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When governments should get out of the way

Politics and politicians have failed to advance environmental issues, says Brendan May.

The more time I have spent working on environmental issues, the more I have despaired of government. As a student, I believed in the power of government to make things better, as so many do. But real-life experience, first from working at an NGO and more recently from a business perspective, has rapidly eroded any idealism I once held dear.

A watershed moment for me came in 1999, when I attended the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, whose discussions that year were focused on oceans and fisheries’ sustainability. As much time was spent debating whether draft texts should refer to “fishermen”, “fishers” or “fisherpeople” as it was on sorting out the global mess that is oceans and fisheries regulation. But it was a mere teaser of what was to come.

It occurred to me recently that the best thing government can do on sustainability and corporate responsibility is to get out of the way as fast as possible. In general, other than a few global treaties over the decades, politicians are so far behind companies and NGOs on the environment that when they eventually wake up it is usually to obstruct. They cause muddle where clarity and consensus reigned, and impose stale old thinking of limited use to anyone, let alone the natural environment. 

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