Is our system of government incapable of meeting the challenges we face?
A very simple question raising a point that has been addressed here at length several times. It gets into issues of what it means when we vest such enormous powers in our elected apparatus, in our leaders, who then fail or outright refuse to exercise them on our behalf or, even worse, use those powers we have vested in them against our interests. What then?
The WorldWatch Institute addressed this issue in the context of what it calls "the Long Emergency" that lies before us and stretches as far as the eye can see.
We have entered a “long emergency” in which a myriad of worsening eco-logical, social, and economic problems and dilemmas at different geographic and temporal scales are converging as a crisis of crises. It is a collision of two non-linear systems—the biosphere and biogeochemical cycles on one side and human institutions, organizations, and governments on the other. But the response at the national and international levels has so far been indifferent to inconsistent, and nowhere more flagrantly so than in the United States, which is responsible for about 28 percent of the fossil-fuel carbon that humanity added to the atmosphere between 1850 and 2002.
The “perfect storm” that lies ahead is caused by the collision of changing climate; spreading ecological disorder (including deforestation, soil loss, water shortages, species loss, ocean acidification); population growth; unfair distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of economic growth; national, ethnic, and religious tensions; and the proliferation of nuclear weapons—all compounded by systemic failures of foresight and policy. As a consequence, in political theorist Brian Barry’s words, “it is quite possible that by the year 2100 human life will have become extinct or will be confined to a few residential areas that have escaped the devastating effects of nuclear holocaust or global warming.”
Part of the reason for paralysis is the sheer difficulty of the issue. Climate change is scientifically complex, politically divisive, economically costly, morally contentious, and ever so easy to deny or defer to others at some later time. But the continuing failure to anticipate and forestall the worst effects of climate destabilization in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence is the largest political and moral failure in history. Indeed, it is a crime across generations for which we have, as yet, no name.
Yes, to any honest observer, it is indeed a crime, a "crime in progress", a crime against generations and we know the criminals, the perpetrators. Quite often they occupy the highest offices in the land or are vying for those offices. They have names like Stephen Harper or Joe Oliver and their number includes all the chief petro-pols including within the opposition ranks. They are a political Yakuza.
Barring a technological miracle, we have condemned ourselves and posterity to live with growing climate instability for hundreds or even thousands of years. No government has yet shown the foresight, will, creativity, or capacity to deal with problems at this scale, complexity, or duration. No government is prepared to make the “tragic choices” ahead humanely and rationally. And no government has yet demonstrated the willingness to rethink its own mission at the intersection of climate instability and conventional economic wisdom.
In " An Inquiry into the Human Prospect", in 1974, economist Robert Heilbroner wrote: “I not only predict but I prescribe a centralization of power as the only means by which our threatened and dangerous civilization will make way for its successor.” Heilbroner’s description of the human prospect included global warming but also other threats to industrial civilization, including the possibility that finally we would not care enough to do the things necessary to protect posterity. The extent to which power must be centralized, he said, depends on the capacity of populations, accustomed to affluence, for self-discipline. But he did not find “much evidence in history—especially in the history of nations organized under the materialistic and individualistic promptings of an industrial civilization— to encourage expectations of an easy subordination of the private interest to the public weal.”
...Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein proposes that we strengthen and deepen the practice of democracy even as we enlarge the power of the state. “Responding to climate change,” she writes:“requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency. We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, relocalize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South. Of course, none of this has a hope in hell of happening unless sit is accompanied by a massive, broad-based effort to radically reduce the influence that corporations have over the political process. That means, at minimum, publicly funded elections and stripping corporations of their status as “people” under the law.
Democracy, Winston Churchill once famously said, is the worst form of government except for all the others ever tried. But has it ever been tried? In columnist Harold Myerson’s words, “the problem isn’t that we’re too democratic. It’s that we’re not democratic enough.” The authors of the U.S. Constitution, for example, grounded ultimate power in “we the people” while denying them any such power or even much access to it.
The argument is sound that, having entrusted our political classes with the levers of power, their failure to wield those powers for our benefit defeats their legitimacy. If you seek to govern you must govern, not as you chose but as circumstances demand. If you fail in that most fundamental responsibility whether through choice or incompetence or incapacity, then you must be replaced whether it be the individual or the institution that is faulty.
What passes for democratic government in this country is a farce. What passes for a free press in this country is likewise farcical. Both institutions need to be replaced.
The authors consider the U.S. Constitution and conclude it is more a business charter than anything else.
the U.S. Constitution is typical of others in giving no “clear, unambiguous textual foundation for federal environmental protection law,” notes legal scholar Richard Lazarus. It privileges “decentralized, fragmented, and incremental lawmaking . . . which makes it difficult to address issues in a comprehensive, holistic fashion.” Congressional committee jurisdiction based on the Constitution further fragments responsibility and legislative results. The Constitution gives too much power to private rights as opposed to public goods. It does not mention the environment or the need to protect soils, air, water, wildlife, and climate and so it offers no unambiguous basis for environmental protection. The commerce clause, the source for major environmental statutes, is a cumbersome and awkward legal basis for environmental protection. The result, Lazarus notes, is that “our lawmaking institutions are particularly inapt for the task of considering problems and crafting legal solutions of the spatial and temporal dimensions necessary for environmental law.”
The authors next turn to a failure endemic in Western governments in the post-war era, the near total disregard for posterity.
The U.S. Constitution is deficient in other ways as well. Posterity is mentioned only in the Preamble, but not thereafter. The omission, understandable when the Constitution was written, now poses an egregious wrong. In 1787, the framers could have had no premonition that far into the future one generation could deprive all others of life, liberty, and property without due process of law or even good cause. And so, in theologian Thomas Berry’s words: “It is already determined that our children and grandchildren will live amid the ruined infrastructures of the industrial world and amid the ruins of the natural world itself.” The U.S. Constitution gives them no protection whatsoever.
...We are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. There is no good case to be made for smaller governments in the long emergency unless we wish to sharply reduce our security and lower our standards for the public downward to a libertarian, gun-toting, free-for-all—Thomas Hobbes’s nightmare on steroids. On the contrary, it will be necessary to enlarge governments domestically and internationally to deal with the nastier aspects of the long emergency, including relocating people from rising oceans and spreading deserts, restoring order in the wake of large storms, managing conflicts over diminishing water, food, and resources, dealing with the spread of diseases, and managing the difficult transition to a post-growth economy. On the other hand, we have good reason to fear an enlargement of government powers as both ineffective and potentially oppressive.
Given those choices, there is no good outcome that does not require something like a second democratic revolution in which we must master the art and science of governance for a new era—creating and maintaining governments that are ecologically competent, effective at managing complex systems, agile, capable of foresight, and sturdy over an extraordinary time span. If we intend for such governments to also be democratic, we will have to summon an extraordinary level of political creativity and courage. To meet the challenges of the late eighteenth century, James Madison argued that democracy required a free press that served a well-informed and engaged citizenry, fair and open elections, and reliable ways to counterbalance competing interests. But he feared that even the best government with indifferent and incompetent citizens and leaders would sooner or later come to ruin.
In our time, strong democracy may be our best hope for governance in the long emergency, but it will not develop, persist, and flourish without significant changes. The most difficult of these will require that we confront the age-old nemesis of democracy: economic oligarchy. Today the majority of concentrated wealth is tied, directly or indirectly, to the extraction, processing, and sale of fossil fuels, which is also the major driver of the long emergency. Decades of rising global inequality have entrenched control in a small group of super-wealthy individuals, financiers, corporations, media tycoons, drug lords, and celebrities in positions of unaccountable authority.
Democracies from classical Athens to the present are only as vibrant as the quality and moral power of the ideas they can muster, mull over, and act upon. Debate, argument, and civil conversation are the lifeblood of the democratic process. In our time, said to be an age of information, one of the most striking characteristics is the triviality, narrowness, and often factual inaccuracy of our political conversations. Much of what passes for public dialogue has to do with jobs and economic growth, but it is based on economic theories that fit neither biophysical reality nor the highest aspirations of humankind. The rules of market economies are said to date from Adam Smith 237 years ago, but those of natural systems are 3.8 billion years old. Allowed to run on much longer, the mismatch will destroy us.
...It is time to talk about important things. Why have we come so close to the brink of extinction so carelessly and casually? Why do we still have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert? How can humankind reclaim the commons of atmosphere, seas, biological diversity, mineral re-sources, and lands as the heritage of all, not the private possessions of a few? How much can we fairly and sustainably take from Earth, and for what purposes? Why is wealth so concentrated and poverty so pervasive? Are there better ways to earn our livelihoods than by maximizing consumption, a word that once signified a fatal disease? Can we organize governance at all levels around the doctrine of public trust rather than through fear and competition? And, finally, how might Homo sapiens, with a violent and bloody past, be redeemed in the long arc of time?
In the long emergency ahead, the challenges to be overcome are first and foremost political, not technological or economic. They are in the domain of governance where the operative words are “we” and “us,” not those of markets where the pronouns are “I,” “me,” and “mine.” At issue is whether we have the wherewithal, wisdom, and foresight to preserve and improve the human enterprise in the midst of a profound human crisis. Any chance for us to come through the trials of climate destabilization in a nuclear-armed world with 10 billion people by 2100 will require that we soon reckon with the thorny issues of politics, political theory, and governance with wisdom, boldness, and creativity.
Does this sound like a call to topple the existing order? It is. It's probably our last, best chance.