European voters choose nice things not nasty ones
Date: 7 May 2012
If you want to know how difficult it will be for businesses and governments to achieve sustainability, you only have to look at how the term 'austerity' - in the context of national policy - has become a label for an abusive ideology.
For me, it isn't a point of left or right economics to understand that if you go through an extended period of spending more than you have, the process of reigning in that debt isn't going to be particularly enjoyable. And the bigger the debt, the longer the painful process.
The idea that silly politicians were just missing this obvious truth - that you can go for 'growth' instead and that will make it all better - is a triumph of hope over the laws of physics. The excitement that remains will be how people respond when the mirage of a miraculous alternative dissipates and the reality of austerity is what remains.
What we have seen is two ominous tendencies that are relevant to how we find our way forward.
First, people will tend towards an 'us and them' mindset which absolves them of having to bear the consequences of where society currently finds itself. It wasn't me that contributed to this problem, it was THEM. The bankers, the politicians, foreigners, whoever. And why should we have to suffer because they mis-managed things?
So never mind the demographic time bomb, with an ageing population of people living longer than they used to - problems with pension funds must be because THEY mis-managed those funds and we will strike to keep every penny to which we feel we're entitled, even if the cash isn't there.
Never mind if climate change is going to affect everybody, we will blame other countries that produced more of the emissions rather than take action - and if we ARE the country that produced most of the emissions we'll go out of our way to discredit good scientists so we can continue living in wilful ignorance.
Needless to say this is not a good environment to encourage businesses to invest in solutions, and to embolden politicians to take tough decisions.
The second, related, ominous tendency is how a period of relative affluence has removed our ability to put up with a degree of hardship (often pretty mild hardship by historical standards) for any period of time. "Austerity isn't working" is one of the most vacuous phrases, as though somebody had said this would be a quick process that would quickly bring back the good times.
But people will believe what someone chooses to tell them if it means they can believe in a future that sees an end to bad things pretty quickly. And when you face long-term problems that require long-term disciplines, that is bad news.
Policies for sustainability have to a political consensus, with room on the margins to disagree on certain details of implementation. It can't be something that is implemented by one party, which is then replaced quickly by the party that - against all the evidence - promises that we can abolish the laws of physics.
People in Green and France have been dancing jubilantly in the streets. And maybe they have elected better leaders. But if they have, that leadership will be expressed in the next couple of years of finding ways to get people to accept, and find ways to make the most of the positives of, finding their way forward in a reality where difficult choices don't just melt away because you want them to.
Former war heroes often surprisingly make the best peacemakers. So we shouldn't count it out. But for businesses looking for a stable environment in which to invest in the solutions of the future, it will take particular courage.
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In a recent article, the BBC's economics editor Robert Peston highlighted the fact that in 2012 the chances are that the economy - punch drunk as it is from the various flavours of debt crisis it has been pummelled with over the course of the year - will be hit by the collapse of a major bank and / or government.
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