“You won’t get it right all of the time, but give it a go.”—Sara Parkin in conversation with Peter Davies

Sara Parkin is Principal Associate of The Sustainability Literacy Project, and Founder-Director of Forum for the Future. Her 2010 book The Positive Deviant: Sustainability Leadership in a Perverse World has become a course book in many countries. Its sequel What Does Good Look Like? (due out 2019) will argue there is one destiny but many paths to sustainability.  She serves on the Board of the Carnegie Trust for universities in Scotland, advises the National Union of Students and Chairs the Board of the Richard Sandbrook Trust. In the past she held high-profile leadership roles in the UK Green Party and brokered and led the European Green Coordination, now the European Green Party.

Peter Davies was Wales’ first Sustainable Futures Commissioner, 2011 to 2016, and played a lead role in the development of the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act, particularly through leading the national conversation on the Wales we Want.  His current project portfolio focuses on working in support of communities, citizens and consumers. It includes chairing the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, Welsh Water’s Customer Challenge Group, the Size of Wales charity, Pembrokeshire Community Energy and being Community Custodian for River Simple. He is a trustee of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development.

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PD:  Sara, thinking back ten years ago what was the original motivation of your paper then, to which this is a sequel?

SP:  I was invited to write a paper about the UK electoral system for FDSD.  I thought I’m damned if I’m going to write about proportional representation yet again. Then I came upon an amazing piece by the Young Foundation arguing under a series of headings that political parties were “for the public good” and vital for democracy.  That set me off.  I used all the headings to demonstrate the opposite!  I wrote a not entirely tongue in cheek, rather over the top rant about how essential it is to pay attention to our electoral system and our democratic system as a whole.  I even proposed we elect our representatives more as if we were employing them to represent us. What is their track record?  What evidence do they bring to show they are the right person to represent us?

PD: So the political parties get in the way of achieving better outcomes through the democratic process?

SP: Yes, I concluded by calling for a revolution to change the system!

PD: Looking back over the ten years, did you come to a slightly different perspective on that conclusion?

SP:   Well, when I reviewed the earlier paper I found I still agreed with most of it!  So no point in trying to say it differently.

PD: It does make very good sense the point you were making around this mediation role; we should be looking at these people in terms of their capacity to represent us.

SP:  When I started to think about it all again, it was 2016, which was quite a year. Things coming out about electronic interventions in the democratic system, so I started writing the paper paralleling, in a minor way, the work of Carole Cadwalladr, the investigative journalist.  So much emerged so fast I ended up reorganising the paper to focus on those people who currently have money and power, who are worryingly interlinked.  For a long time, watching people like Charles Koch and other big anti-sustainable people – particularly the big libertarian ideologues – you can see their strategies leading in to the 2016 US Presidential elections.  Koch admitted he is playing a very long game – ironically, he’s referenced Lenin as somebody he admires in terms of strategy! This made me realise we are living in a continuum which started after the Second World War with the Mont Pélérin Society, set up by Friedrich Hayek, father of neoconservative economics.    Once neo-Keynesianism won the post-war battle of economic ideas, the neo-cons got busy setting up think tanks all over the place (e.g. Institute of Economic Affairs in UK) and colonising university departments.   Hayek spoke of his disciples as “freedom fighters”.   The strategy was to normalise free-market economic liberalism in public and academic discourse, essential for getting ideas into power.  Which is something I’m quite interested in – but for sustainability.    Koch, and similarly ideologically motivated billionaires, learnt that institutions have to be changed to get the ideas to stick.  2016, for them, was a massive step forward in the US, with the UK referendum result a bonus.

PD: So the process of getting ideas into power, I guess that’s at the heart of the concept of the political system. But what we’re seeing is this combination of power and a philosophy and a technology which has changed the context of how ideas achieve that power.  Achieve that status of being normalized. And that’s been such a change in the ten year period since you wrote your original article.

SP:  Just to pick up on the notion of getting ideas into power being the purpose of the political system. I think that’s been corrupted. Elections are about getting people into power, not necessarily the ideas. As you’ve probably noticed we’ve got a pretty idea-free environment in our political parties right now. And all the commentary is about how long Theresa May is going to be in power, if the Tories vote this way on Brexit are they going to lose power for three generations, and so on.

PD: Yes, what we have in politics is more of a soap opera than a genuine debate about the society we want to be.  I guess I come at this from an angle where in a very small way, in a small country, Wales has tried to look at the role of a legislative framework that addresses the short-termism that you tend to see in the political system by putting into place a legislative requirement that is about the long term through the Well-being of Future Generations Act.  It’s very early days in its application, but I guess, where your original paper might have been about revolution, this was a process of trying to get the sustainable development commitment – which was part of the devolution settlement, a part of the Government of Wales Act 20 years ago – into a stronger frame for how the political system was to work, and how the involvement of people, of citizens, was at the heart of shaping the Wales We Want.  We’re coming at it as a small country with some small steps, but it is definitely seen to be in this context of trying to address the issues of short-termism in the political systems by building in requirements to focus on the long-term.  How do we address this in a bigger sense in terms of the short-termism that drives the political system and drives everyday life increasingly through the soap opera of 24 hour news?

SP: Wales was able to do what it did because it had a national conversation.  I am Scottish, and, while I’m not a fan of nationalism, at least we have shown we can hold a national conversation as we did for the constitutional convention.  I’ve even suggested the Scottish Conservatives’ best hope is to have an absolutely brilliant plan for devolving real power – not independence – and look at how the different devolved units would collaborate on the larger issues where it’s more sensible to act as a group.  Now from an England perspective, or a UK perspective, we’ve never had such a conversation.    So, I think if we want to plan for the long term, we need to talk about devolution and what is the appropriate level to make what decision.

PD: In your current article ten years on, you’ve also focused in on what you say are seemingly mundane activities about telling good stories, bolstering our elected representatives, promoting democracy, for sustainability policies and taking back control of our data as being core to what we now need to do to address the challenges that we’ve seen in the last ten years, with democracies being undermined.

SP:  What I am suggesting are not necessarily going to be all that’s needed. But I think we have to come to an end of demanding other people do things.  That’s part of my 50 year reflection as a campaigner.  If we carry on doing what we’ve always done in the past, and it hasn’t worked, we need to think of different ways of doing things, or we’ll get the same outcomes.  My suggestions are all things each of us can do.  Things we can encourage others to do too, ask them to join in, to help normalize some key things and make them a habit.  That means you’re not dependent on waiting for one of these wretched political parties or one of these wretched politicians to actually take the lead on it. We can just get on and do it! Imagine campaigning around a good story of what sustainability looks like by saying, see, this is normal! It should be normal that we have a political process that helps us do it, rather than stand in the way of it.  It should be normal that we should counter this ethic-free, grotesque growth of the digital world and the lead players in it.  And if data is the new fossil fuel for the economy and we don’t want it that way, we can intervene.

PD: And I think one of the factors that you’ve also highlighted is the feeling of powerlessness in a world where we can’t control our eco-systems, and our human institutions. And you’ve referred to national conversations.  I had a role in leading the conversation about the Wales We Want, and that feeling of powerlessness, and the inability to make a difference, came through so strongly which is why involving communities, and putting people at the centre of policies is crucial – though easy to say, harder to do.  I think one of the things we’re finding is that in a digital world, place becomes even more important.  Would you see that as part of where the next focus should be?  We have examples in England, like Frome, where you have a more localized system of governance, which has abandoned the political parties.

SP:  What I haven’t done in my piece is to give too many examples or prescriptions, because the point I make is that there is not just one route to a sustainable future. There is one destination and being pretty clear about the broad lines which will shape that means that people, from wherever they are, and with whatever competence or capabilities they have, they can start to move towards it.  There are many ways in.  When people have the confidence that this is what the good might look like, then they could look at what their opportunities are to contribute in that journey towards it.

PD:  Part of our role, I’m sure, is to influence that to happen, and to work with others in order to achieve that.  I’m very interested in the point you made about campaigning and the need to look at different ways of reaching the destination.  I am conscious that we have the experience where we have a very active environmental sector that has taken an active adversarial campaigning role on land management that has alienated a significant element of the farming community who generally want to do the right thing but feel threatened by the approach that has been taken by environmental campaigners.  I’m just wondering whether that sort of aggressive campaigning – which is absolutely right in that it gets the message across about the urgency of nature recovery – but wondering whether it is actually delivering the effect we want it to have.

SP:  Then what you’re talking about is the sort of campaigning which tells other people what they should do.  I think farmers feel pretty much under the cosh as they’re being told what to do, what not to do, not necessarily by people who know what they’re talking about, and so I can understand that.  There is no reason why that can’t be turned into a way of working with farmers so that they work out what farming might look like in the future and how might they get from here to there. And how everybody can help. So it’s a different approach from how environmental, and indeed democracy, campaigners have behaved over the last several decades.  We’ve angrily demanded, we’ve ranted – and I count myself in and amongst this – but what we haven’t done is to say, ok, we’re all in it together.  And how can we work together to get what we want, and how can we be part of deciding that.

PD: Given that we’re having this conversation in the middle of Brexit, which has become such a turn-off to a major part of the population, maybe it is an opportunity to get back to basics of describing what we want the world to look like.  Could we play a more effective role in through a more community led approach that is focused on bringing people together?

SP: Absolutely right, and that’s what I’m wrestling with at the moment to actually write what would good look like in a way that helps people to contribute, whatever they’re doing, wherever they are, to move in that direction. It’s not easy, as I’m trying to write for everybody, not only for the wonks. So I think one of the key things that FDSD could do is to lead this conversation about where we are going with Brexit and what would be better for sustainable development in the long run, and why and how, and what would be better for democracy, and why and how. And if there are any caveats in there, what has to change to make it ok to stay in or stay out.  As far as democracy and sustainable development are concerned, to do an analysis from our perspective would be good – nobody’s done that.

PD: That’s very interesting and of course one of the other points you make in terms of the democratic dimension is the ineffectiveness and the inappropriateness of referenda as a means of achieving change.

SP:  I agree with Freedom House on this, that referenda are a sort of end run round the obstacles that get in the way of people in power doing what they want to do. They are the lowest common denominator.  I like the whole idea of opinion polling, finding out what people want, and indicative voting, but I like preferenda, something which the Irish Greens worked out, which are the idea that you put all the options down and then start voting until you shave off all the extremes and arrive at the best possible consensus.  So I don’t like referendums.  And as a decision-making process over EU membership it was disgraceful.  It was Yes/No on something which nobody on either the Yes or the No side really understood, or indeed campaigned for, in a way that represented what the real outcome would be.  The electorate was duped.  I would have much preferred that our politicians in Parliament had stood up to the plate and did what they should do which is freely decide to do what is best for this country.  I’m not that hot on another referendum, but if that is the only option, well, so be it, as long as the choices, processes and the debates are worthy of the magnitude of the decision to be made.

PD: And for a small foundation, the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, this is our core interest – how the democratic process can lead to sustainable development. What would be your advice to us regarding the work we can take forward?

SP: We all have to get very radical and very active very quickly.  Any of us who pretends that this can be a long-term project is kidding not just themselves; they are letting down other people and indeed nature. I think it’s absolutely key that we get a sense of urgency into it, but not in a way that generates despair or fear – with the powerlessness that goes with hopelessness. The idea is to give confidence to people to start doing and campaigning for things, to free people up.  I use the term ‘sufficiently’ and ‘good enough’ enormously when I teach leadership for sustainable development.  We’re heading in the wrong direction, anything we do that shifts that, over to the right direction is a plus.  Give it a go.  You won’t get it right all of the time, but give it a go.

PD: Sara, thanks very much for this. There’s obviously a lot more in your paper which expands further on this than we’ve been able to cover now.  And you’ve given a good sense of direction for the Foundation in terms of the role we can play in moving us forward to both a more democratic and a more sustainable world.


The think piece is available for download on our publication page.

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