We often talk about the sanctity of democracy in the West. It’s as if merely questioning this system of governance and its underlying efficacy is deemed a form of moral blasphemy.
In many ways democracy as a concept can be viewed as an irresistible force that appeals to our sense of right and wrong, but as a survival system it may infact be majorly flawed. When democratic governments are faced with complex long term structural issues that demand massively unpopular solutions their tendency will always be towards populism and postponement not informed brinkmanship and tough decision making.
Many people may argue more sanguinely that democracy is indeed flawed but ‘it’s the best system we have’ and besides, the alternatives aren’t worth considering. Whilst I don’t disagree with the moral impetus upon which this assumption is based I do think it is somewhat presumptuous given the circumstances we now find ourselves in. The ramifications of democratic governments collectively failing to prevent runaway climate change are surely more chilling than the consequences any abandonment of democracy may precipitate.
We are now living in an era known as the anthropocene within which humanity is effecting changes to the earth’s ecosystems at such a rate as to actually constitute a completely new geological era. Extinction rates are soaring hundreds of times above normal ‘background’ levels and we are changing the composition of our atmosphere at such an alarming rate that science can barely keep up with the task of explaining all the highly intricate and complex interconnections within the biosphere and the scale to which all of them are now becoming unbalanced.
The most ethically and morally challenging dilemma our species has ever had to face
As a system which relies on consensus and the support of a national electorate, democracy is at present failing catastrophically to slow emissions to anywhere near the most conservative of emissions quotas scientists suggest to prevent runaway climate change. Could it be that it is the unquestioning idolatary that democracy has attained in the West that may be blinding us to the moral imperative of our species very survival and of considering an alternative system to one based on consensus? If this is true then the inability of democratic systems to mitigate these unprecedented man made threats to our planet’s biosphere and prevent runaway climate change is perhaps the most ethically and morally challenging dilemma our species has ever had to face.
The heart of the problem lies in the fact that the majority of public opinion in modern democracies across the globe (including huge swathes of supposedly intellectual opinion) just doesn’t regard the issue high as important enough to put it anywhere near the top of the political agenda and there are still shameful numbers that do not even believe in man made climate change at all, despite the overwhelming evidence. These sentiments are mirrored by – or perhaps in some ways, a result of – the popular press, themselves powerful drivers of public opinion. And without popular support, the engines of democracies simply cannot build up enough momentum to effectively legislate to curb emissions, regardless of those in the public arena who attempt to push the issue higher up the agenda.
But why is this? Where is our sense of collective dread at the prospect of mass extinction within maybe as little as a century? Are we that blinded to things that aren’t immediately relevant to us? Surely when we may have as little as a decade or two to bring rising emissions under control one would expect a sense of emergency and alarm manifesting itself on a wider scale?
The truth behind this intransigence lies not only in the shortcomings of democratic systems to implement unpopular change, but is fundamental to the way our very brains work.
The catastrophic problem with a short term mindset
The failure of democratic systems to deal with the long term problems of climate change is largely part down to the short term nature of parliamentary cycles which necessarily infringe and constrain its policy making apparatus. Although electoral cycles are fundamental to any democracy as they allow the people to regularly exercise their will and elect their own representatives, the imbue upon our politicians a vote winning mindset that undermines any sense of long term outlook and casts it as idealism. The result is a political class that think in four or five year cycles. From this trend naturally follows the horse trading we see in all democracies, in which ones ideals are traded for concessions to another more pressing ideal; any deviation from this model is simply untenable and impotent. And so we are stuck in a system fundamentally myopic and incapable of making changes on the basis of events twenty, thirty or even one hundred years down the line.
But this short termism isn’t just endemic to democratic systems; it is hardwired into the human brain.
Our inability to grasp the concept of what scientists call ‘deep time’ whereby events unfold over thousands or even millions of years, is not down just to a lack of individual intelligence or even understanding; it is a byproduct of our evolutionary heritage. We have no need to react to the movement of glaciers or tectonic plates but predators do move a lot faster and so our human minds have evolved to have a short term bias. It is this inability to react to long term threats that may well be our undoing. It is somewhat of an amusing irony then, that natural selection, in producing something as devloped and sophisticated as the human brain, may have inadvertently left us with the evolutionary baggage of our own demise.
So what are the alternatives open to us.
Whether we like it or not, autocracies don’t tend to work in cycles at all as they’re politicians aren’t elected in and out of office. These systems are therefore better suited to enact programmes whose turnaround time is long term. With an executive informed by rationalism and scientific objectivity, instead of an inexpert, myopic and emotionally driven electorate, we could potentially mitigate against climate changes worst effects on our species. But whilst the changes this kind of legislative impunity could usher in could well prove decisive in halting warming, they could also backfire in the most disastrous way. This is where the paradox of the benign dictatorship rears its ugly head.
To combat climate change it is argued that a more autocratic system is needed to enact and push through fundamental legislation without challenge or popular dissent, but if we take the old truism that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely then we are presented with a very unpredictable situation. Could we be sure that any future benign one party state would stay the course and commit unconditionally to the long and difficult task of curbing climate change when faced with the self interest of individuals and the trappings of short term power. These are inherent human issues and it could be argued that because of the degrees of power bestowed upon individuals, autocracies are perhaps just, if not more, susceptible to the trappings of the short term mindset than any democratic system.
But there is another problem.
The problems of a nationalistic bias
Unfortunately for us the solution to discovering a way of mitigating against runaway climate change is multilateral and not unilateral and it is in this final point that I think given the current lack of any overarching and powerful international body (the UN is unable to prevent its members going to war with Middle Eastern countries and in this sense is largely impotent and incapable of effecting change in itself) democracy as a framework for change becomes almost completely untenable. Because democratic are inherently nationalistic in that they rely on the support of electorates within their own borders, they are also inherently inward looking. As Woodrow Wilson once put it, ‘foreign policy is domestic policy with its top hat on’. National democratic governments will only push their electorates so far (in other words, not far enough to lose power).
Today China is the worlds second most powerful economy and in the not too distant future it will be the largest. It is also a one party state and a one of the key players in the deadlock in international climate talks. For the time being China refuses to budge on agreeing any significant leeway on emissions targets, having pointed out that the majority of man made CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere was put up there by the West in the decades following the industrial revolution. Its contention is that unless it can be significantly compensated for this profligate and profitable period of history in which western nations advanced and it stood still, then now its China’s turn. Although this argument does carry significant moral weight it fails to see the harsh reality of the present situation. If China’s industrial revolution continues unchecked at its present rate and climate talks remain in deadlock with no effective framework agreed on curbing targets internationally, we will inevitably get runaway climate change. Perhaps in as little as twenty or thirty years. China is cutting its nose off to spite its face.
It seems unlikely that America and Europe, beguiled as their governments have become by corporate power, can ever convince their electorates to tolerate hugely unpopular and financially punitive policies that will prevent something that significant numbers of them still don’t even believe is happening. Any hope of a real paradigm shift seems even more unlikely in the wake of a banking crisis and global recession. More unlikely still is the prospect that these governments can cooperate and legislate multi-laterally through currently infective bodies like the UN and the IPCC to set significant and legally binding targets to curb emissions, putting the ball back in China’s court.
A path of no return?
If a non-democratic form of government is needed then how will we reconcile this with our belief in the sanctity of representation, equality and human rights and what kind of alternative will we adopt? To what degree can we justify our own species’ survival by jesttisoning a method of governence that is the closest thing we have in the West to an international belief system. Would we be able to return to a democracy when our global economy is decidedly more green and we have weaned ourselves off fossil fuels, or would this be a path of no return?
Democracy has allowed us to express ourselves and live a life of choices and freedom that was unthought of throughout most of human history. Is it our cruel fate that this freedom to choose has resulted in us being left with no choice at all.