A question of time

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Insight by 
Camilla Toulmin
25 November 2010

I have been thinking a lot about ‘time’. It’s been prompted by three things which remind me that, while we need to be realistic about how fast we can build a fairer, more sustainable world, there are some signs of progress.

First, we’re starting a review of IIED’s Drylands Programme, set up in 1987. We will assess our achievements over the past 20+ years by examining the activities, publications and outcomes in collaboration with many partners, and we hope to tease out what we have contributed to the bigger picture. Obviously, over such a long period of time there have been huge shifts in political, environmental and economic settings. It was a different world in 1987 — the Soviet Union still existed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had yet to be set up, the world wide web was not yet established, and no one had a mobile phone.

Much has changed since then — and some for the good, as shown by the video ‘More People, More Trees’ I wrote about last month. I hope the flow of ideas that we promoted has brought about greater recognition and respect for local people’s rights, knowledge and insights in generating innovation and building more resilient dryland livelihoods. If you’d like to contribute to the drylands review, please contact Alastair Bradstock.

No instant answers

Second, I have been part of the UK government’s ‘Foresight’ group looking at whether and how the world can be fed equitably and sustainably in 2050, when our population is expected to have reached a plateau of 9 billion (the report is due out in January 2011). The Foresight process raises many interesting questions about time, such as can we assume the global population will be better off in 40 years time? Most models take this as a given, which then prompts the use of a time discount rate in valuing future incomes and costs in today’s terms. But, if we fail to cut greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts kick in faster than predicted, then future generations maybe less well off than ourselves. We should value their income and wellbeing more highly.

In planning how to get science working on technical solutions to some of the expected problems, we must build time into our calculations. For example, selecting, testing and multiplying new seed varieties take time, often a decade or more. We can’t click our fingers and hope for instant answers. We must invest now in the people, networks and kit to help make it happen in 15–20 years time. Equally, new policies and institutions take time to settle in — time for people to understand how they work and build up expectations based on experience, which evolves over months and years.

Resisting change

Third, it is sobering to watch the slow pace of negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which reconvenes in Mexico at the end of this month. We had rashly hoped, this time last year, that the power of science backed by rational economic argument would bring world leaders together in Copenhagen to back an ambitious, fair and effective global deal.

Twelve months on, we are in a different place. We must recognise it takes a long time for new ideas and evidence to embed themselves in people’s minds. While we claim to be rational, basing our decisions on ‘evidence’, in practice human behaviour draws as much from our animal heritage, with its fears and desires, interests and insecurities. At the same time, those with powerful interests based on the 20th century economy — oil, gas, chemical, transport — have dug in their heels to resist change.

But the 21st century is here. Rather than push it away, our people, business and government need to seek out the opportunities for investment, innovation and employment that a low carbon, sustainable economy can offer. If we don’t, the people alive in 2050 will surely be poorer, more vulnerable and insecure.

Camilla Toulmin Director, IIED

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