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Leaders for now

Jonathon Porritt outlines the four qualities we need to see in leaders who are fit for today’s challenges
Heavy flooding in Mingora, Pakistan - August 2022

This article first appeared in our COP27 special issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 11 November 2022. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

It has never been clearer what any aspiring ‘Leader for Now’ should be offering.

At a time of unprecedented jeopardy for the whole of humankind – with a global recession looming, with the threat of nuclear warfare back in the headlines, with the climate emergency intensifying by the month and with hundreds of millions of people sliding further into hunger and poverty – we should be looking out for just four fundamental features in all our leaders.

1 Defending democracy

As many predicted, the dinosaur of our extractive, growth-at-all-costs economy is not lightly giving up the fight, thrashing and gouging all the way to its inevitable death.

All too often, democracy itself becomes a victim of those death throes, with autocrats and populists promising that they alone have the solutions in such perilous times. And that democracy has failed.

This battle is being joined most fiercely in the USA. Whatever else you may feel about Joe Biden, pretty much everything he does is done in the name of shoring up America’s endangered democracy. And that is so important given that the Republican Party has given up any pretence of seeking democratic support to win power. 40% of US citizens now believe that civil war is highly likely – or even inevitable.

Today’s autocrats and populists survive through webs of corruption and ruthless repression, exacerbating poverty and injustice as they go. But without democracy, there will be no long-term solution to the world’s woes.

2 Standing up for the youth of today

Most politicians today (even those serving in more or less functioning democracies) have a foot in two camps: one in yesterday’s world of fossil fuels, extractive industries, intensive farming, Big Pharma and so on – simultaneously ramping up consumerism at every turn – and the other in tomorrow’s world of renewables, massive reductions in material throughput, healthy, nutritious food for all – and an emphasis on community, wellbeing and quality of life.

‘Covering your bets’ may make sense politically, but it only works by stealing young people’s futures. Leaders for Now have to position themselves unambiguously in tomorrow’s world, freeing themselves of any continuing dependency on today’s incumbent, planet-trashing industries. This is now binary: leaders either get this or they don’t.

3 Preparing for a world beyond growth

The debate about the physical impossibility of achieving exponential economic growth on a finite planet was far more engaged 50 years ago than it is today. As the dinosaur of today’s economy thrashes around, leaders are still persuaded that the only way they can ensure electoral success is to promise yet more economic growth – as measured by year on-year increases in GDP.

Received wisdom has it that no politician will succeed on any other basis; that without growth there is no progress. Without growth, societies would implode.

The onset of the Covid pandemic tells us something different. Though there were a few countries back in (pre-vaccine) 2020 which opted to keep their economies open (particularly the USA under Trump and Brazil under Bolsonaro), most countries went in for an unprecedented, planned shut-down of huge swathes of their economy – with the priority on saving lives by ‘flattening the curve’ of infections and deaths.

The imperative of economic growth at all costs was set aside; the full power of the state was deployed to furlough workers, prop up businesses and deploy the government’s sovereign power by creating as much money as was needed out of thin air.

The truth of it is that the majority of people don’t yet see the climate emergency in the same way as we saw that public health crisis. The people of Pakistan certainly do,
ravaged as their country has been by unprecedented floods that have displaced more than 30 million people.

4 Compassion and solidarity

When António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, was in Pakistan, he obviously wanted people in the rich world to give as generously as they could. But he couldn’t have been clearer when he said: ‘This is not a matter of generosity; it is a matter of justice.’

Guterres was talking here about the concept of ‘loss and damage’: those nations whose historical, cumulative emissions have contributed most to today’s worsening climate crisis must now recognise their liability, and be prepared to support those nations that have contributed least to the crisis but are suffering the most.

They desperately need those ‘reparations’ not just to deal with the massive costs of more and more frequent climate disasters, but with adapting their economies to cope with what’s yet to come.

Political leadership of this kind is a dauntingly tall order! But that’s what all ‘Leaders for Now’ must now stand up and fight for, taking inspiration perhaps from politicians like Mia Mottley in Barbados and Gabriel Boric in Chile.

It’s now crystal clear that we’re living in a very different age – one that demands completely different qualities of our leaders, in every walk of life.

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