Lord Paddy Ashdown says we are in a race with catastrophe and we’re not winning

March 4th, 2011 by Lord Ashdown

“I hope you didn’t come here to be cheered up because I am afraid I am not going to be.

I accept it is inherent in the question that one of the challenges of our time is to deal with the globalisation of power.  One of the things that has happened, which too few people comment on sometimes, is that power has moved out of the institutions we created – the institutions largely of the nation state to bring it to accountability and to bring it to the rule of law – the global state where by and large the actions of nations and individuals and firms is not subject to the same kind of rules, not subject to the same kind of accountability, and that I think will be one of the great stimuli for a greater turbulence in a world which is already going to be turbulent enough because power is not only moving vertically, it is also moving horizontally; it is moving from the West to the East.  So I think these are going to be very turbulent times, and I think the issue of resource and climate change is going to be one of the reasons, one of the drivers for that.

Lord Ashdown speaking at the "Prospects for a sustainable world: a new chapter for international co-operation" conference at ecobuild 2011 (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

And there is a rule about history, a sort of rule about democratic history where power goes then accountability and governance must follow.  And so one of the challenges of our time is indeed to create, if the phenomenon of globalisation of unregulated power of action, is one of the phenomenon of our time then one of the challenges of our time is to create the institutions at the global level, at the international level, to bring power to accountability and the rule of law, and I think we will be more or less turbulent in the years ahead to the extent that we can prove that we are able to do that.  And by-the-way I think that is more likely to happen by treaty-based governmental treaties, treaty-based institutions rather than the spawning of UN ones so things like the World Trade Organisation like Kyoto, these are all moves towards the creation of treaty-based institutions to govern what happens on the global space.

Now we’ll see whether we manage to do that.  But I am pessimistic for this reason because I think that this issue of, what is it, basically altering our behaviour, indeed as I shall argue in a minute, altering our very nature in order to preserve the living space for our successors is the biggest moral and practical and technological challenge of our time.  And indeed I would go further and say it is the biggest moral, practical, and technological challenge of any time.  And I will tell you why I think that is the case.

First of all, what is going for us in this?  Well, what is going for us is in a nation that belongs to the declining nations – the West I think in comparison to the East – even if it was not for the generation of climate change stimuli, we would want to be doing this.  I mean the success of those nations of the West will depend in the future in large measure to the extent to which they are efficient in their use of primary raw materials at a time when the prices for that are going to be going up and up, and our capacity to be able to afford to buy those are going to be going down.

So you have a position, which is both moral on one hand and practical on the other.  Even if it was not for the moral case to preserve the living space for our successors it would be a wise thing to do to make ourselves much better at creating efficiency in our use of primary raw materials, energy included.

But almost everything else is against us.  In order to do this we have to have, we have to deny our basic nature.  If you ever read that book ‘The Selfish Gene‘, the whole basis of our development as animals in the evolutionary process is based on the fact that most of us our selfish.

Now some human beings can rise above that and can adopt a moral position but let’s face the fact they are pretty few in number.  So what we have to do – I mean we have been threatened by pestilence, by war, by plague in the past but now we are threatened by ourselves.  There’s always been selfishness in leaders but now it is the selfishness of each and everyone of us that has to be changed.  Is it possible to do?  Well, I suppose I am optimistic that it can be but then take a look at the other things – the background against which this is happening.  First of all, we are trying to do this at a time when power is shifting, when there are rising powers in the world who accuse us, not unreasonably, but I don’t believe they are right in terms of our intent but I know why they say it, that we are doing this to restrain their growth so that we can have a position of power for longer.  That isn’t the reason we’re doing it but I understand why China feels that way, why India feels that way.  It’s more difficult to do at a time of shifting power.

Secondly, we’re doing it at a time of economic recession.  Gandhi once said that even God would hesitate to appear to a starving man except in the guise of a rice bowl.  Well, no one would wish to try to persuade an employed person that they had to remain unemployed, which in the short term they will have to do.  You may be able to generate more jobs in the long term but this will create more unemployment likely in the short, I am afraid to say.  It is going to be a very difficult argument to make.


Lord Paddy Ashdown gives an empassioned speech (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

And lastly, because I think that we are living at the end of a period, where the governance of States like our own has become managed by the politics of managerialism, the politics of values, the politics of interconnect values.  If you think of what politics has been about in the past – it has been about the clash of ideas – socialism, communism, capitalism – the great clash of interconnected theories.  Politics today has become simply the management of expectations.  ‘You will vote for me if I can produce you a better living standard’ has been the debate.  You look at Tony Blair in 1997 and David Cameron. ‘Vote for me, I won’t change very much but you’ll be better off.’  Now, if we are now living in the period where the issue for the future is not sharing out the fruits of greater wealth but sharing out the pain of cuts then I don’t believe you can run that type of politics without value, and my worry is that the values that will emerge first will be the ugly ones, the ones of selfishness rather than the higher instincts of the human spirit that will lead us to be able to deal with this.

And my last point is, that I see no great vision I am afraid.  Jack (Jack Straw) is right.  If we were given world enough and time in the great lines of Andrew Marvell maybe we would get there but we’re in a race.   We’re in a race with catastrophe.  Jack may be right that if we had the next ten years to be able to develop this we could over time evolve a process that would solve this problem but you know that ten years is too late.  We are in a race with catastrophe here and we are not winning.  So I am afraid to say; I am sorry, Justin (Justin Webb).  I dare say you didn’t bring me here to deliver a pessimistic message to you all but I am afraid to say that with the lack of urgency that our leaders currently devote to this; with the lack of understanding of what is necessary on the global stage; with the lack of a refined series of visions that can produce this, with the lack of a narrative that can explain it to our people I don’t believe we are likely to see a success in this great endeavour upon which so much depends for the future within the timescale that is necessary to deliver that.  Sorry about that.

Hear Lord Paddy Ashdown’s speech at the “Prospects for a sustainable world: a new chapter for international co-operation” conference at Ecobuild.

  1. No Comments

Have your say