Arbitrary decisions on the other hand, made behind closed doors are almost always risky, even if at the first glance they serve environmental purposes. Sustainable development questions as a rule are complex and need to bring together multiple factors. This approach is unimaginable without democratic procedures.
Building on the work of the Ombudsman’s Office, how has the relationship between democracy and sustainability developed, and how might it develop in the future?
Although there was an attempt to totally eradicate the Office, the wide social support (including hundreds of NGOs, religious organisations and certain political forces) resulted in a constitutional arrangement whereby we now have an individual Chief Ombudsman with a Deputy who is responsible for the protection of the interests of future generations. The work of this deputy represents continuity with the earlier, independent FGO.
On the other hand, the civil sector and especially the environmental NGOs, are in a difficult situation in Hungary today. They face an unfavourable political climate. Relatedly, I see a decline in the level of environmental protection. The administrative system of environmental protection has lost its relative independence within Government. As far as I can see, they also lost resources and are therefore less effective than they used to be. In such a situation the initiatives of local communities will need to play a key role in ensuring the most possible sustainable futures for our offspring.
What do you see as the key challenges coming up for the link between democracy and sustainability, and what would you yourself like to focus on in the future?
Populism and demagogy may turn people against environmental protection. Both are growing threats in several European countries. Also extremist political movements are usually hostile towards democratic institutions and procedures, and impatient with differing interests and ideas.
I personally divide my time now between teaching environmental law (in a multidisciplinary department together with physicists, economists, biologists and other lawyers) as well as public interest environmental litigation (where I represent only local communities and municipalities, not the polluters). I hope that by reinforcing the efforts of local communities, I can encourage them, and other similar communities, to stand up for their environmental rights, and also for the rights of their children and grandchildren.