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 OpenDemocracy.org, 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: euro-med.dk