Members can sign in here.

About the Author

Robert Stefanicki
Journalist (Warsaw, Poland)

Old salt international affairs writer. At present freelance (looking for a job!), most of his professional life worked for the largest daily in Poland. Focused on Asia and Middle East, where witnessed some dirty wars, now more and more interested in development and other global issues. In collusion with Institute of Global Responsibility, our new and fast growing NGO. Self made photographer (see my website), scuba diver, sailor, cyclist and movie addict.


Can authoritarianism save the Earth?

Published 19th May 2010 - 11 comments - 8245 views -

Any meaningful response to global warming can not be achieved from within the modern democracies of the western world. There are certain circumstances – a war is a typical example, and climate change may be an issue as severe as a war – where you've got to have a few people with authority who you trust who are running it. So democracy must be put on hold for the time being. We need a more authoritative world.

This is the brief summary of the “environmental authoritarianism”, whose most prominent representative is renown scientist James Lovelock. Above paragraph was extracted from his recent interview with “The Guardian”.


The idea of “putting democracy on hold” is not new. In the 1970s, the “limits-to-growth” idea was fashionable, arguing that only authoritarianism could drive through the lifestyle-changes required for saving the Earth. William Ophuls prophesied that “the golden age of individualism, liberty, and democracy is all but over –  we should return to something resembling the premodern, closed polity”.

David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith in their book “The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy” argue that “the fundamental problem causing environmental destruction is the operation of liberal democracy”. This failure can easily lead to authoritarianism without our even noticing. The authors claim that an authoritarian form of government is necessary, in a form of governance by experts. There are highly successful authoritarian structures – for example, in medicine and corporations – that are capable of implementing urgent decisions impossible under liberal democracy.

Even Vaclav Havel, the arch-democratic ex-president of the Czech Republic wrote in NYT: "I don't agree with those whose reaction is to warn against restricting civil freedoms. Were the forecasts of certain climatologists to come true, our freedoms would be tantamount to those of someone hanging from a 20th-storey parapet".


Do they have a point? It is tempting to stand by Lovelock, pioneering theorist of Gaia, calling to restrict our freedoms, rather than to join hands with libertarians for whom all this global warming is simply a plot of socialists. As well it is hard to deny that current elites have led us into ecological disasters. But is it really a choice between liberty or life?

This logic suffers from lack of empirical evidence. In fact most autocrat states do not treat the problem of climate change with any care or sensitivity. The Russian government seems to actually count on some benefits from the world heating up, and China seems inclined to pursue growth at all costs. Unquestionable efficiency of an autocratic government to build new roads or subway is one thing, but when confronted with a need to put in place complex new systems – restricting emissions, for example – they may lack the means, but most of all the will.

Are African dictators becoming environmentalists? – asks Alemayehu G. Mariam, professor of political science at California State University, in his article in “Ethiopian Review”? His answer is “no”. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has managed to convince other African leaders to make him the point man at the global warming negotiations, but has ignored the ecological apocalypse facing Ethiopia. According to prof. Mariam, Mr. Zenavi is “merely trying to rehabilitate his image from the continent’s foremost human rights abuser to its chief environmental redeemer”.

How about a government of experts then? Nothing new under the sun. Plato suggested a corps of trained, expert "guardians" to run the state. Cicero demolished this with an immortal question: "Who will guard the guardians"? Once given the power, a man is reluctant to give it back, if not subjected to rigid democratic mechanism.


Should democratic development and climate solutions be looked at as competing imperatives? I see them rather as complementary goals. No less, but more democracy makes the answer.

Al Gore noticed that power is already dangerously concentrated: "In order to solve the climate crisis we have to address the democracy crisis... A higher priority is to change democracy and open it up again to citizens... and to democratize the dominant medium of television, which has been a form of information flow that has stultified modern life."

In a similar tone, Dougald Hine wrote in, that “mechanisms for restricting our personal behaviour will be required, but we should demand involvement in the process rather than petitioning the state to relieve us of our freedom. Meanwhile, governments must stop protecting those industries which cannot or will not adapt their behaviour to a low-carbon world.” Easy to say. The problem is that too often the governments act in defiance of their democratic mandate: not in the interest of a majority (the general public – voters) but in the interest of a minority (industries – sponsors).

Also, at a global scale, we need to make the major economic decisions by which the world is ruled accountable to the poor majority. And secure the education of this majority. We need enlightened leaders at the head of – and accountable to – enlightened society. If we can do that, we may be in a position to tackle climate change without collapsing into authoritarianism.

Or, you may think, this is the time for martial law?

 featured picture credit:


  • Stefan May on 19th May 2010:

    You as Pole know of course that martial law doesn’t work for a long time. Every system of government needs legitimacy to survive, so if the people see the point in environmentalism a dictatorship is not necessary, while if they don’t it wont last long and collapse probably into something even worse.
    Who said there is an easy solution to those problems?

  • Benno Hansen on 19th May 2010:

    1) Doubts about our ability to continue economic growth on a finite planet isn’t isolated to the 70ies. In fact, a couple of weeks ago I listened to a one hour long lecture: Wolfgang Sachs: Sustainable development vs economic growth.

    2) “Environmentalist” - sort of - dictatorships have been seen. It has been argued that Trujillo’s order to shoot illegal loggers on contact is now one of the explanations the Dominican Republic is richer than Haiti (which has been logged to a mudhole).

    3) Giving authority to right wing free market preachers on the topic of climate change is not very serious.

    cheers wink

  • Robert Stefanicki on 20th May 2010:

    @Stefan: Some dictatorship without legitimacy are very reluctant to collapse. Hope we will never have a chance to check it out personally.

    @Benno: With these doubts about our ability to continue economic growth may be like with doubts about Earth’s ability to contain another billion people. Somehow we do, despite gloomy prophecies for decades… And by “right wing free market preacher” you don’t mean Charlie Chaplin, do you?

  • Stefan May on 20th May 2010:

    @Robert: do you mean the DPRK or Myanmar? They wouldn’t exist without backing from outside. Same went for the regime of Jaruzelski or the dictatorship I spent my childhood in. The communistic states are btw. an interesting showcase for states that due to the fact that they tried to legitimize themselves over rising consume and a fetish for industrial development simply broke down and destroyed quite some of the environment at the same time (pollution in the GDR was unbearable almost every child in the cities had some form of asthma, the leftover republics of the Soviet Union contain the most polluted places in the world, not only around Chernobyl but also the remnants of the chemical industries in Azerbaijan, the area around lake Aral etc.).
    Long story short: Freedom is a political concept that I cherish a lot, but Vaclav Havel is right: if we don’t decrease the freedoms of the polluters to pollute and destroy our habitat we will soon lose most other freedoms as well thanks to the collapse of our societies.
    And sure ‘we’ always ‘managed’ in the past, I’m also sure ‘we’ will ‘manage’ in the future, but to what cost? This is a calculation you don’t make if you dismiss the challenge to think or act about it in this simple minded manner.

  • Benno Hansen on 20th May 2010:

    As I just wrote at my own article: The burden of proof is on the side of the growth optimists.

    A lot of the issues we are dealing with today are issues of over population and over consumption. History suggest we have some ability to fend off the worst side effects but the future will hold exponentially increased challenges.

  • Robert Stefanicki on 20th May 2010:

    @Stefan: I don’t think communist regimes in Eastern Europe seriously tried to legitimize themselves, elections were pure farce. They did not have to, with USSR behind back, so you are right at this point. Nowadays attempts to legitimize are usually the result of outside pressures, which had much lesser impact in times when one big communist block existed.

    We are at the unknown place today. No sure paths, no applicable patterns from history. If we assume that today’s challenges are result of overpopulation, Western Europe might be an example to follow. If we assume they are result of over-consumption, we - on the contrary - should look at Africa or North Korea… Whatever we will do, maybe we are doomed to fail, and this will be as natural as death after each being’s life?

  • Benno Hansen on 20th May 2010:

    btw, this might be of your interest: NASA, Google Earth catch North Korea logging protected area

    North Korea is logging Mount Paekdu Biosphere Reserve [...] Home to the Siberian tiger, Mount Paekdu along with adjacent areas in China possesses the world’s highest plant diversity found in a cool, temperate zone. Shao has asked to visit the site or to speak with North Korean officials, but his requests have been denied. He said he didn’t know if the logging was occurring to make way for expanded agriculture in a country known for large food shortages, or if loggers were simply extracting timber.

  • Larisa Rankovic on 20th May 2010:

    You have definitely asked important and controversial question

  • Daniel Nylin Nilsson on 20th May 2010:

    Nice read,b ut I wouldn’t say that Lovelock is in any way influential. he is widely read, of course, but more for his analysis than for his solutions. And because he writes well… good writers are seldom democrats, for some reason.

    Environmentalism is maybe a chance for some to legitimize an authoritarian ideology, but there is very little scope for such a political project.

    I think that the solutions to the climate- and over consumption problems is to find in more local solutions, and more local power over happenings. States should be more democratic and less influental. So should multionational companies.

  • Mirza Softic on 28th August 2010:

    I suggest you to see what Slavoj Žižek says about the political systems. You can google him and here is one of the videos…

Post your comment

  • Remember my personal information

    Notify me of follow-up comments?

    --- Let's see if you are human ---

    Who are kings of the jungle: lions or zebras? Add a questionmark to your answer. (6 character(s) required)