Climate change is the symptom of an imbalance at the core of our economic system. Our world needs to make sense, not just money. To get past the failed ideology of neoliberalism a renewed intelligence of democracy is key.
|What is being discussed in this post:|
How did we get into this situation?
– Intro: Climate change and money power
– The “Free market” and “big government vs small government” myths
– Neoliberalism psychological, political, and moral shortsightedness
How do we get out of it?
– Intro: Being a society
– Activism and citizens’ assemblies
– Toward an Ecological Democracy
– Change(s) of consciousness
One could think that answering the issue of climate change mostly requires 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 obviously do better than others but, on a global scale, we are far from having reached the necessary steps to achieve the goal set by the Paris Agreement, which is to maintain the global increase in temperatures by the end of the century below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Why? The immediate answer is the forceful lobbying of fossil fuel companies or of the agroindustry. Yet, this, in turn, has to be questioned. What kind of power could these industries 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 foster legal privileges allowing to influence the management of the economy and to undermine political institutions will be taken. Compared to other basic forms of power that can turn into tyranny, such as personal dictatorship and ideology or religion, money is without any doubt the most insidious and the most efficient. For those who enjoy it, it works like a silent but immediately effective asset to rewrite the rules in their favor.
This confrontation between moneyed interests and the democratic ideal of governance is not new. What is new is that climate change has turned it into an opposition between life and death on a global scale. It is now common knowledge that the cumulative effects of this global warming process have mutually reinforced themselves for decades,1 fed all the while by our collective addiction to fossil fuels and deep-seated indifference for the indispensable balance of nature.
Simply put, this existential threat will be upon us as long as profit-making will take precedence over respecting the environmental conditions of a sustainable society. The groundwork for fighting climate change, therefore, is in the opposition of the true values of democracy to the power of money left to itself. Neoliberalism is, in our time, the ideology predicated on the spontaneous economic wisdom and the eventual but systematically positive social outcomes of the market. Climate change signs the failure of this ideology. In order to constructively fight for our future, we, the people, need to unwrap neoliberalism’s intellectual pretense and to assess how power can get back—and remain—where it belongs.
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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 since the end of the 1970s, almost systematically presented as the holy grail of a modern and prosperous world. Assimilated to the principle itself of trading, this abstract guideline is, nevertheless, 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. The problem with free-market fundamentalism is that the relativity of such conditions is simply ignored. Perfect competition, full information, and rational actors are supposed to be ever-present and effective under all and any trading circumstances.
But postulating that all trading parties will always have the same proportionate bargain power is just wishful thinking. Without proper rules to guarantee, as well as humanly possible, that the market operates to the benefit of all involved, such outcome will never occur. As the staggering income inequality experienced in many parts of the world today shows, those who have next to nothing to deal with aside from their work power can easily become “working poor”, i.e. economic slaves. Eventually and because of the strains of a low income, they are cut off from any real possibility to enrich themselves and, in turn, the economy at large.
Reality works as a whole, and the world of economics is a non-linear, turbulent, and chaotic system of systems. We can make sense of it by discerning how different layers of reality relate to each other, not by decreeing absolute “laws” forcing this world into an abstract scheme. Such methodological blindness, unfortunately, has served as a blueprint for unsustainably exploiting resources, be it people forced into hopeless misery or nature now needing six planets Earth to cope with the recycling rate forced on her globally.
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 sound business practice. To that effect and in order to get people distracted from the real issues of income inequality or environmental unsustainability, the trick is to repeatedly use slogans that speak to the imagination. Along with the wants of a “free market”, “big government” vs “small government” is undoubtedly one of the most popular in the U.S. What does it mean?
The first thing to note is that wherever one might stand politically, not being able to look beyond the opposition of “big government” vs “small government” implies that the market knows best anyway. In this view, whether you favor more or less of government intervention, the government is there in the second instance only and just to prevent things from going too awry. In the U.S., Democrats will tend to grant government more leeway, and Republicans less—this political pattern between liberals and conservatives being pretty much identical everywhere else. But these political differences share the same principle that the government is by nature a hindrance vis-a-vis the proper functioning of a “free market”.
The intellectual fallacy of “big government” consists in pretending that the freedom for corporations to choose the best course of action should translate in the absence of rules. If you tend to fall for this hocus-pocus intellectual gig, just remember that rules are the matrix of the game. 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 by giving the rules and being the referee on the market field. When, on the contrary, corporations write the law for themselves, mayhem systematically ensues in the form of severe economic inequality and social wretchedness. And why wouldn’t it, since the money needed to invest in public infrastructures for the sake of all is instead pre-distributed to corporations?2
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. Additionally, none other than public institutions acting in the name of all through a genuine democratic process could be in a position to do this. “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.”
That’s the point. Somehow the government is never too big when bailing out grossly mismanaged companies that are “too big to fail”, spying on virtually all citizens against their constitutional rights, or lavishly spending hundreds of billions of dollars each year for the military. Behind the fake rejection of “big government”, the message to the masses is: be dumb and forget that the government is none other than you, through representatives you elected and who are accountable to you.
But surely, one might think, the assertion that a free market is a necessity has some truth to it. It certainly does and no one, except for Lenin and Mao in their mausoleum, is seriously arguing that private trade should be banned. The confusion occurs because the expression “free market” is regularly used as a mantra to avoid any further scrutiny on what it is supposed to mean. There was a time, not too long ago, when America was intent to invest in a highly-skilled working force and was proud of what it was producing. The economy was then considered as an activity geared toward the benefit of all stakeholders, as the increasing standard of living of the population benefited in turn the economic engine itself. The idea that the government had a say on the matter, consequently, simply made sense. Investing in the country through public education and government-funded infrastructures was seen as the bedrock of private success and national greatness, and certainly not as going against the expansion of a free market.
Free market fundamentalism, on the other hand, invites us to forget about the government’s economic role and to blindly rely on shareholder value.3 This is how, since the end of the 1970s, the U.S. economy has gradually morphed into a money game with very little benefit to workers and to consumers themselves. Instead of finding its own balance for the sake of all, the market has followed its natural money-making impetus without the broader vision of what is good for the country. As a result, the chain-value of individuals grounding the economy and creating real assets by their skills and efforts has been ignored and replaced by faith in financial engineering and unbridled profit-making. It is not so difficult to see, then, that the “free market” king heralded with absolute wisdom has no clothes, and that the whole story has never been about entrepreneurship or economic health but about mindless greed.
The financialization of the economy is not exclusive to the U.S. Yet, it is tempting to bring back to mind a few direct illustrations of this money game in the country where “big government” is such an issue. One can think, for instance, of 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. The list could go on. These various forms of pre-distribution to entities and individuals already hoarding cash look furiously like inverted socialism—socialism for the rich. What about the beloved “free market”? At that stunning level of delusion and hypocrisy, only one thing is left standing: “free market” and “big government vs small government” are mere smokescreens intended to keep the public attention away from what really matters: A government for who?
This question is obviously at the core of the fight against climate change. The choice is between corporatocracy and democracy. 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. The blatant official favoritism of many governments toward the fossil fuel industry—more than 5 trillion U.S. dollars worldwide in direct and indirect subsidies each year4—is a case in point. Above all, this utter disregard for the existential threat of climate change confirms that the fate of humanity comes second after the pampering of already very fat cats. How is that even possible in supposedly civilized and democratic societies?
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Greed does not explain everything. Such an aberrant situation needs an ideological background to sustain itself in the hearts and minds of people in charge of economic policies. Behind the catchphrases “free market” and “big government” used as convenient signposts for the masses lies the assumption that the general interest is not, as such, a relevant category for driving social and economic progress. Individuals are deemed to be better off on their own, free to prove themselves any way they want as long as they do not break the law. In this view, collective endeavors are for the most part irrelevant; only private initiatives can truly thrive and succeed since they have a natural incentive to do so. This, in a nutshell, is neoliberalism’s line of thinking.
In reality, of course, freedom under the sole rule of private success bears a very different kind of outcome for the general population and for those who can effectively leverage the power of money. By bending governments to their will, companies like Exxon or BP show the world who is the boss. But pointing at a contradiction between neoliberal theory and practice is far from enough. What matters is that ideas, whether valid or not, can shape the views of millions. If we uncritically follow neoliberal tenets and believe that the common good is just a by-product of individual freedom and not a guiding principle of policies, or that there is no society but just individuals and their families—as the late Margaret Thatcher once famously put it5—then the fight against climate change is over. No mobilization can take place at the required level if it is not seen as a meaningful collective endeavor, and this depends on whether or not we believe in being a society. This is why “A government for who?” is such a fundamental question. By considering public concerns as dangerous lunacies, neoliberalism is the most serious obstacle to any cohesive and concerted global action against climate change.
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 separate 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, neoliberalism is a popular intellectual doggy bag that never questions its own premises.
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 psychological, political, and moral importance of basic shared interests, neoliberalism puts itself out of the pale of genuine progress from the get-go. In order to figure this out, we have to question how Friedman’s preferred maxim stands in regard to each of these three perspectives.
Psychologically 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. As everyone knows through direct experience, happiness is an inner work totally foreign to the realm of what can be measured and compared. Enjoying the richness of being fully human and the immeasurable wonders of life is a much more genuine expression of what we truly seek. And like anything that has true value, it is all for free. Even though pursuing our own practical interests can be perfectly legitimate and is what actually drives the economy, believing that happiness can be achieved in a material and self-centered fashion is, on the other hand, highly delusional. Our real interest can neither be delimited nor limited.
On a collective level, moreover, the same way that considering the market as some kind of absolute reality contradicts the very possibility of competition, seeing the individual as the central unit of her personal achievements contradicts the possibility of her effective success. Whatever our individual merits can be, countless others have also contributed to our personal achievements in many different ways. In that sense, the most relevant metric for one’s success in any field is not our personal efforts but the accuracy with which we are able to recognize, honor, and take advantage of others’ legacy.
This co-dependent nature of success directly opposes the idea that the “survival of the fittest” is the commanding principle of human lives. Based on a flawed interpretation of Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species (not individuals), the “survival of the fittest” is a puny philosophical excuse to justify the exploitation of others. It has been used during the gilded age in the U.S. and now in the era of neoliberalism. Opposing this hazy theory, the fact of the matter is that any living system 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. In society, this means that the freedom of achieving success on one’s own merits is intrinsically linked to shared progress.
Politically speaking, then, it is no wonder that “The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests” refers to some democracy by default that protects life, liberty, and happiness from an individual standpoint only. Yet, the democratic project is much broader than that. Based on the recognition that the capacity to learn from each other defines our humanity, Democracy was not instituted to simply prevent enslaving each other but for sharing the best of what humans can be and do. In this perspective, guaranteeing the same fighting chance in life for all appears both as a moral obligation and as the most beneficial way to go as a society. This, not just the freedom of running aside each other for material success, is what democracy has always been about among those who have paid for it with their life or their own freedom.
This is also why the concept of democracy implies an innate co-dependency between citizens and their government, and not just an external and formal relationship. On one hand, as people are the unique legitimate source of political power, the government is us—even if only by delegation. On the other hand, as the intrinsic social dimension of human life is the bedrock of personal progress and achievement, it needs protection. Having a government is this protection—provided that it genuinely is a government of, by, and for the people. The fact of the matter is that even though one’s personal dedication is essential in the pursuit of happiness, people still need to be able to enjoy the conditions that can make this pursuit fruitful. Services collectively decided upon such as clean air and water or access to healthcare and education come to mind.
By looking at the government as some kind of foreign entity, on the opposite, neoliberalism implicitly claims a right to civic irresponsibility and effectively denies that a country can be anything more than a shopping mall. As with the psychological dimension alluded to earlier, the flaw in this view is to consider individual freedom from an external standpoint only, assuming that it is defined by what we can see as the practical boundaries of our own life. The greater my freedom of movement, then, the freer I am. Restricted to my own self, freedom becomes an individualistic value.
This superficial view of the primacy of the individual sums up neoliberalism’s political program. As it happens, believing that one’s freedom exclusively consists in making one’s own choices under any and all circumstances leads many innocent minds—especially in the U.S., where this is somehow a matter of national pride—to consider the government as the enemy. Their assumption is that since social concerns and all forms of collective endeavors force people to do things a certain way, such schemes are necessarily infringing on one’s freedom. This toddler’s notion of freedom is another intellectual cheap trick used by companies and the political establishment alike to lure the public into a system where, in effect, people have no voice against the power of money. The pathetic dress-up of “freedom of choice” against Medicare for All is a prime example of that rhetorical gimmick at work in the country.
Paradoxically and in its own way, this gimmick has a moral coherence to it. In Milton Friedman’s world, society is just a collection of individuals that have found it more expedient to aggregate under common laws than to stay totally on their own. From a moral standpoint, it thus follows that we do not owe anything to each other. The freedom of each individual to fight for herself has to guide public policies, not empathy.
Most people spontaneously cringe when confronted with the idea that, as a society, we should be indifferent to the pleas of others, but to Friedman’s mind this is because 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. Incidentally, this is why raising taxes in order to keep the possibility of a fighting chance for all is considered backward politics in neoliberal circles, if not an insidious form of punishment on those who have succeeded in finding their way ahead. In this view, a social net undermines the possibility for the best of us to show the way out of poverty and can just foster, on the contrary, a permanent state of resentment and class warfare.
Even though quite popular, notably in the U.S., this line of thinking remains a pure abstraction which, as such, has led to the global economic, social, and environmental dead-ends the world finds itself into today. The notion stubbornly held by many U.S. 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 (or both)—is a pathetic illustration of this intellectual and moral wreckage. As a consequence and under the guise of individual freedom, millions of Americans are serenely deemed better off without any proper health coverage. People may die in misery but at least the absolute freedom of the absolute individual is safe!
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The power of money left to itself and the ideology modeled upon it give to the issue of climate change its true perspective. By postulating that a free market is necessarily rid of rules and legislations, neoliberalism can only create an unsustainable form of self-destructive economy, where wealth is steadily drawn to the top at the economic, social, and environmental expense of the rest of the population.
Contrary to Milton Friedman’s preferred phrase, the world does not run on individuals pursuing their own interests. At least, not in an egoistic sense. The common good being the primary condition allowing people to thrive as individuals, our most basic interest is to protect it. Climate change and the collapse of the biosphere should be, in this regard, our doomsday wake-up call. Sadly, as long as policymakers will keep following their neoliberal gospel and believing that GDP growth is the answer to all global ailments ever after, none of the drastic changes in economic policies that should have been adopted decades ago is likely to be carried out.
We the people are, in that sense, the answer to climate change. All it takes is to reassess our collective destiny as a human enrichment rather than just a financial one. Yet, in order to go from a simple wish to its effective implementation, there needs to be a clear intelligence of this very goal. While it is obviously imperative to act as broadly as humanly possible in the short term to tackle the global warming process, in the long term, however, there will be no lasting results if they are not inspired by the meaning we give to forming a society. The indispensable condition under which economic practices can become durably constructive instead of systematically turning into mere predation is to recognize where our true wealth lies as human beings and to implement it as citizens. What are, then, the different steps by which we can fully embody this citizenship and make sure to get out of the process of setting up our own demise as a civilization and, most likely, as a species?
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When someone has a heart attack, the first thing to do is to get this person out of danger. Doing so wouldn’t make much sense, however, if the risk of relapse was not kept at bay by subsequently applying a proper treatment. And this, in turn, would be to no avail without the final goal of entirely avoiding such life-threatening issues in the future. Health has eventually to become its own medicine and its own guideline, notably through the adoption of a good life hygiene. Healing follows the same logic in the political realm and activism stands at the first stage of this health process.
Organizations such as Green Peace, 350.org, Sunrise, or Extinction Rebellion are easily frowned upon when they voice out environmental concerns by somehow disrupting the public space. Little do we realize, when we feel annoyed this way, that all they do is signaling the much greater violence done to the collective body of society. By clamoring their civic dissent, organizing, and mobilizing, activists are the first responders in a situation of crisis. “How bad is the situation, one might ask, for them to prevent me from peacefully driving to work or entering that bank?” Bad enough. We are dying. “We” being the entire eco-system.
Yet, it would be a mistake to restrict the role of activist groundwork to waking up as many consciences as possible by disrupting business as usual. Even though this is obviously needed, at a deeper level activism represents also a core element of genuine democratic life.
It would seem, at first glance, that there is just one way for citizens to have an influence on the course of public affairs: getting involved in the formal political process. Whether it comes down to simply voting or to personally holding a public position, democracy defines itself by public decisions being taken through elected offices only. This contract that the population has with itself to represent itself is the principle by which we are citizens in the first place and can expect our human and civil rights to be respected. This is also why even though an activist organization may find great support on a public issue, only regular politicians have the last word on what can or cannot be done.
Accordingly, the success of such organizations cannot be measured only by the influence they have in crafting the law. By this token, it could indeed be said that their success is minimal when it comes to convincing politicians to do something about climate change. But rather than just the legislative results they may obtain, activists also provide a crucial foundation of democratic life; namely the possibility for society to have an indispensable dialog with itself.
Contrary to the rule at the voting booth, quality, not just quantity, also matters in a democracy. Instead of acting by default by voting, more often than not, for the lesser of two evils, people may aggregate around a common concern because they have the motivation to do so. This is the active and vibrant part of politics, the one most personally felt in a positive and constructive way. Finding in the legitimacy of their cause the inner strength they need, activists step up under the mandate that gives sense to all others: being citizens. What could be more democratic than that?
Activism, moreover, is a much-needed alternative to the short-term polling goals and seductive relationship most politicians have toward their constituents. It is the voice of the citizenry as expressed by those who have put time, energy, and brainpower to imagine a better world. Conversely, this offers politicians a useful and sometimes indispensable interlocutor to build together a way forward. Regularly facing stubborn opposition or near-total indifference, activists’ primary asset is to use indisputable data, thus giving others access to some deep expertise about the specific issue they deal with. Far from fueling a superficial shouting match between partisans of one solution against partisans of another (or of no solution at all, in the case of climate change), most activist organizations are the legitimate interlocutors of a well-informed dialog.
But among all the conditions that they provide for society to have this essential dialog with itself, the most important is that they work from the ground up. It is regular people fighting for regular people. In a democracy, this moral justification is also a political one, since the need for citizens to have a decisive influence on their destiny is an integral part of the social contract. Being aware of this, grassroots organizing is the most powerful political force there is. Eventually, quantity joins with quality.
In a democracy, therefore, there is absolutely no contradiction between institutional representative power and citizens’ power. The former is indispensable in its authority for crafting the law and protecting it, the latter in its energy and in its inspiration to go in the right direction. We cannot delude ourselves in the idea that we do not need politicians or, reciprocally, that they do not need us.
Unfortunately, recognizing the complementarity between activists and elected representatives is far from enough to guarantee that it takes shape, let alone brings effective results. Climate change has evolved up to its present dramatic proportions because politics as such is dead. The dialog that society should have with itself has long been short-circuited by fossil fuel lobbying, along with the stern neoliberal assumption that short-term financial profits are the only metric that matters for the economy. As a consequence, the formal political decision process couldn’t care less about activists’ own contribution to a debate that does not take place. This situation is vividly and accurately pointed out in the preface of Common Sense for the 21st Century, one of Extinction Rebellion’s programmatic documents:
We protested in our hundreds of millions – it didn’t work.
We raised billions to reach people and politicians – it didn’t work.
We lobbied for subsidies for renewables – it didn’t work.
We signed countless online petitions – they didn’t work.
We looked to the United Nations to resolve the crisis – it didn’t work.
We trusted progressive politicians and their reforms – it didn’t work.
Al Gore had a big concert and a PR campaign – it didn’t work.
Countless NGOs did their best – it didn’t work.
What can work, then, is to go deeper into the political empowerment of ordinary people. The focus needs to shift from activism as such to the establishment of a more direct form of democracy, thus completing and achieving the democratic process formalized by the American and French revolutions of the eighteenth century.
In a representative democracy, the usual indicator politicians will use to evaluate their chances to be put or remain in power is if people can see how their proposed policies will affect everyone’s life in a positive way. Though understandable and legitimate, this logic of representative power is valid in ordinary times only. In extraordinary times, when harsh decisions must be made to prevent a catastrophe, those in power need more than a simple consent from the population. They need its enthusiastic support. This was true during WW II; this is true with the fight against climate change and the looming collapse of the biosphere.
But what these environmental catastrophes in the making add to the equation is that they are not temporary predicaments, such as wars, or ones that would affect certain categories of the population only. Because of its geological scope, climate change in particular requires implementing systemic changes. And since such drastic moves can be politically accepted only if they come from the definite will of the citizens themselves, we need citizens’ assemblies.
The good news is that most people among ordinary citizens already agree on the necessity to step away from the ecological suicide we got ourselves into. It is those who relish their position of power who are late on the issue. This is all the more why citizens’ assemblies must become an essential aspect of democracy in the twenty-first century. So, what is a citizen’s assembly and how does it work?
Ireland is a beautiful place to be, with vibrant social life and landscapes that invite anyone to some inner journey. Ireland, too, used to be caught for decades in a political dead-end regarding the topic of abortion. It was such a toxic issue that no politician in her right mind would dare challenging the outdated national status quo. Then, in 2016, citizens decided to peacefully take the matter in their own hands. With the government’s assent, 99 persons were randomly sorted out of the general population to give its democratic legitimacy to this original political process. The goal was to provide them with as thorough and complete an information as possible, so that all could make up their mind in a genuinely rational way. This, obviously, included the possibility for each participant to expose and debate their own views along the way. During the five months it took, Irish voters could access all of the assembly’s submissions and recommendations. The ensuing referendum resulted in a 180-degree constitutional change regarding abortion.
This example6 illustrates how citizens’ assemblies can be organized. Their principle, most importantly, is that to acquire its total legitimacy the voice of the people can only be the voice of reason. In a democracy, citizens are citizens primarily by educating themselves. It then follows that if the conditions are adequately provided for them to do so, a referendum becomes the natural option to decide on any difficult matter at hand. This is how what was once seemingly impossible can become possible. The answer to climate change is democracy in this exact same way.
Citizens’ assemblies backed by a national vote at their conclusion offer, indeed, several crucial advantages in the race against climate change. If anything, the decision process will always be effective and much quicker than decades of paltering from national governments. Integrity, moreover, is at the core of the process since the usual barrage of lobbyists is shunned away. Instead, ordinary citizens directly receive from scientists and genuine experts all of the objective and relevant data they need. Another important feature of citizens’ assemblies is that they are immune to the fear of the electorate that possesses so many career politicians, most of them ending up fighting for power rather than for any kind of actual conviction.
Admittedly, these assemblies can only take place over strictly defined issues, and when the matter has not found in regular representative institutions the political will necessary to solve it. Climate change definitely falls in this category. Citizens’ assemblies could tremendously help, for instance, in implementing the Green New Deal proposed by prominent political figures in the U.S. Far from a pipe-dream, this would just signal that ordinary citizens have the right and the ability to pronounce themselves on broad issues of concern to them. As the knowledge of experts can today be made readily available to anyone, citizens’ assemblies represent the definite continuation of the revolutionary ideal set in motion in the eighteenth century.
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Whether in its most well-known form of peaceful protests and political lobbying or in the more recent one of citizens’ assemblies, activism is at the core of democratic life. It is democracy’s beating heart, alongside the conventional body of representative institutions that usually decides on the best course of action for the country. As experience shows, however, there is a frequent disconnect between what the heart needs and asks for and what the political body is ready to accomplish. This is glaringly true with the negligible national and international political commitment to tackle climate change pressing emergency.
Not that all politicians are corrupt, stupid, or mere cowards. More than a lack of goodwill, the issue is primarily a structural one. Going back to the image previously used of someone who has just had a heart attack, we know that not taking the proper treatment after having been rescued will increase the stakes of an even more severe accident happening at some point in the future. A treatment is a structural answer which, by changing the conditions of a given situation, prevents it from worsening. When genuinely representing the people, stable political institutions are the “treatment” required to guarantee justice for all, including on matters of international or global outreach.
It so happens, however, that historical representative systems were born at a time when a global issue such as climate change was simply unfathomable. As a consequence, the decision process did not need, or so it seemed, to integrate nature and the 7th generation down the road. Now it does, and political structures must be updated accordingly. How, then, can our co-dependence with each other and the biosphere be formally acknowledged and its synergies facilitated in a 21st-century democracy?
Countries with their administrative and territorial boundaries have long pre-existed the advent of national representative systems. When the political vision of modern democracy began to take shape, it then naturally occurred on the background of what has been called the nation-state. Climate change forces us to think out of such national boundaries. While historical representative systems are confined to the territory they were born into and set to work in a mono-generational and thus absolute world, the physical balance of nature can only be evaluated and protected on a trans-national and multi-generational scale. It is now time to formally integrate nature as a founding principle of politics. Since this perspective has been entirely ignored up to now in Western culture, let’s first clarify its importance further.
The primary reason why protecting the biosphere should be at the core of all economic policy decisions is that it only makes sense. Why going against nature when we know full well that it is to our own economic, social, and, ultimately, existential detriment? At the end of the 18th century, when they crafted what they saw as the institutional basis of freedom and justice forever after, members of the white elite were in the exact opposite state of mind. Nature was assumed to be an indifferent matter to human progress and a mere resource to be indefinitely exploited. The same intellectual shortcomings also led them to consider colonization and slavery as legitimate means on the path to civilization. We now know better. But that the institutional framing put in place in such a prejudiced intellectual context still works for us today shows that our ancestors, even though they did not want an actual democracy, got its principle right nevertheless. Today’s necessary evolution against this original ambivalence is to recognize nature as the indispensable partner of mankind that it truly is.
The second reason is that humanity’s survival can hardly be discounted as a human right. This should go without saying but, so far, most governments have only committed to doing that—saying it—while the economic dogma of growth at all costs remains prevalent in national and international policies. To their defense, stopping the madness of an economic system destroying the balance of life on Earth is a novel political challenge. The right to a sustainable world requires to act proactively by relying on accurate scientific data about the predictable future, as opposed to simply having to go back to principles when implementing other human rights. Still, by the same token that the work of science is to state the facts, the only way for our governments to prove that they take human rights seriously is to use data relating to climate change as a commanding principle of their policies.
The third reason why representative systems must integrate the global dimension of nature as a foundation of their policymaking is that we have no time left. There lies a paradox: swift action on the matter is concerted action. The era of each government scrambling for itself, or pretending to, is over. So is the era of non-binding, watered-down international agreements signed under the auspices of institutions whose sole power is to be allowed to convene every few years. The old world of national preeminence over other countries’ own interests makes no sense at the geological scale climate change operates. National political systems must consequently come to terms with the world as it is: deeply interconnected, whole, and, most of all, alive. The biosphere is not some vague entity in the background of our so important busy-ness. Functioning as one whole organism, it is either thriving or dying, and all signs show that humanity is soon going to be entirely deprived of a livable planet if we do not react at scale right now.
But how can the world react “at scale”? To answer this question, it is important to understand that even though indispensable, individual initiatives and all kinds of activism cannot be a substitute for the proper work of adequate political structures. Decisions impacting the collective body of society can only be processed through legitimate forms of government that have, as such, the authority to implement them.
The other important point is that it is not so much about governments being able to do the right thing—they already have that option—but for them to be formally incapacitated to do the wrong ones. Effectively fighting climate change implies that not only policies but the basic frame of political life in each country must be aligned with the necessity of restoring and maintaining the natural balance our physical existence depends upon. Climate change can only be tackled from the inside-out, so to speak, i.e. from within the very process of making collective decisions. In the same way that the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government is established to the formal benefit of the people, so do we need, today, to institute the proper democratic form of governance preventing the fuelling of climate change. To that aim, the first step is for as many countries as possible to add a clause about “Humanity’s survival” in their Constitution.
Seeing our collective responsibility as stewards of nature as part of the fundamental law of the land would indeed provide several decisive advantages. This would give environmental policies a legitimacy far above reforms in other fields, preventing them from being easily reversed at some point in the future. If only for the sake of being loyal to the Constitution, moreover, governments would act proactively in favor of the biosphere instead of doing systematically too little too late. Last but not least, this constitutional change would not only uphold environmental safety as a fundamental right of citizens but would also be a powerful reminder that nations were purposely created to allow future generations to take advantage of the best possible legacy from those that preceded them. Learning to thrive without destroying the conditions of life on Earth is certainly part of such a legacy, even though this endeavor effectively exceeds the frontiers of a nation-state.
One could argue, of course, that not all countries will be ready and willing to amend their constitution this way, which seems to defeat the whole purpose of promoting the fight against climate change as a shared political value. This is certainly a valid argument. The answer is that not all countries are needed. Only G-20 members could be concerned in the first instance, as they represent 85% of global economic output with the 18 biggest countries accounting for over 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. One may even expect that, if put under pressure by their own public opinion, enough governments among them would ally to pressure China’s dictatorship and the U.S. corrupt political system to follow suit.
In reality, this reform could play itself out quite well precisely because it would collectively take place. In all likelihood, that each nation allies itself with others to commit to it would make the process far easier to sell to their respective population. This alliance would also relieve heads of state from the worry that their country might be left in a position of weakness relative to others. Besides, what better political destiny for them, as well as all officials involved, than being part of humanity’s survival dream team? But it indubitably remains that the most important aspect of all is that, seeing how serious the most powerful nations are about humanity’s survival, all others would be powerfully incited to adopt the same constitutional change.
Embracing nature and humanity as a whole in the text itself of the Constitution, thus equating the fight against climate change to the basic human right of our very survival, is a decisive step forward. In and of itself, however, this constitutional change would only be a formal commitment to respect the will and the need of the people. The following step is, therefore, to update the political structures themselves, so that there is no chance a government could effectively ignore its responsibility toward the 7th generation after us in the regular course of its policymaking.
This update revolves around making scientific knowledge a mandatory guideline in crafting policies directly or indirectly having an environmental impact. The obvious difficulty is that even governments most concerned by the overwhelming environmental degradation endured by the planet today hesitate to use its recycling capacities as the definite compass that it should be. Too many economic issues are at play and each country fights first for itself. To simplify this inherently complex situation and allow for effective progress on a global scale, there needs to be a common instance of decision. We shall refer to it as the “Academy of the Future”.7
The word “Academy” says it all. This instance would discuss economic policies in regard to their environmental impact, thus allowing the world to focus on opportunities benefiting regional populations in a sustainable way. Beyond forcing each other to pay through import taxes for the real cost of what they produce, countries can and must also help each other out in implementing the economic and industrial solutions of the future. Using scientific data as their indispensable background, debates at the Academy of the Future would be geared toward accommodating particular national situations to the goal of achieving as swiftly as possible a worldwide sustainable economy. Maintaining the global increase in temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius is too huge a goal not to be tackled, invested upon, and monitored in close cooperation. Climate change can be slowed down only if all countries form an “academy” to become creative together and push together in the same direction.
One could think that such international collaboration already exists, in one form or another. The Academy of the Future, however, differs in a fundamental way: it would be an effective instance of government. Not to dictate national states what to do or how to do it but to keep in check good practices agreed upon as well as promised results delivery. Very simply, what can be done globally for trades with the World Trade Organization can all the more be done for a viable planet with an institution like the Academy of the Future. As no power can exist without the capacity to enforce its decisions, the Academy would have at its disposal the usual means of tariffs to call back to their former engagements countries going astray from them. It is nevertheless very likely that investing in their own future in a collaborative manner with others would be for each country their main incentive. Especially since this future would rapidly translate into substantial economic, environmental, and social benefits. In opposition to the neoliberal ideology that has transformed many governments into mere plutocracies, any democracy true to its name would prioritize that.
The major shift of governance induced by the Academy of the Future, therefore, is not the creation of a dystopian super-government but that of a collegial form of power. Nation-states are not the end-all and be-all of politics; people are, and we can overcome our mental boundaries for our own good. The Academy, in other words, is the expression of democracy for the 21st century, i.e. beyond the limitations of the nation-state. It justifies its existence by the simple need for a collaborative instance of decision among governments in order to stop indefinitely kicking the can further down the road, forcing the said governments to answer the will of the people regarding a viable planet.
The main concern with the Academy of the Future is not the legitimacy of the institution but its transparency and its accountability in the exercise of power. What can make it worthy of our trust? There again, that it is an “Academy” is key. Science simply states the facts. The primary concern in the fight against climate change is to ensure that they are acknowledged and have authority in the political decision process. Since it has no other agenda than the objective understanding of the natural world, moreover, the work of science is by itself the major condition of this process transparency. This is why the Academy of the Future would grant scientists their own share of political power.
But the same way that a stool needs three legs to stand, the Academy of the Future could not function by relying only on experts and politicians. Collusions and conflicts of interest are always possible. A third party is therefore needed to ensure a democratic exercise of power, and that is civil society itself. This is where activism, specifically in the form of NGOs, has a decisive role to play.
NGOs are the direct expression of the voice of the people. In the Academy of the Future, they will serve as a force of proposal as well as a blocking minority if proposed policies seem too weak or ill-intended. Beyond this, they will also be indispensable to ensure that professional standards always come before politicians’ preferences in the nomination of scientific members inside the institution. And, in order to avoid that the NGOs themselves become the vehicles of different lobbies, they would be replaced every few years. To do this with absolute equity, their nomination would be done each time by a panel of randomly chosen citizens in each country. As for the overall balance of power between scientists, politicians, and NGOs, the optimal solution seems to be a distribution of voting rights in three equal parts.
Whether or not it will be called the “Academy of the Future”, an international instance of decision dedicated to managing economic sustainability seems to be both a practical necessity and the natural evolution of democratic governance in the 21st century. By granting the power of decision to civil society and to scientists as well as to politicians, such an institution is the only way to act globally with the strength, consistency, and determination that the issue of climate change requires. It might never work perfectly and will surely find its critics along the way, but it is as close a solution as one can imagine to speak to each other and govern ourselves at the planetary level.
It could be argued, moreover, that the Academy of the Future is inherently more democratic than the representative form of democracy that, for practical reasons, has been adopted in modern history. Indeed, a representative system naturally tends to create a political cast due to the gravity pull of the power endowed to those in charge. The Academy of the Future, by contrast, is in the practical impossibility to substitute political power games to the genuine concern for the common good. Full accountability is systematically provided by the fact that science, through the presence of renowned experts, and people, through the presence of NGOs, share equal power with elected representatives. By introducing a healthy dose of direct democracy, as a result, the Academy is the unequivocal expression of what a government of, by, and for the people looks like in the era of global environmental challenges that awaits humanity from now on.
The last aspect of political structures necessary evolution is their adaptation at the national level, as this is where all policies to tackle climate change will always be finalized and implemented. There again, some form of direct democracy is needed to ensure the transition toward a sustainable world.
In its regular role upstream and downstream from the Parliament, the Senate would have to elaborate the main law projects aimed at fulfilling the guidelines given by the Academy of the Future, as well as to oppose its veto to any parliamentary bill going against them. By and large, then, the Senate would be the political chamber in charge of debating environmental policies. At the same time, one-third of the senators at least would be ordinary citizens. The reason for this is two-fold: keeping nature at the top of the political agenda on a permanent basis and avoiding the classical partisan drift on an issue where it is even more irrelevant than on any other. The mandate of these ordinary citizens would last for the same length of time as that of other senators. Randomly nominated on the initial list proposals of NGOs, they would of course follow some kind of compulsory tutoring from their peers in order to quickly adapt to all the rules of the institution.
Parliament would open to civil society too, in this case through citizens’ assemblies helping to craft the law according to what citizens, once duly informed, express about the direction they want their country to go. Along with their presence in the Senate, this would be a powerful addition in preventing traditional elected representatives to err, seduced by personal ideologies or by the enthralling tune of donors’ money.
As for the executive branch of government, it would have to take into account the transversal nature of environmental issues. This implies that all policies followed by the governing administration in place would integrate what kind of positive or negative impact on nature they entail, while officials in charge would be able to provide all relevant data at any time. In the same perspective of environmental sustainability, no political campaign for the supreme elective office would be allowed to take place without providing a thorough body of literature dedicated to long-term environmental challenges.
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Climate change deniers are fuzzy on science not just because they do not care about its validity but even more so because they resent what addressing a global issue of this magnitude actually means. In their own way, they point at a fundamental truth. Climate change requires a systemic answer, which is the eminent responsibility of political institutions. To make things worse, this commitment to a specific course of action must take place at an international level. A double nightmare for climate change deniers, whose values—or absence of thereof—are usually in total opposition with the idea of building a collective destiny. Representing the embodiment of public institutions working for the common good, democracy itself is their nightmare.
For those of us who believe in democracy, structural reforms allowing both people and science to duly weight upon political decisions are, on the contrary, of crucial importance. Whether at a local, national, or international level, these reforms would indeed reinforce the debating space that democratic governance is by definition, all the while freeing the decision process from the influence of corporate lobbies.
Still, without a heartfelt recognition of the constructive and positive outcomes at stake, these structural reforms will hardly take shape. Even though they are a practical necessity to tackle down climate change, putting them in place requires a peaceful and positive form of energy born from the intimate vision of something new and different. Going back once more to the example of a heart attack, the third step beyond first response and subsequent treatment is to establish health as its own guideline. A heavy smoker or someone who did not previously pay attention to his life hygiene does not know, at first, what health really looks and feels like. A change of consciousness has to take place.
Our world is this sick person. Up to now and because the issue of sustainability has shown just recently on industrialized countries’ radar, we were able to more than satisfy our material needs but totally failed to answer our most essential ones: keeping a livable planet and, as importantly, thriving as an enriching human community rather than just striving as a collection of productive units. This is where our collective health is at stake.
Be it individual or collective, health is achieved by dropping old ways of thinking and gaining clarity on the conditions that are conducive to a self-enhancing state of balance and energy. When thinking about a sustainable social and economic world, we all recognize, however confusedly, that knowing, respecting, and honoring nature may provide the life lessons we need to save ourselves from ourselves. What are the old ways of thinking our relationship with nature and by which healthy principles should they be replaced?
The view about our natural environment has been conditioned since the dawn of the modern era by a conventional and incomplete view of science. If the scientific method pioneered by Copernic (1473-1543) and Galileo (1564-1642) has fostered constant progress in the understanding of physical phenomena, the respective understanding of the inner limits of its mechanistic pattern has occurred only recently. As it became obvious that this pattern cannot adequately explain the self-renewing and adaptive processes of life, scientists were eventually led to looking at wholes instead of parts and at processes instead of supposedly definite entities. By doing so they discovered that such wholes—be they cells, bodies, or entire ecosystems—are dynamically organized and intricately balanced systems that evolve according to discernable principles.
Already present in biology and in Darwin’s theory of evolution, these principles have then been formalized in what is called today the General System Theory.8 Far from being the brain-child of some creative but overly abstract mind, the science of how relationships between the many parts of a system shape the behavior of the whole has transformed many fields of research, such as the study of ecosystems, computer networks, weather patterns, the spread of diseases, or economics—even though this is still a secret to many economists.
What does this assessment of the relativity of the world’s components imply in regard to our relationship with nature? Contrary to the demiurgic dream of early modern philosophers Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who imagined that mankind could enjoy a total mastery of nature by achieving a thorough linear understanding of its mechanisms, there is no such chiasm between the observer and the observed—the former looking upon the latter from the height of his intellectual constructs. In the real world, both are part of the same all-encompassing whirl of processes. Man is not meant to become “maître et possesseur de la nature” (master and possessor of nature), as Descartes adamantly asserted, but to become aware and knowledgeable about being part of nature itself. As the artificial separation between mankind and the rest of the world disappears, man subsequently falls from his pedestal—for his own good.
Western culture has been accustomed to arrogating the mind (without positively knowing what that is) to mankind exclusively, thus seeing nature as mindless and, therefore, not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The assumption has been that the world is effectively divided into two distinct realms: one endowed with consciousness, as attested by the use of articulate language, and the other being a mere aggregation of parts. Not seeing the world as a whole devoid of separation from one level of reality to the next—from matter to life to mind—can only lead to further this logic of opposition. Then, as anthropologist Gregory Bateson put it: “Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against … other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables. If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell.”9
There is not the environment and us; we are the environment. We breathe nature and evolve co-dependently with it both physically and spiritually. The question, then, is not simply to be kind to the environment and save endangered species; the question is to honor, respect, and protect the environment because it is what we are. To reconnect with our true selves, we need this wider sense of identity. In hindsight, this amounts to nothing else than a natural and healthy maturation of the human psyche, away from the narrow, competitive ego and toward a self that embraces its social and environmental dimensions.
Evolving this way, moreover, saves the often counterproductive urge to sermonize about our responsibilities toward the environment. Only the ego needs to be altruistic; the broader self held in many other cultures than the Western one is simply free in regard to what it owes to nature. As pioneer deep ecologist Joanna Macy and some of her colleagues once said, “What humankind is capable of loving from mere duty or moral exhortation is, unfortunately, very limited …. The extensive moralizing within the ecological movement has given the public the false impression that they are primarily asked to sacrifice, to show more responsibility, more concern, and better morals …. [But] the requisite care flows naturally if the self is widened and deepened so that protection of free nature is felt and conceived of as protection of our very selves.”10
This intimate recognition of a wider self is indispensable to the fight against climate change. In the grounded perspective of the system of systems that the living world is, the same physical environment that we are accustomed to taking for granted and disregard when not ruthlessly exploiting it is, literally, our life partner. Unless we want to dive further into the death spiral humanity has engineered for itself, we consequently have to recognize that the rights of nature are just an extension of our own and that they must be upheld with the same determination.
That nature should have legal rights may sound like a wild assertion to many but this is, in all logic, the crux of the matter. The law has always been used to express the ideals to which communities aspire, thus tending to entrench a society’s fundamental idea of itself and of how the world works. As of today, laws and contracts are overwhelmingly written to protect the property rights of individuals, corporations, and other legal entities. Considered as object and not as subject in the eye of the law, nature has no legal standing by itself and is consequently seen as human property by default. This seems to make sense but at a closer look, it does not.
The case of Sierra Club v. Morton 1972 was the first legal illustration in the US of the necessity and the possibility to acknowledge nature’s rights. Justice Douglas expressed the opinion that “contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of [legal] standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.” In much the same way that guardians are appointed to represent the rights of infants, the legal standing of nature can indeed be granted to individuals or associations dedicated to its protection.
The notion that nature has rights does not relate to any particular claim on its part, obviously. It relates in a much deeper way to the necessity of honoring our existential debt to the environment. Nature precedes us and all forms of entitlement we may grant ourselves. We owe it everything, at any moment, starting with the very fact of being alive. Not only, then, is nature far more than our by-default property; we are as greatly indebted to it as one could imagine. This is what the notion of nature’s rights fundamentally means. Morally and rationally sound, this assertion is also based on the practical necessity to counter the perpetual encroachment on the natural world by property rights. The purpose is not to deny anyone anything but to formalize the terms upon which we can both honor our existential debts toward nature and do it for the present and future benefit of all parties.
Still to this day, unfortunately, most courts of justice in the U.S. and in the world at large have not recognized that nature might have directly enforceable rights. Reflecting on this, one has to remember that all extensions of legal rights throughout history have first appeared to be utterly unthinkable. This is precisely what the notion of a change of consciousness is about and why such a change may require a lot of hard work beforehand. South African attorney and author Cormac Cullinan, who has dedicated his career to the topic of nature’s rights, vividly underlines this paradox: “(…) even when American society began to regard slavery as morally abhorrent, it was not able to peaceably end the practice because the fundamental concept that slaves were property had been hard-wired into the legal system. The abolition of slavery required not only that the enfranchised recognize that slaves were entitled to the same rights as other humans, but also a political effort to change the laws that denied those rights. It took both the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment to outlaw slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment, in turn, played a role in changing American society’s idea of what was acceptable, thereby providing the bedrock for the subsequent civil rights movement.”11
The same hard-wiring into the legal system, and hence in the collective psyche, explains that environmentalists are commonly labeled as criminals infringing upon the property rights of others—accurately so from a strictly legal standpoint, in many cases—rather than as activists fighting to uphold fundamental rights. Nevertheless, this is precisely thanks to their relentless opposition to what is ecologically unacceptable that the necessary change of consciousness about the rights of nature is gradually taking place. “The day will come, says Cormac Cullinan, when the failure of our laws to recognize the right of a river to flow, to prohibit acts that destabilize Earth’s climate, or to impose a duty to respect the intrinsic value and right to exist of all life will be as reprehensible as allowing people to be bought and sold.”
Could there just be a common consent about nature’s rights without entering into the technicalities of a legal framework? This is already taking place; it is called “Greenwashing”. The legal framework needs to be formally updated not just because the conception of our relationship with nature happens to be intellectually flawed, but also because we are humans. As such, the law is our only definite guarantee that a course of action can be corrected before too much damage is done. In traditional societies, where conflicts of interest are resolved by referring to the wisdom of elders and of the community, nature has its chance. The practical interests of the individual are systematically put back into the broader context of everybody else’s right to a sustainable relationship with their natural surroundings. When the law is written, on the other hand, the formal delineation between different interests of human actors compels to give nature itself proper legal standing.
How and where has the legal status of nature be formalized and enacted so far? The article dedicated to this topic in Wikipedia states that “As of 2019, rights of nature laws exist at the local to national levels in 12 countries, including dozens of cities and counties across the United States, in the form of constitutional provisions, treaty agreements, statutes, local ordinances, and court decisions.”12 Various examples are given for each category. It is also worth visiting the “Worldwide Rights of Nature Map” published by the Boulder Rights of Nature.13 If one lesson should be taken from these examples, it is that in most cases protecting nature’s rights is protecting people’s rights. They are not pitted against each other but against the claimed “rights” of corporations to cause harm for profit. As a consequence, the respective changes of consciousness regarding the rational and legal landmarks of our relationship with nature opens to a third one about property rights and, ultimately, power itself.
Seen as a force, power necessarily results in some form of domination over what it is opposing. In human affairs, this domination translates into a complementary quest for protection, notably through the right of ownership. Being able to protect oneself this way is certainly useful but it does not say anything about the true benefit of human interactions. If anything, looking at society through the lens of trade and rights of ownership, as it has almost exclusively been done since the creation of the modern corporation in the 17th century, sets individuals to be under the domination of whoever has more leverage.
The basic tenet of the issue is that it is easy to be lured into equating property rights to human rights, since the respect of what is legally our own is crucial to the “pursuit of happiness” referred to, explicitly or implicitly, by all modern states. The risk is nevertheless to forget that the administration of justice differs from the mere administration of property rights. Property is a right by convention only, in order for individuals to thrive and prosper without being dispossessed of the fruit of their labor. Beyond that, who should own what and why remains the fundamental question citizens have to answer for themselves.
Ignoring this question results in the basic conundrum environmental activists find themselves in. “Having lawyers is not a solution when they are thwarted by the very structure of the law itself”, says Tom Linzey, the Executive Director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a nonprofit law firm established in Pennsylvania in 1995. As it happens, environmental regulations are simply a checklist to be completed by corporations before they are issued a permit to run their activities. Environmentalists, in other words, work from a script that has been written for them. “Keep in mind, adds Tom Linzey, that the verb “to regulate” postulates that what is regulated has been allowed. We take for granted that what we regulate will be on-going.”14
People’s movements have always succeeded to bring change into society by directly addressing the fundamental frame of governance. This is why abolitionists in the U.S., for example, were not fighting for a slave protection agency but for a change in the Constitution. This might seem obvious in hindsight, making the thought of a slave protection agency even insulting, but this is exactly where we are at in regard to climate change and the environment. In Tom Linzey’s words, there needs to be “a shift from regulating the activity to defining the actor.” Who is in charge of what and why is a question that goes to the core of democratic life.
Even though Federal and state constitutions in the U.S. all refer in inspiring terms to people as the unique source of power, that does not carry any weight when the will of a majority of people goes against corporate interests. In 1886 corporations became persons for purposes of equal protection. Since then, the Supreme Court and lower courts’ decisions have regularly cemented corporate power, to the point that it is almost impossible for U.S. citizens to imagine what democracy effectively looks like. The reason is that property right is considered absolute, regardless of the actor and regardless of ethical and moral consequences. Human rights have prevailed in the U.S. against the fact that, in all logic, considering property rights before everything else should have meant keeping slavery. In spite of that decisive victory, the same ill logic continues to apply today. By not defining the actors, i.e. real people vs corporate legal entities, corporations are de facto the people masters.
In a sense, all we have to do is to decolonize our heads from the sacredness of property the same way that black people in the U.S. have had to decolonize theirs from the fatality of white supremacy. Aside from the absurdity of corporate personhood implied by a “property and commerce” mode of reading the Constitution, there is no reason to toll for poverty wages, be deprived of basic social services, or witness the web of life on Earth thinning at an alarming rate. The “people and values” mode of reading the Constitution being what the document literally expresses, it is our responsibility as citizens to remember what we put our faith in. We, the people, have in reality much more power than we think. We usually do not see things that way because we refer to the wrong kind of power.
Control and domination is power over; the other kind, which is much more efficient and beneficial at a collective level, is power with. Here is how Joanna Macy describes it: “Living systems evolve in variety, resilience and intelligence; they do this not by erecting walls of defense and closing off from their environment, but by opening more widely to currents of matter/energy and information. Through constant interaction, they spin more intricate connections and more flexible strategies. They can’t do this if they are invulnerable, but only if they are open and responsive. Such is the direction of evolution. (…) Power with or synergy is not a property one can own, but a process one engages in. Efficacy is transactional. Take a neuron in the neural net. If, hypothetically, it isolated itself behind defensive walls — believing that its powers were personal property to be protected from other nerve cells — it would atrophy and die. Its health and its power lie in opening itself to the charge, letting the signals through. Only then can the larger system — the neural net — learn to respond and think.”15
Democracy is this neural net. You do not want to hamper its vital flows of information for public decision-making. Unfortunately, in the present “hypertrophied stage of the Industrial Growth Society”, as Joanna Macy names it, even governments that call themselves democracies suppress information unwelcome to corporate interests. Any citizen attentive to investigative journalism is being handed a regular litany of high-level cover-ups, scientific findings suppressed, research projects defunded, reports censored, journalists penalized and whistle-blowers fired or jailed. In the meantime, corporate-controlled media hardly ever mention climate change. So, yes, in the neoliberal era democracy is in grave danger and the survival of humanity with it.
What prospect of success do we have of turning things around? The answer is hidden in plain sight. Sure enough, accustomed to an increasingly competitive system we tend to perceive our self-interest as conflicting with the interests of others. Those entrenched in this oppositional point of view even assume that activists are similarly motivated, labeling them “special interest groups”. But this logic of control and domination on the individual’s part is totally at odds with what people’s collective power truly is. Not one particular person or one group possesses all the courage, strength, insight, and endurance required to operate the transition toward a sustainable future. As the parts of a living whole self-organize, by contrast, new capacities emerge that could not have been predicted. Building new connections, people bring new answers and possibilities into play.
In his book, Blessed Unrest,16 Paul Hawken compares the proliferation of organizations today to how the immune system functions. As the biological immune system learns to recognize self and non-self, what sustains the life of the body and what does not, similarly the immune system of humanity identifies what sustains the human life-support system and what harms it. In both cases, a living, learning, self-regulating system is at work, almost with a mind of its own. This is because these systems do not depend on fire-power and brute force but on the quality of their connectedness. In other words, they depend on diversity to maintain resiliency. This is the power of synergy, and it is far greater than any dominion money can build for itself.
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This article has tried to demonstrate that the issue at the root of the climate crisis is a lack of democracy and that neoliberalism is the ideological agent undermining today a government of, by, and for the people. The influence of money in human affairs is nothing new. What is, on the other hand, is the intellectual veneer it justifies itself with. Based on wild economic approximations and on the flawed psychological view that the individual supersedes the relationships that form and nourish her very being, neoliberalism gives the “free market” an excuse no other form of tyranny has ever had to justify its hubris. Who, indeed, would want to wreck the economy, or, rather, what Wall Street and other stock exchanges have made of it?
If the market is necessarily right and if there is no society but, first and foremost, individuals pursuing their own separate interests, it only makes sense to do away with the notion of a prevalent common good. This is precisely why the answer to climate change is democracy. The neoliberal plague ailing so many hearts and minds, notably among those who had the good fortune to be born under favorable conditions, brings everything back to its meanest possible understanding. Meanwhile, all scientific studies published in recent years confirm that this plague may well have succeeded to destroy the possibility of life on Earth for the near future. Unless, of course, the world reacts at scale.
It is time, therefore, for a more direct form of democracy. The existential threat of climate change behooves us to step up to the plate and make our voices heard. At a structural level, those most concerned—ordinary citizens and scientists—must play a role in the regular functioning of the institutions. Granting them a significant share of power is not only legitimate; it is indispensable as well as urgent.
There is definite hope if we understand the true nature of people’s power. Our power is not power over anything or anyone but power with. By contrast with the relentless creation of monetary value crushing people and the planet, people’s power is the power of life itself. Stemming from the connections we acknowledge between each other and with nature, its resiliency and its creativity are all the power that is needed in a free world.
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- On the particular question of tipping points that consequently might be triggered, see Explainer: Nine ‘tipping points’ that could be triggered by climate change, on carbonbrief.org.
- See: – Anand Giridharadas: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (2018); – Robert B. Reich: The Common Good (2018); The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It (2020)
- See: – Mariana Mazzucato: The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (2018); – Lynn Stout: The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations, and the Public (2012)
- Fossil fuels are underpriced by a whopping $5.2 trillion, By Umair Irfan. Vox May 17, 2019.
- Interview by Douglas Keay for Woman’s Own magazine, 23 September 1987
- How 99 strangers in a Dublin hotel broke Ireland’s abortion deadlock The Guardian, 8 Mar 2018.
- The concept of the Academy of the Future was taken from the book Vers une démocratie écologique – Le citoyen, le savant et le politique, by Dominique Bourg and Kerry Whiteside. Seuil Editions, 2010.
- General Systems Theory, by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, 1968; Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Diana Wright, Donella H. Meadows, 2008.
- Gregory Bateson. Steps to an Ecology of Mind: A Revolutionary Approach to Man’s Understanding of Himself. Chandler, 1972, p. 462.
- John Seed, Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming, Arne Naess. Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings. New Society, 1988, p. 35.
- Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice (Second Edition) by Cormac Cullinan, Foreword by Thomas Berry. Available only here
- Wikipedia, Rights of nature
- Boulder Rights of Nature – Establishing legal rights for naturally functioning ecosystems and native species. https://boulderrightsofnature.org/global-rights-of-nature-map/
- Of Corporations, Law, and Democracy, by Thomas Linzey
- Macy, Joanna; Brown, Molly Young. Coming Back to Life, p. 56. New Society Publishers. Kindle Edition.
- Paul Hawken. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World. Viking, 2007