Sunday, April 25, 2010

Democracy and the Environment

We are all very familiar with the problems that can come about in an authoritarian political system characterized by consolidated power. The problems produced by Democracy, however, are largely ignored. To be clear, I’m not talking about the “failures” of Democracy. This isn’t about what problems arise when Democracy goes wrong, but rather the problems that arise when Democracy goes right.

The present environmental crisis is absolutely inextricable from our Democratic system of government.

There is an environmental crisis. Our lives, one way or the other, will change a great deal because of the impact that industry is having on our planet. Without entering into a discussion of the scope of this crisis, the fact is that we produce too much waste in the form of garbage and pollution. We consume the planet’s resources at a rate that is not sustainable. After more than a decade of meetings, summits, conferences, and efforts to “raise awareness” (not exactly a measurable goal with demonstrable results) we are no closer to a viable solution.

The best that our leaders have come up with so far is to ask people to voluntarily reduce their rate of consumption and recycle waste, and to ask governments to put regulations in place to attempt to limit the impact industry has on the planet. In the former case, it’s easy to see the problem. Recycling is a weak form of damage control, not a solution. This description applies across the board to the “strategies” that democratic governments have come up with to deal with our environmental crisis. The problem of waste and consumption is getting more severe. It might be getting more severe less quickly than it was, but after more than a decade of brainstorming, that’s hardly an accomplishment. In the latter case, there is a problem with money. Elections are won with cash, and campaigning for political power isn’t cheap. Any move to create the kind of regulations that would significantly affect the environmental damage done by waste and pollution is likely to cost big business dearly. It’s not just that a politician or political party demanding these kinds of regulations will not receive campaign contributions, they are also likely to make enemies with deep pockets who will be willing to spend millions to see them lose an election.

We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing. Major changes have to be made to the essential structure of the global economy. Those changes, however, would have a severe impact on the average citizen. A lot of people would lose money, and a lot of people would lose their jobs. There would be a period of great chaos and suffering. There’s no way around this. The nut is that if we don’t do something to initiate these economic changes, the end result will be far, far worse. If you don’t accept the pain of the dentist’s drill, you eventually lose the tooth.

Even if there were a politician willing to sacrifice their career to give voice to some tough choices, they wouldn’t have the power to actually order big business to pull the plug on industry in a democratic system of government. The issue would have to be put to a vote, and the popular choice opinion would be easy to turn against it. The people will not put themselves out of work, big business will not sacrifice billions of dollars, and no body of elected officials would ever pass a law ordering them to. I say that the environmental crisis is inextricable from Democracy because the very nature of that system goes against what is absolutely necessary to seriously deal with this problem. Merely asking people and industry to change isn’t enough. They have to be made to change or, regardless of whether we're dealing with a buildup of waste and pollution or actual climate change, we will be faced with a public health catastrophe of massive proportions. Although we do have environmental regulations in place, they are far less demanding than they need to be, and they need to be applied across the globe to be fully effective. As long as a company can divest its business interests in one country and invest in another with less severe regulations, pollution and waste will remain a problem. What nation would sacrifice its own economy to chase business away into a neighboring country where industry is held to a lower environmental standard? It will seem, at first, that the cure is worse than the disease. The difference is that we will recover from the cure. The disease doesn’t go away.

Unpopularity and the disruption of business are not the only obstacles faced by a Democratic system of government trying to address this crisis. A long-term strategic plan is absolutely necessary for a sustained effort toward changing our impact on the environment to be successful, and long-term planning is virtually impossible in a Democratic system. In a Democracy, because of the importance of public opinion, the focus is on achieving an immediate result that a politician can take credit for. Regardless of the branch or department, when you have a new boss every two to six years, (and possibly a new mandate altogether if a different party comes in to power) the strategy is constantly changing. Term limits and frequent elections mean that political careers are built on short-term plans. Over time, this leads to a series of cosmetic changes that have no real impact. An individual or institution acting according to a plan moves toward its goal one step at a time. In a Democracy, political institutions change direction every few steps, and wind up going endlessly in circles without getting anywhere. Term limits and frequent elections have been seen, legitimately, as a triumph of democratic values. And as we can see, when those values are realized, the Democratic institution becomes completely myopic, unable to see past the next election or appointment.

Why does Democracy create these problems? To understand this, we have to look at the essence of Democracy itself: the need for human co-operation.

Human beings only work together effectively when they have a common goal or a common enemy. Democracy demands that representatives of various regions and interests co-operate to govern, but it lacks the sort of goal-oriented framework that would make that co-operation effective. At best, the mandate of a Democratic government is to protect the state and deal with social problems, but politicians can’t agree on what the real threats to the state are, or what social problems are important to address. These are negative goals, in that they are about dealing with crisis rather than creating something new. The result is the partisan chauvinism and ridiculous infighting that permeate our political structures. A positive goal is necessary for these differences to be laid aside. Democracy itself is hostile to positive goals, because as soon as we have a positive goal a clear hierarchy of value emerges. To use a very simple example, “all people are equal” is a clear statement. Tautological, and a poor use of a comparative adjective, but clear. As soon as we have some frame of reference for comparison, it becomes impossible to assert equality. All people are not equal at playing tennis. If playing tennis is our goal, there will be numerous factors, both essential and circumstantial, that will go toward establishing a hierarchy.

The point is that it is only possible to maintain the illusion of equality if we remove any context for comparison. If we have positive goals, these goals necessarily present a context for comparison. Not only that, but the environmental crisis would constitute a clear and immediate threat. If we have plans for the future that involve building something (i.e. positive goals) then those plans cannot possibly succeed unless this crisis is dealt with. We would be motivated to make the necessary sacrifices if we were truly committed to accomplishing that positive goal. If our plan for the future is “more of the same, and try not to let anything bad happen” (i.e. negative goals) then we are more motivated to preserve our present state of comfort than to make the sacrifices necessary to confront this crisis. The consequences of the mismanagement of the economy do not directly interfere with our day-to-day lives in a way that most people immediately experience, and so our leaders are unwilling to demand the kind of sacrifices necessary to effectively deal with this crisis.

The question is, how far does the situation have to deteriorate before the cure becomes less painful than the disease? Isn’t this a clear consequence of our cherished “freedom,” which might mean that (gasp) freedom from compulsion is not always a good thing? Unless this problem is dealt with honestly, “freedom” as it is defined by democracy may eventually mean nothing more than freedom to drink poisoned water, breathe poisoned air, and live on a mountain of trash.

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