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Why we should all vote for the planet

This week was International Day of Democracy, a UN initiative to highlight the importance of democracy and campaign for democracy across the world. This year the focus is on how much Covid-19 has impacted democracy, but it’s clear we also need to focus on sustainability.

Why vote for sustainability

It’s time that sustainability was put at the top of the political agenda everywhere. This week alone, we’ve had a documentary highlighting the threat of extinction to 1 million species of plant and animal, the west coast of America and Brazil are burning, and the UN has criticized the failure to meet biodiversity targets agreed a decade ago.

The extinction documentary placed the emphasis on governments to act to save our most vulnerable species. There are ways that individuals can contribute, but the greatest impact will come from governments: meeting biodiversity targets, putting measures in place to protect wildlife and putting pressure on other governments who place growth ahead of their natural resources.

The situations in the US and the Amazon have similar roots; governments who do not believe in the climate crisis and so fail to act to protect their forests and wetlands, who deny the causes of these disasters and shift blame to others and, in the case of Brazil, who promote the clearing of natural habitats.

The failure to meet biodiversity targets is the clearest indication that current governments are failing the planet. A decade ago 200 countries agreed 20 targets to help protect nature … and only six of them have been partially achieved. It’s pretty damning and the message is clear: we’re not doing enough.

With all of these examples, and with many others, these issues are ignored and dismissed by democratically elected governments. Across the world, we have elected people who have sustainability and the environment at the very bottom of their agendas. We have brought this on ourselves, but we have the power to change direction.

We have to act now, in every country and at every level of government, and one of the biggest ways to act is to vote. We have the power to elect individuals and governments who will put the planet first, collaborate to protect nature, and honour the commitments made by their governments. Our right to vote is a wonderful and neglected thing. We have this amazing power to topple governments, given directly to us by them, and yet we don’t use it. Many of us don’t appreciate how much impact a vote can have, or are so disillusioned by the process that we don’t vote at all.

Let’s be clear on one thing: I don’t think sustainability should be a political issue. Everyone should be interested in having a healthier planet, economies that are resilient and focus on long-term growth, and fair and equal societies. It shouldn’t matter on which part of the political spectrum we sit, but unfortunately, it does.

Which leads us to the intent of the article: why we should vote for sustainability. As much as I say sustainability shouldn’t be a political issue, we need politics to implement change. We need politicians who will act in the interests of society and the planet all the way from our local authority deciding what to do with green spaces, to governments deciding how we honour our commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Remember that sustainability is about three things: the environment, the economy, and society. In order to have a sustainable society, we need to improve all three pillars, yet we have political systems which constantly pit economic growth against societal improvement. There’s no reason why we can’t have both. There’s no reason why we can’t have both and sustain and improve our environment.

Where to place our vote

This requires work. Voting is easy. 5 minutes in a voting hall, and making a mark or two on a piece of paper. Working out who to vote for, that is hard.

I won’t say who to vote for.

I will say we have to put the work in. If we care about sustainability, then we have to take the time to understand who is the best option. Who is going to do the most for sustainability?

I make the analogy to effective altruism. Effective altruism is about making the biggest impact for good with our careers, but a large part of it — and the bit that first got my attention — is making our charitable donations do as much good as possible for every pound we donate (or euro, or dollar). With voting I have a small action — one or two marks on a piece of paper — so the question is: how do I ensure that action does as much good as possible. It’s hard to quantify, but I like to think it’s about voting in someone who will genuinely look after the local community and environment, and who will represent the planet when debating or voting on the larger issues.

It comes down to a question of trust. Who do we trust to do all of these things? Who do we trust to work on all three pillars of sustainability? We have to look at policies and track records. Has this politician or party done enough in the past for us to trust their promises?

Politicians will spin all sorts of lines ahead of elections, will tell us about all the great things they’re going to do for the environment. Politicians will dedicate time to tell us that the other politicians are no good, are liars, can’t be trusted. Focus on the issues, the facts, and tune out all of this petty point-scoring.

Avoid tactical voting. If we sacrifice our principles to remove or disadvantage a particular candidate, we’ve only ourselves to blame when our cause is overlooked.

Finally, never vote for a party because we always have, or worse still because our parents told us to. A politician must earn our vote, they don’t get it through inertia.

A quick look at numbers

If we’re ever in doubt about the potential, look at the numbers. At the 2019 general election in the UK, the Green Party got 2.7 % of the popular votes.

That number doesn’t represent the whole sustainable vote. It doesn’t capture all the people who care about sustainability but voted for another party or another issue; whether in the belief that their party could do more than the Green Party, the other issue was more important to them (probably Brexit, this time round), or just inertia (voting the way they’ve always voted). Imagine the potential if all of these people voted for the same party, or voted for candidates who genuinely cared about the environment and who were willing to collaborate to make changes.

Consider the potential knock-on effect: if people start to see sustainability as a valid choice, and not as a wasted vote, then this vote share will surely increase.

For a recent example of where a sustainable vote can make a difference, we need only look to Ireland, where a coalition has just formed after the election at the start of the year. This coalition includes the Green Party, with three Green Party cabinet members. With the strong green vote this year and the inclusion of the Green Party in a historic coalition, Ireland has made clear the importance of sustainability in its future.

After the election

Finally, remember that political action doesn’t end at the voting booth, it begins there. Whether our candidate won or lost, we have the ability to interact with them. Challenge their actions, especially if they campaigned on a green platform. Watch how they vote, how they debate, on which issues they speak up and whether they speak with their own voice or the party line.

Write letters and sign petitions. If we don’t let our representatives know how we feel — what is important to us — they will assume they can carry on as they have been. They will invent a mandate from the issues they’ve campaigned on, even if they only won by a narrow margin. They might never act on sustainability issues if their constituents haven’t communicated their importance.

Protest or join Extinction Rebellion, but do something. Never assume that once our vote is cast, we have to wait another five years until our voice is heard again.

We’ve become disillusioned with party politics, even those who just vote the way they always have. We don’t believe the system can enact change, because we keep perpetuating a system that doesn’t want to enact change. We keep electing people who want power and esteem instead of those who actually want to make difference. We can make changes now.