Liberal democracies are expected to resolve global climate and biodiversity crises but realistically they stand little chance of saving our planetary ecology without a radical ‘charge.’
I have been working within the framework of liberal democracy for over thirty years, pushing, hoping and dreaming of substantive action on global climate change and biodiversity.
Unfortunately, not much has changed over the years. The problems, despite advances in clean energy, are as great or greater. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is unequivocal: humans are doomed if we can’t find a way to radically reduce our negative impacts on global environmental systems.
More colloquially, climate and biodiversity were once critical challenges, they are no longer. They are calamities in progress: here and now, not somewhere else or later. Worse, they seem to be insoluble challenges to the voluntary, consensus-based actions available within a liberal democratic (Lib Dem) framework.
We have seen the problem and it is Us
The demi-successes of global climate action that have been achieved took herculean political efforts, and still fall short. While COP 24, the action part of the Paris Climate Accords, didn’t exactly punt responsibility down the line, with 12 years remaining on the clock, it takes a lot of faith to put our planet in the hands of voluntary targets and activities of nations either uninterested in or incapable of change. It is also worth noting that we have no Paris Accord for remediation our failing global ecology, and the public is only now recognizing that biodiversity is as critical an issue as climate.
[bctt tweet=”Surprised over labor raising its fist in protest? Startled by mass family immigration from countries of despair to nations of economic opportunity and physical safety? How can we be?”]
The urgent need for collaborative action could not have come at a worse time either, what with seemingly intractable and growing economic inequalities, and ever more frequent catastrophic and costly environmental events. Surprised over labor raising its fist in protest? Startled by mass family immigration from countries of despair to nations of economic opportunity and physical safety? How can we be?
And what of the rise of populism? Should we also be surprised that people want more of the economic security that liberal democracy promises, yet seems unable to fully deliver?
Don’t get me wrong, hard right populism is an abrogation of our own humanity. Yet it is clearly rooted in the very system we assumed would produce the kind of economic justice and equality that would obviate its ugliness.
The costs to fend off the flotsam of right-wing populism has been massive. Worse, it severely disables our capacity to develop cooperative remedies to planetary ecological emergencies. At the same time, the wild and often ideologically strident populism of the left perilously distracts governments from realistic environmental priorities.
Incrementalism: Stick a Fork in it, It’s Done?
Had we begun to seriously tackle climate change thirty years ago, Lib Dem incrementalism may have worked. Not today, it’s too late. Again, the IPPC is unequivocal: 12 years to go, tic toc.
The problem, ironically, is quite simple: we need to consume less of the planet’s natural wealth. Our default strategy to consume at the same rate while hoping for a fix is simply not working. Each year we overshoot our planet’s ability to replenish the natural assets we draw down. In 2018, it was on August 1; in 2000 was October 1; and, in 1985 it was December 19.
Many pin their hopes on the concept of a circular economy to reduce the overshoot. Could work. But currently less 5% of the US economy is circular, and much of that is stuff we’ve been recycling for years.
Something must give and it is Material Consumption
Forget about ‘teching’ our way out of this mess. The problems are too large, too complex, and coming too fast. Only living with less material consumption will do. This will take unimaginable collective will, and not just a few policy and regulatory incentives and disincentives. We cannot leave it to corporate self-regulation and consumer choice alone, anymore.
Because for over 75 years, deep-state Consumption Engineers have honed their craft to religious perfection, and we now unthinkably believe more is better, more is happier. No less powerful are the directives from the so called Economic Wizards, who have indelibly ingrained in us, the consumer-voter, the myth that (material) economic growth is necessary to life. GDP dips a point and we fear for our lives.
[bctt tweet=”A lasting coalition for the common ecological good is unlikely to form unless the curators of globalization are sharply tempered or entirely done away with”]
Both the Engineers and Wizards are so good at their work that we don’t even question the premise of a lifestyle that declares accumulating more – and mostly on credit – will make us happy. We know this not to be true, yet many willingly indenture themselves to a lifestyle that leaves them exhausted, isolated, unhappy as hell, and collectively bound for environmental disaster.
Worse, defenders of the status quo are fantastically powerful vested interests pitting us regular folks one against the other. A greater common good simply cannot abide the odious strategies the likes of the Koch brothers and their political, economic, and media brethren. A lasting coalition for the common ecological good is unlikely to form in this voracious matrix of self-interest, unless the curators of globalization are sharply tempered or entirely done away with.
Faith: Our Biggest Mistake?
Our biggest mistake has been to assume the liberal democratic arch of history will inevitably bend towards a ‘sustainable’ common good. Managing the environment was part of this premise.
This belief-cum hope might have been nothing more than an illusion. Liberal democratic systems have never been perfect; we’ve always understood that. The ride to ‘better’ was always going to be bumpy. Yet, we are now learning, or perhaps finally accepting, that the system has had faulty wiring from the start, and that there are serious limitations to the global common good it can deliver.
[bctt tweet=”…radicalism is both required for and a barrier to meaningful change”]
In this light, one of the greatest Lib Dem paradox glares. Under-performing liberal democracy creates fertile ground for ugly populism which, when rises, severely limits the potential for the collective action required for fixing global challenges. At the same time, the incremental policy outcomes of a well-functioning Lib Dem system seem inadequate to the tasks at hand. Logic dictates ‘radical’ solutions not found in the standard Lib Dem tool kit, and that radicalism, is both required for, and is a barrier to meaningful change.
Writes Damon Linker, “the unacknowledged failures of the ideas and policies that have defined the ideological center for more than a generation..(and) have exhausted our patience.” I would add, that it has severely and permanently disrupted the planet’s ability to function as a healthy ecology.
Mother Nature is Unequivocal and She will Win
Liberal democracy is not dead yet, not by a long shot, and perhaps it can rally on the environment. The IPCC’s work, and the proposed #GreenNewDeal, point us in the right direction. But the political and economic challenges remain beyond enormous, and more than a few committed politicians, technical committees, and exemplar companies like Patagonia are going to be needed.
Only a global environmental ‘Manhattan Project’, fundamentally restructuring our relationship with nature, will do. This objective of such a ‘moon shot’ cannot merely be to reduce the amount of carbon we spew in the air or ecologies we debase and abuse. A sustainable future demands we create 7.5 billion committed environmental evangelists willing to put Mother Nature back in charge of human affairs. This is neither hopeful thinking nor progressive liberal hooey. Mother Nature is quite clear on her terms, which are both non-negotiable and indelibly written in science, (so, no, Mr. Trump this is not something you get to believe in or not).
Policies that Make the Average Happy Won’t Work
The standard, incremental policies of liberal democracy just don’t seem to stand a chance given the balkanization of consumers-voters and the strength of current populist winds. Such policy merely serves a rapidly diminishing number of ‘average’ consumer-voters, when only ‘radical’ policies offer environmental solutions with hope for change.
My question: are we consumer-voters so brainwashed by the Consumption Engineers and Economic Wizards and / or so grotesquely divided that we are unable to accept lifestyle changes that will make us happier? If you think so, or don’t believe any change is required, then you need to know the definition of the word prolicide.
If you do think so, then the question becomes how do we get there? Via Liberal Democracies? Or through some some to emerge ‘other system’ able to restore our ecology while placating populist movements.
Going Deep Means Consuming Less
Assuming for now the absence of an alternative political framework, we must ask perhaps the greatest question of all human history: can global ecological solutions be presented, accepted, and successfully deployed in the context of liberal democratic political and economic system within the next 12 years?
Maybe, but it’s a very long shot. Yet, if there is hope, we must look for it. The box below shows my 10 ‘radical’ policy ideas to lever economic populism into helping put us on the path to ecological sanity. Some of these ideas have been out there for a while. Others came from my book Invest Like You Give a Damn, while others still, I developed more recently, talking with sustainability minded folks.
Shifting Consumer Behavior & Expectations
While some of these policies may not strike you as deeply ecological, there is method to the madness. The over-arching objective is to increase demand for local products (particularly food), shift consumer spending to services over material goods, and promote cultural pursuits and work. The policies also seek to moderate incentives for amassing unnecessary levels of personal financial wealth and investment return expectations while not discouraging corporate and individual innovation.
These proposals go with others I proposed in a recent blog Deep State of Consumerism where I present 8 radical policies to create powerfully curious and well-educated happy, healthy citizenry that works and wants less: all keys to a sustainable world.
We’ve not much choice but to purse ‘radical’ within a Liberal Democratic framework. A key challenge will be to convince consumer-voters to ignore vested interest pushing lifestyle choices that benefit them but make us unhappy and the planet unhealthy.
The solution after all is rather simple: Want Less, Give More.
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