activism politics

Why is progress so slow?

When you spend a lot of time working towards sustainability and social justice, it can seem strange that progress is so slow. Why is it so hard to get agreement on climate change, so long after the science has been accepted? How do we put up with chronic global poverty when there are so many things we could do about it?

In the recent Tearfund report, The Restorative Economy, Alex Evans and Richard Gower look at several reasons for slow progress. There’s no one big reason, they argue, but a “convergence” of factors in three key areas:

1. Out of date governance systems – all our governance mechanisms were built around national interest, making them ill-equipped for the sorts of international issues we face today. They’re also prone to split issues up into categories – financial issues over here, environmental ones over there, when we really  need a much more joined up approach.

2. Vested interests – “there are many today who would lose out from the shift to a more sustainable and just economy” say Evans and Gower. Fossil fuel companies are the most obvious, and our financial institutions. They are able to use their size to influence government policy, and to make their arguments to the public too. Every big social change has had opponents who are served by things as they are, so there’s no great surprise there.

3. Public attitudes – awareness of social and environmental issues has risen in recent years, but behaviour hasn’t necessarily followed. People are still reluctant to make lifestyle changes. Another problem is that we depend on pressure from the public to press the government to address global issues, but most people don’t trust politicians and have little interest in political processes. This is one of several reasons why our current low levels of political engagement matter.

These problems are not insurmountable, but they do need to be understood. The Restorative Economy goes on to argue that a grassroots movement with an alternative story is best placed to overcome the inertia.


  1. Is it not good that rather than rushing into solutions of a minority that may very well do much harm? Isn’t it better to go gradually so that as many people as possible agree and that the final solutions are tested and inclusive.

    Conservatism is no sin. Revolutions and radical changes almost always cause harm.

    Isn’t very possible that there isn’t agreement to do what you call for because you are wrong?

    1. An appropriate quote from many centuries ago:

      “To know that you don’t know is best.
      To pretend to know what you do not know is a disease.”

  2. The negotiations for the international arms treaty began in 1997, and concluded in 2014. It took 17 years to agree that selling weapons to countries where they might be used in genocide was wrong – that’s not conservatism. That’s dysfunction.

    We’ve had 18 years to think about the next steps after Kyoto. We let its climate agreements expire with nothing in place to replace it, and we’re still arguing.

    So what’s your definition of ‘rushing into’?

    1. Because you want international agreements to last so need to have the buy in of as many countries as possible and the are nearly 200 countries, each one needs to reach internal agreement.

      Blame the public suggests a failure on your side’s part to persuade them ( eminds me of the Labour activists online who are blaming the voters for Labour’s defeat).

      Much easier to blame shadowy ‘vested interests’ (loaded term) or that the system is broken.

      1. When you say ‘my side’, what are you referring to?

        I don’t see any ‘us and them’ in what I’m describing. Nor is it about blame. Your whole tone is misplaced.

        1. Presumably he means that your side consists of those people who support the two agreements you mentioned.

          I believe you when you say you don’t see any “us and them” in these issues. And that belief is probably why you struggle to understand why such agreements progress so slowly. There simply isn’t unanimity on these subjects.

          The arms treaty, for instance, is limited by the fact that the majority of countries would see their ability to purchase weapons diminished by such an agreement. The United Nations is, for the most part, one country, one vote. In order for an agreement to pass, leaders of at least a few nations would need to vote against what they see as their best interests, which very rarely happens. Countries voting to deny themselves the means to fight a war are, effectively, putting themselves at the mercy of the UN to protect them. In practice, that means the United States would do the fighting. From where I sit, that concept hasn’t worked out well for anyone, for several decades.

          There’s also a strong scent of paternalism in such treaties. Most of the functions of the UN are based on the (always unstated) idea that rich white nations should “fix” poor brown nations. I can’t say I’ve ever spoken to the leader of Uganda, but I expect that he thinks he’s more qualified to decide his country’s fate than someone in Brussels.

          1. The point is that there are relatively few people who’s say they aren’t in favour of a climate agreement, or not in favour of an arms treaty. So there aren’t clear ‘sides’ pitted against each other. It’s the decision making processes themselves that slow us down.

          2. There is still lots of disagreement about the ‘how’ you do these things.

            To say it is down to the process is at least to show ignorance of these differences, at worst is an attempt to discredit those who disagree with the means to the end you prefer.

            1. If I wanted to discredit anyone, I’d say so. No need to veil things in generalities if there’s a target in mind. This is about the broad tendencies of our international systems. I’ve given the examples of the climate and arms agreements because they were the first to come to mind, but you could look at the stalled Doha round of trade talks too. 14 years and counting.

              Of course there’s debate on how to do things, and many of the reasons for that disagreement come down to one of the three points mentioned in the post.

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