Climate change is the symptom of an imbalance at the core of our economic system, hence of our personal and collective choices too. In a positive, constructive, rich and open way, our world needs to make sense, not just money. Democracy is key.
Assuming that global warming is not a Chinese hoax, one might think that answering the issue requires mostly some level of economic and technical re-engineering. Practical matters have to be dealt with in a practical way in order to provide results. If this was entirely true, however, the world should by now be well on its way to implement 100% renewable energy sources, have energy efficient buildings, and sustainably manage the remaining forests it has. The alleged scope and emergency of the issue would have commanded it. Apparently, the world did not get the memo.
Some countries do better than others but, on a global scale, we are far from having reached the necessary steps to keep an average increase of global temperatures below two degree Celsius by the end of the century. Why? The immediate answer is the forceful lobbying of fossil fuels companies. Yet, this, in turn, has to be questioned. What kind of power could these companies have that would convince the rest of the world to do next to nothing in regard to the seriousness of a runaway global warming threat? None. More appropriately, just the one we allow them to have. Corporate interests can only do so much in financing disinformation campaigns, bribing politicians, and making sure that the mass media they support with advertising money keep in line and remain “neutral”. The responsibility is primarily ours as citizens.
It is an upward battle because money is power and any occasion to weight upon or outright distort the market by fostering legal privileges will be taken. Compared to the two other basic forms of power that can turn into tyranny—personal dictatorship and ideology or religion—money is without any doubt the most insidious and the most efficient. For those who already enjoy its power, it is a silent but immediately effective asset that can be used to rewrite the rules in their favor. The mere fact that the economic world is, today, unable to reinvent itself in the face of the looming catastrophe of a constant rise in temperature squarely shows how reckless the power of money can be.
Notwithstanding, this power is not a fatality. The original Greek root of the word economy means “household management”. How could we consider that Earth is not our house? The crucial task, today, of preserving the balance of physical life on the planet is a stark reminder that thriving and flourishing can only be done interdependently and as people sharing the same basic interests. Similarly, by recognizing our interdependence as people we also assert the essential independence every citizen is supposed to have from any power above her own free will. Only people have the last word in a democracy (dēmos ‘the people’ + -kratia ‘power, rule’) because only people can decide about their common good.
The confrontation between moneyed interests and the democratic ideal is not new. What is new is that today the indifference of the former to a total disruption of the balance of life on earth has brought their rivalry to another order of magnitude.
This leads to three specific questions: – What narrative does the power of money justify itself behind at present? – Which vision of the world and of humanity does this narrative imply? – How is democracy, beyond all necessary economic and technical measures, the specific answer for a sustainable future?
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When it comes to economic growth, the common wisdom could be summed up by “The freer the market, the better”. It has forged national and international economic policies for several decades now, almost systematically presented as the holy grail of a modern and prosperous world. Assimilated to the principle of trade itself, this abstract guideline is nevertheless an intellectual baloney. One way or another, rules apply; simply because nothing exists out of context ever.
If rules do not come from a collective consent, they will come from the wants of those who already have an edge in a given situation. Saying that the market is neutral and should be free of regulations is akin to saying that a football match would be better played without any delimitation regarding what can and cannot be done on the field. It is a total abstraction that contradicts itself by denying the very possibility of competition; if there are no rules to the game, there is no game.
What about the invisible hand of the market, then? Adam Smith was right in the sense that the norm for mutual enrichment is to let demand and offer find their own balance to the satisfaction of all parties. He never said, however, that this balance could occur regardless of a set of necessary conditions. Perfect competition, full information, and rational actors, notably, are all assumed to play together for the market to find its balance.
Needless to say that in the real world this narrow path is never followed to a significant degree. The intricacies of economic life do not follow the simple mechanic of Newton’s law of gravity. For that reason, it makes no sense to postulate that all parties will most of the time have the proportionate bargain power that makes a deal advantageous to both sides. Without proper rules, on the contrary, those who have next to nothing to deal with aside from their work power will easily become economic slaves. Eventually and because of the strains of a low income, they are cut off from any real possibility to enrich themselves and the economy at large.
Perfect competition, full information, and rational actors are the basic building blocks of conventional economics. They were postulated to mimicking the same path of certainty that experimental sciences evolve upon. This has led mainstream economists to ignore the broader and much-varied conditions of effective economic success. It has also opened the door to a very imbalanced situation for the world.
Reality works as a whole. Seeing it through a few simple abstract laws is a requirement for experimental sciences only. The world of economics, for its part, deals with a non-linear, turbulent, and chaotic system of systems. We can make sense of it by discerning how these systems relate to each other, not by decreeing absolute laws that have never been confirmed through experience. This methodological blindness, unfortunately, has served as a blueprint for unsustainably exploiting resources, be it people forced into hopeless misery or disrupting the conditions for life as we know it on the planet.
We are part of a whole that regulates itself dynamically, hence the need for recognizing how it does it if we want to get out of the social, economic, and environmental dead-end we have eventually thrown ourselves into. At a human level, this translates by opposing well-discerned regulations to the whims and wilful blindness of those who rely on perfect competition, full information, and rational actors as a convenient dogma.
But, again, money is power. And this power has all interests in sacralizing profit making and in ignoring the cost for those who are not at the high end of the game. This is why it prefers conveying the message that a market free of all pesky and useless regulations is the only path to a sound business practice. To that effect and in order to get people distracted away from the real issues of income inequality or environmental unsustainability, the trick is to repeatedly use slogans that speak to the imagination. “Big government vs small government” is undoubtedly one of the most popular in the U.S.
Not only is “big government” a catchphrase easy to remember and somehow to visualize, but it keeps people quiet by making any concern about financial redistribution inherently suspicious. This works like the “good medicine” that pioneers loved Native Americans to drink. Those who sell it have a clear interest in keeping their victims numb regarding the real cause of their dire situation. Fortunately, to prevent falling for the seduction of the big government vs small government mantra, some logic along with basic facts checking is all you need.
Whether you favor more or less of government intervention, not looking beyond that point implies that the market knows best anyway and that the government is there in the second instance only, just to prevent things from going too awry. This is once again forgetting that rules are the game’s matrix. In modern democracies, such rules emanate from legislatures, administrative agencies, and courts. The government does not “intrude” on the “free market”; it creates the market. Even in the most libertarian society, what would be allowed or not in business life would have to be formalized in order to maintain fair rules and practices. None other than public institutions acting in the name of all and on the base of a thorough debating process can do that. It is called a government.
“Yet, says Robert Reich in his book Saving Capitalism: for the many, not the few, the interminable debate over whether the “free market” is better than “government” makes it impossible for us to examine who exercises this power [of writing the rules], how they benefit from doing so, and whether such rules need to be altered so that more people benefit from them.”
In this day and age, moneyed interests are by far the real beneficiaries of governmental policies in the U.S., whether through subsidies or through lenient rules in favor of corporations over the public interest. Favoring corporations can have a practical and economic benefit but it has to be done in a balanced way. Unfortunately, making as much money as quickly as possible has long become the exclusive guideline for the country’s economic policies. As a result, the creation of wealth has been almost entirely decoupled from long-term investments in the U.S. infrastructures and people. While investments in the public sector have been shrinking since the beginning of the 1980s, the U.S. economy has gradually morphed into a money game with very little benefit to workers, local executives, and the consumers themselves.
Let’s take a few examples. Antitrust laws have been relaxed for big corporations in the agroindustry, telecommunications, airlines, banking, etc. Consequently, U.S. consumers pay the highest bills in the world for basic commodities such as their medication or their internet subscription. Bankruptcy laws have been loosened for large corporations, but homeowners and students will see their debt forgiven under almost no circumstance. The bailout of the largest banks and auto manufacturers in 2008 clearly showed that economic failure is of small consequence for big corporation; they will be backed-up by taxpayers’ money.
That is exactly what a casino or junk economy is. The chain value of individuals grounding the economy and creating real assets by their skills and efforts is being ignored for the benefit of financial engineering and unbridled profit making. Instead of investing in the country, i.e. in its people and its local economies, it is a race to the bottom toward the cheapest solutions for the largest short-term financial gains. When only corporations have a voice, the economy goes down the drain.
If you need some more examples to get convinced of the total hijacking of the U.S. economy by moneyed interests, think about contract laws requiring mandatory arbitration before private judges selected by big corporations; securities laws designed to allow insider trading of confidential information; CEOs using stock buybacks to boost share prices when they cash in their own stock options; tax loopholes for hedge funds and private-equity funds; lower marginal income-tax rates on the highest incomes and reduced estate taxes on great wealth; etc. The pseudo-debate about big government vs small government is a convenient smoke screen to keep the public attention away from what really matters: a government for who?
The main public excuse of corporatocracy—our modern version of oligarchy—is economic growth. Understand the growth of Gross Domestic Product. But contrary to what classic economics manuals assert, this does not equate with the enrichment of a country. The exclusive search for profits may well increase the overall Gross Domestic Product while only fat cats will see the color of the money. If investments are not being made in infrastructures through taxes, in R&D by companies, and in the employees by offering decent wages, then the so-called economy is paying itself off of the beast while there is still a beast to feast on.
In theory—and in many political speeches—liberalism is for small businesses to have a chance to thrive on their own merits. In practice and because good liberalism is supposed to be deregulated liberalism, competition is being killed by those who have enough clout and financial leverage to then impose their own rules.
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The blatant official favoritism of many governments toward the fossil fuel industry is a direct confirmation of the raw power of money. It is bad for the climate but it is good for Exxon and other oil majors, highly subsidized by public money even though representing one of the most profitable industries on earth. Beyond the inadequacy of a flawed economic system, the objective message from fossil fuel lobbies and our obliged governments is that the fate of humanity comes second after moneyed interests. How is that even possible, since we supposedly live in civilized and mostly democratic societies?
At a deeper level than the raw corrupting power of money, the weakness of the political system can only stem from a lack of perspective regarding economics. Two angles have to be considered. The first one is that measurable growth is still the alpha and the omega of economic life for most decision makers in political and business circles. Accustomed to evaluate progress primarily from a material standpoint, they simply have a hard time to consider economics in a more integrated way. As a result and since the complexity of human and environmental interactions as a whole is not as readily measurable as what money can buy, they have so far opted for the myopic vision that the mere addition of quantities equates to economic health.
The other angle of the perspective is that economics is an interpretative science, not an experimental one like physics or chemistry. It follows that, from Adam Smith to Karl Marx and from Friedrich Hayek to Joseph Stiglitz, many interpretations of how economics really work have been and will continue to be provided. The point is that these interpretations are necessarily linked to specific underlying views about mankind and the world. Since the end of the seventies, neoliberalism is the one most in vogue the world over.
In opposing “Free market” to “Big government” as a useful mental signpost for the masses, neoliberalism assumption is that public interest is not a relevant category for driving social and economic progress. The underlying view of the world, here, is that the individual makes the whole of her own fate and that we are social beings by choice, not by nature. In that sense, neoliberalism is the most serious obstacle to any cohesive and concerted global action for the common good. The mobilization against climate change, for one, cannot happen at the required level as a meaningful collective endeavor if we do not believe in society.
The challenge, therefore, is not only to frame a model of sustainable development beyond the mechanics of capitalism left to itself but to address, once and for all, the shortcomings of a specific ideology that considers public concerns as dangerous lunacies.
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Some may remember Gordon Gekko character’s line in the 1987 movie Wall Street: “Greed, for lack of another word, is good! Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit!” That greed is good has been notably theorized by the economist Milton Friedman (1912–2006). In his mind this was not, indeed, an invitation to become evil people but the expression of the basic fact that, as himself repeatedly said, “The world runs on individuals pursuing their own interests.”
The real problem with this view is not that it does provide an excuse to some insecure egos for effectively letting their greed run wild. The real problem is its superficiality. Like any ideology that can reduce itself to a few slogans, neoliberalism has become a popular intellectual doggy bag that never questions its underlying philosophy.
According to Friedman, individuals should pursue their own interests because their respective actions will always balance out in the best possible way if unfettered. But what if there is a natural world out there with its own balancing needs? And what if there are more fundamental characteristics defining mankind than greed?
Chances are that by denying the practical and psychological importance of a shared interest, neoliberalism puts itself out of the pale of genuine progress from the get-go. In order to figure this out, we have to question its coherence from all relevant perspectives, namely from the economic, human, political, and moral points of view.
Economically speaking, neoliberalism assumes that the creation of wealth depends on those who know how to accumulate it for themselves, consequently creating opportunities for others. The reverse is true. Ford, for instance, did not become one of the largest U.S. companies during the twentieth century just because Henry Ford was, indeed, a business genius but, primarily, because he fully recognized that the creation of wealth for his company could come only from its customers, and first among them Ford workers.
Money flows in the economy from the customers’ wallet, not from the CEOs’. Knowing this, Henry Ford did not wait for opportunities to create themselves in his wake. He forced them by giving his employees wages allowing them to buy the cars they built, therefore taking the first step in bringing about the mass market he had always envisioned. If the story is well-known, its lesson is hardly ever acknowledged. Customers create economic wealth, companies seize opportunities.
Humanly speaking, pursuing our own individual interests necessarily defines boundaries to what we see as such. These interests are ours, not anyone else’s, and shine therefore in a particular and delimited place in our life context. But what is of true value is precisely what has no boundaries. No external goodie, be it a new car or a promotion at work, can in and by itself make us happy since happiness is an inner work totally foreign to the realm of what can be measured and compared. Taking the path of a forceful individualism can have some relevance in the world of trade and at the moment we are trading, but the inner richness of being human, the confident smile of a child, and all the free and immeasurable wonders of life are a much more genuine expression of what we truly seek. And, like anything that has true value, they are for free.
Milton Friedman’s statement that the world runs on individuals pursuing their own interests may sound smart at first, as this is apparently what takes place at an immediate level, but this is also what makes his judgment a superficial one. Our real interest cannot be limited. Consequently, it cannot be defined in an individualistic way either. The Dalai-lama expressed this paradox in a striking formula: “Be egoist: love each other.” This goes far and deep but, at a minimum, we can all recognize that it simply works better than hiding behind stuff and power with the cheap “Greed is good”.
Even at the most practical level, experience teaches us that seeing the individual as the central unit of her personal achievements contradicts the possibility of her effective success. The same way, basically, that considering the market as some kind of absolute reality contradicts the very possibility of competition. Whatever our individual merits can be, the contribution of countless other individuals has helped as well our personal realizations in many different ways, and our own success in any field is proportionate to the accuracy with which we were able to recognize and take advantage of others’ legacy.
In that respect, the idea that the “survival of the fittest” is the commanding principle of human lives is a sorry philosophical excuse of neoliberalism and a wrong interpretation of Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species (not individuals). As in any system, a society needs as many interconnections as possible to thrive, not less. Helping when and where help is needed to bring back one element into full functionality is more often than not a better bet than letting it stall. The freedom of achieving success on one’s own merits is intrinsically linked to a shared progress.
Politically speaking, furthermore, that the world runs “on individuals pursuing their own interests” refers to a democracy by default only. Democracy was not instituted simply to prevent enslaving each other but for sharing the best of what humans can be and do. If the freedom of running aside from each other in our quest for more material goods and social recognition has obviously to be guaranteed, the democratic project itself is nevertheless much broader than that.
As humans, our true freedom lies in leading a meaningful life. Even though we usually consider that making sense of our own life is a purely personal matter, if we look deeper we can see that all people are longing for this same sense of inner fulfillment and that it is what makes us members of the same human family. Democracy is the political system that is based on the very recognition that we thrive and evolve by mutual enrichment. The role of democratic institutions, consequently, is to make possible for this greatness to be achieved according to each of our personal vocation.
It follows that in a democracy the government is not the enemy or some formal institution strictly bound to protect our personal freedom of speech, movement, and enterprise. The government is us. We give ourselves, by delegation, the power to create a healthy and respectful human collectivity through public debates and a transparent implementation of public policies. Then it is up to each and every one to thrive in life if we choose to. Nowhere is personal freedom being denied by effective democratic institutions; on the contrary, it is being reinforced because a clear distinction is made between the collective and the individual dimensions of human life.
Stating that the world runs on individuals pursuing their own interests, on the other hand, implies that democracy can only be defined by the practical ability to move around, possibly get wealthy, and say what we please. But ignoring the social nature by which we can become genuinely human is equally ignoring the specificity of the democratic project and, thus, undermining the very possibility of practical freedom itself. In more layman terms, when some wacko boasts that she or he can run a country, a state, or a city on the sole ground that they know how to run a company, they are simply telling you that to them there is no specificity of the political sphere as such. The best you can expect, then, is a banana republic run by their cronies.
One thing that cannot be denied to Milton Friedman is that he is morally coherent. In his world, society is just a collection of individuals that have found more expedient to aggregate under common laws than to stay totally on their own. But this does not mean that we owe anything to each other. The freedom of each individual to fight for herself has to guide public policies, not empathy. Our social concerns undermine the possibility for the best of us to show the way out of poverty; these concerns can just foster, on the contrary, a permanent state of resentment and class warfare.
If most people cringe when confronted with the idea that as a society we must be indifferent to the pleas of others, this is because, in Friedman’s mind, they do not understand what works. All that is needed is to respect the absolute liberty of the individual to thrive for herself, instead of redirecting the results of her efforts to the benefit of an undifferentiated crowd that did nothing to deserve it. This is also why raising taxes in order to keep the possibility of a fighting chance for all is an attack on the personal freedom of those who have succeeded in finding their way ahead.
Even though very familiar, this line of thinking is a pure abstraction. In the U.S., for example, the notion stubbornly held by many lawmakers that people with a serious medical condition should pay higher premiums—meaning that if you cannot afford them you go either bankrupt or dead—is a pathetic illustration of this intellectual and moral wreckage. People may die in misery but at least the absolute freedom of the absolute individual is safe!
The ideological standpoint of these U.S. lawmakers, most of them personally benefiting from a system of crony capitalism—and whose health insurance, moreover, is carefully mutualized through a set of specific rules—, is as seductive as it is devoid of any reality. Philosophically speaking, making the individual the absolute principle of our human reality is denying the interconnectedness and relativity at the core of any reality, including ours. As a consequence and under the guise of individual freedom millions of Americans are serenely deemed better off without any proper health coverage.
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By transmuting capitalism into some kind of philosophy instead of respecting it for what it is—a practical segment of the economic activity as a whole—neoliberalism subverts any genuine human perspective on life and the world. The effective consequence, today, of its intellectual veneer is an upside down global situation with a staggering income inequality and an alarming biological state of the planet.
Unfortunately, the idea that minding environmental sustainability is at odds with business development still permeates most economic policies in industrialized countries. What the elites who frame these policies are missing is that sustainability is altogether ecological, social, and economical. Even if once in a while they acknowledge that correlation as a desirable outcome, they usually fail to fully understand why. The point is that, as for biological life itself, the pattern of economic life is not growth for the sake of growth but health.
Societies and economies work as a whole, the exact same way that it is by the synergy of all its elements that our body can enjoy a good health. Climate change, in that respect, is the market failure reminding us that if we want to survive as a civilization and as a species, we’d better quickly find a broader paradigm than the sole rule of money. This means nothing else than giving back to politics its noble and necessary role.
Democracy is a work in progress and the only political system that, by incorporating all citizens at an equal level in rights, has a constructive yet inherently free pattern of development. The same way that natural life constantly changes and evolves, democracy has never been a done deal. That’s for the better since it’s how progress can take place. Rather than the sterile and eventually self-destructive power of money, dictatorship, or ideology—that neoliberalism opportunistically embraces all quite well—, democracy and ecology thrive on their own creativity. This similarity is the reason why democracy might be the primary remedy needed against climate change and for a sustainable world.
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When looking at nature, one can hardly miss that it all works together. From the seasons to the long-term achievements of evolution, everything concurs to sustain, improve, or create life forms. Life is its own ruler and builds upon itself endlessly, finding new opportunities in the most adverse conditions as long as its basic physical prerequisites are met. That’s why nature is also so inspiring to the human psyche. Its creative process flourishes in a never-ending invention of fauna and flora that always add to the beauty of the whole.
It could be said that it is the exact same with people. We all can add in our own personal way to the gift of being human, thus helping others and oneself to express the inner genius of life at a spiritual level. All we have to do is to remember that creativity’s unique law—whether in the natural world or in our societies—is to respect its collaborative, adaptive, and inclusive nature. Democracy being the human translation of that creativity as people, that’s how we have to look at it.
That democracy lies on a collaborative principle is hardly debatable. Getting out of feudality and then constantly battling against various forms of aristocracy has never been done just for the freedom of trade but, more essentially, for the recognition of our human dignity. The freedom of religion, speech, and enterprise stem from this moral requirement as practical responsibilities to be acknowledged by and for all citizens.
The nature itself of our basic rights, however, can be interpreted in two clearly distinct ways: whether as the mere protection of the individual or as the keys for a betterment of our human condition. Even though one is obviously not exclusive of the other, this distinction tells us that democracy cannot be reduced to the sole possibility of minding your own business. There is a social construct to be taken care of and it requires the best of what makes us subjects of rights in the first place: our innate, limitless, and unselfish capacity to relate to each other, even if the other is someone we will never know in person.
At a spiritual level, altruism is how we ultimately make sense of human relationships. At a collective level and beyond the need to enforce laws to protect society, we also need to rule on empathy. If each individual has a right to happiness, the purpose of politics can only be to make sure this right is never infringed. In other words, democracy is not sought for me and myself to get what I want but to enforce the basic human rights of all in a common project which is altogether positive, constructive, and has a universal intent.
Contrary to the obtuse individualism of just making money that has become the main rallying point of so-called democracies in many parts of the world, freedom, justice, and progress can only exist if they are shared. From a practical standpoint, it is just more profitable, although not exclusively in quantitative terms. We have a common basic interest in allowing the best to flourish in each and every one of us and, in times of crisis, in being able to then implement together the solutions that are needed.
This, of course, takes more than financial acumen; it takes to acknowledge that a society, or for that matter a country, is a collective project we all have a vocation to be fully part of. Far from a call for some sort of collectivism, it is the simple recognition of our interbeing and of the unique contribution everyone can bring forward. We are rich of each other.
This is why when people mobilize against climate change they know they tap into something positive and much larger than just denouncing the oligarchy of fossil fuels. They open the door to what they feel as their true sense of freedom: the possibility of a more creative life through a genuinely enriching collaboration —instead of being a pawn in an endless and sterile money-driven competition.
Democracy is also intrinsically adaptive. This second characteristic relates to the fact that democracy is nothing else than a work in progress over the conditions of freedom and justice. As opposed to the ideology of neoliberalism that pretends to hold the one and only key—market freedom—for solving all of humanity’s ailments ever after, democracy is bound to change a given pattern of reference if it does not work. Thanks to thorough debates fostering a critical approach, this is notably the lawmakers’ task… when they are not corrupt.
By recognizing all different fields of work and aspects of a given issue, such a critical approach allows for discreet and effective action. A far cry from ideological whims mashing different orders of reality into one big lump dictated by the obsession of the moment, be it race, the proletariat, or the so-called free market. This also allows for different solutions according to cultural and historical contexts. It is ok to have higher or lower tax rates whether you live in Sweden or in England, for instance, as long as the common access to decent quality health or education services is being guaranteed.
Most importantly, though, democracy is adaptive in the sense that it reinforces itself. The more freedom and justice there is in a society, the more it will be stable and its citizens prone to feel concerned with building the conditions of an even better future for their children. The reverse is also true: the less freedom and justice, the more people will tend to confide their fate through desperation to some charismatic criminal.
As opposed to this virtue of adaptation for effective justice and sustainability, slogans such as “money is speech” and “corporations are people” only lead to the doom and gloom of a world where everything is considered a resource to be exploited. When making profits is the sole metric for success, the logic is not to adapt but to rampage. Consequently, if corporation A has some qualms about acting unsustainably, corporation B might see there its own strategic advantage.
On the other hand, when people are people and money is just money, corporations can much more easily find their path to sustainability for the planet and for themselves. Contrary to a popular belief, a democratic oversight of the corporate world does not mean binding the entrepreneurial energy to the diktats of the government but unleashing it toward ever inventive accomplishments. The planet-people-profit tryptic is real and can only bring more innovative solutions at a global and a local level if taken seriously. Entrepreneurs will never be short of ideas. The only requirement for a sustainable world is to talk to them as people, being accountable as such for their actions in regard to the common good. As everybody else.
This leads to the third aspect of a truly democratic system: its inclusiveness. Democracy is a more mature and beneficial vision of freedom than just being allowed to grab what we can as long as we supposedly do not hurt anyone else in the process. When the rule is everyone for herself or himself, someone is always eventually hurt—and generally more than a few at an economic level. Unless we realize that our individual freedom is also everybody else’s freedom and that a free man can only deal with other free men, we do not value freedom itself.
By stating the principle of equality of rights, the democratic ideal implies that basic inclusiveness. In order to provide lasting results in terms of freedom and justice, all conditions ensuring everyone to be able to thrive on their own merits have to be considered. In that regard, including people and the planet as a whole in the equation of an economy that works for all, instead of putting at stake the life conditions of millions, makes the fight against climate change a prime example of human rights holistic nature.
Democracy is inclusive as well for another reason. Considering things to their largest extent, we can only thrive between an indispensable social foundation and an inevitable ecological ceiling. This is not a limit on our freedom—as Wall Street trolls would have it—but the inclusive path by which democracy can prove itself a meaningful and responsible way of living together. This is not less but more freedom. As human beings, the question of how we enjoy freedom is not answered primarily by asking “How much stuff can I get?” but “How much of myself can I express?” True freedom is in the creative quality of life that all can share, not in greed’s predation.
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The answer to climate change is democracy because the existential threat of a runaway global warming challenges the core values of our societies. At the stage the economic world has allowed this threat to grow by now, it is not about ignorance anymore but about willful blindness. What is at stake is to rehabilitate collective endeavors, beginning with the absolute right to maintain proper conditions of physical life on earth. Neoliberalism is against such collective endeavors because they make no sense in the scope of privately owned profit units, which is its exclusive solution. The way ahead is at the exact opposite: involving as many people as possible in having a say about what effectively concern them, regardless of their income. The core value of democracy is freedom, and to achieve freedom we need one another. We should have the freedom to choose not to fry the planet.
By undermining the most elementary form of justice, the right to survival for millions of people—as its consequences already show—climate change also compels us to consider democracy not just as an ideal but as a norm. Facing this global threat, we have no other choice than tackling it globally, i.e. collectively. It is a matter of scale and a matter of urgency. For the first time in human history, the voice of the people has to truly and universally be heard at the risk, otherwise, to eventually make the planet inhabitable.
Choosing democracy is no small feat; it requires a constant dedication to provide the proper conditions for our humanity to flourish. By its sheer order of magnitude, however, climate change reminds us that fighting for the common good cannot be devolved solely to individuals, even activist ones. Even though acting on the ground will always remain indispensable, what is primarily needed is democratic institutions in working order. This is the basic condition for any and all lasting solutions. Thinking that we don’t need a government, as so many well-intended people do in the U.S., on the left as well as on the right, is obliterating the true necessity of a debating space that can overcome the many seductions of dictatorship.
Climate change delivers one last lesson in regard to democracy. Freedom and justice have little to do with the zero-sum game between winners and losers that neoliberalism values so high and that brought the whole of humanity to the brink of an irreversible catastrophe. They have, on the other hand, a lot to do with what nature does: constantly partnering for the benefit of the whole. The wisdom of the U.S. forefathers in framing a democratic constitution was to recognize the dignity of our common humanity as the commanding principle of a free society. Climate change reminds us that we should definitely depart from the cheap, individualistic interpretation of what they meant.
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