Climate change signs the failure of the “free market” ideology. In the transition from old neoliberal individualism to an economy embedded in the common good of people and the planet, a new intelligence of democracy is key.
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 practically to provide results. If this were entirely true, however, the world should by now be well on its way to implementing 100% renewable energy sources, having energy-efficient buildings, and sustainably managing 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 definitely better than others but, on a global scale, we are far from having reached the necessary steps to achieve our governments’ solemn goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius maximum rise in temperatures by the end of this century. Why? The immediate answer is the forceful lobbying of fossil fuel companies. 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 regarding 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 ensuring 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 to influence the economy’s management and 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. It works like a silent but immediately effective asset for those who enjoy it and can 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 takes precedence over respecting a sustainable society’s environmental conditions. Therefore, the groundwork for fighting climate change 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 spontaneous economic wisdom and the eventual positive social outcomes of the market. Climate change signs the failure of this ideology. To constructively fight for our future, we, the people, need to unwrap neoliberalism’s intellectual pretense and assess how power can get back—and remain—where it belongs.
I. Defining neoliberal fantasies
a/ Free market
The prevailing global economic 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 empty talk. One way or another, rules apply; simply because nothing exists out of context ever. And if rules do not come from 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. This, obviously, contradicts 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. However, he never said 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, complete 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 benefit all involved, such an outcome will never occur. As the staggering income inequality experienced in many parts of the world today shows, those who have virtually nothing to deal with aside from their work power can quickly 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 a mere view of the mind. 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 upon her.
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b/ Big government vs. small government
But, again, money is power. And this power has all interests in sacralizing profit-making and ignoring the cost for those who are not at the high end of the game. This is why it prefers conveying that a market free of all pesky and useless regulations is the only path to sound business practice. To that effect and 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 looking 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 government intervention, the government is there in the second instance only and just to prevent things from going too awry. Democrats will tend to grant government more leeway and Republicans less—this political pattern between liberals and conservatives being pretty much identical in every part of the world. What is important is that both camps 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 of pretending that corporations’ freedom 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. Far from “intruding on the market,” the government creates the market. Its indispensable role is to enounce the rules and act as the referee when needed. When, on the contrary, corporations write the law for themselves, mayhem systematically ensues in the form of severe economic inequality and social wretchedness. To top this off, whatever public money is left might very well be pre-distributed to them rather than re-distributed to public agencies monitoring the public good.2
Even in the most libertarian society, what would be allowed or not in business life would have to be formalized to maintain fair rules and practices. And 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 necessary has some truth to it. It certainly does and no one, except for Lenin and Mao in their mausoleum, would be seriously arguing that private trade should be banned. The confusion occurs because the expression “free market” is regularly used as a mantra to avoid further scrutiny of what it is supposed to mean.
There was a time when America was committed to investing in a highly-skilled working force and was proud of what it was producing. The economy was then considered 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. For that reason, investing in the country through public education and government-funded infrastructures was seen as the common bedrock for personal success and national greatness, and the idea that the government had a say on the matter simply made sense. No one would have thought that this was going against the expansion of a free market.
At the end of the 1970s, free-market fundamentalism and its trickle-down economic lunacy came back to the fore under the deceiving old cloak of modernity, inviting to forget about the government’s economic role, as well as to see in shareholder value the primary metric of economic health. In the words, later on, of a prominent Democrat apparatchik, those who did not share this neoliberal faith were “retarded.”3 This is how the U.S. economy has gradually morphed into a money game with very little benefit to workers and consumers themselves. Instead of finding its 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 tangible 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. The whole story has never been about entrepreneurship or economic health but about mindless greed.4
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?
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c/ “There is no such thing as society.”
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 impose their own rules. The subsidizing of the fossil fuel industry by many governments 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?
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 B.P. show the world who the boss is.5 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 it6—the fight against climate change is over. No mobilization can occur 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’s character in the 1987 movie Wall Street and this particular line: “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!” The economist Milton Friedman (1912–2006) has notably theorized that greed is good. 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 does not question where what it carries comes from.
According to Friedman, individuals should pursue their private 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. To figure this out, we have to question how Friedman’s preferred maxim stands in regard to each of these three perspectives.
Psychologically speaking, seeing private interests as life’s primary value locks up the mind in a narrow understanding of life itself. Shining at a particular place on its background, they are thus defined through their intrinsic boundaries. 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 entirely 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 far more genuine expression of what we truly seek. And like anything that has true value, it is all for free. Even though pursuing self-serving endeavors can be perfectly legitimate and is what drives the economy, believing that one can achieve happiness in material, self-centered fashion is highly delusional. Our genuine interests as human beings 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 required 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 as both a moral obligation and the most beneficial way to go as a society. Far from the freedom of just running aside from each other for material success, this guarantee is what democracy has always been about among those who gave their life for it.
The concept of democracy implies an innate co-dependency between citizens and their government instead of a mere external and formal relationship. On the 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. Even though one’s dedication is essential in the pursuit of happiness, people still need to enjoy the conditions that can make this pursuit fruitful. Services such as clean air and water or access to healthcare and education should, for this reason, always be decided upon and monitored by the collectivity.
By looking at the government as some kind of foreign entity, on the other hand, 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. Consequently, the greater my freedom of movement, the freer I am. Measured to this ell, freedom becomes an individualistic value.
This superficial individualism 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. Since social concerns and all forms of collective endeavors undoubtedly force people to do things a certain way, they assume that such schemes necessarily infringe on one’s freedom. This toddler’s notion of freedom is another cheap intellectual trick used by companies and the political establishment alike to lure the public into a system where, in effect, people eventually 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.
Paradoxically, this gimmick has nevertheless a moral coherence to it. In Milton Friedman’s world, society is just a collection of individuals that have found it more practical 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, and not empathy, has to guide public policies.
To Friedman’s mind, if most people spontaneously cringe when confronted with the idea that, as a society, we should be indifferent to the pleas of others, this is because we do not understand what works. All that society needs is for the absolute liberty of the individual to thrive for herself to be respected. This is key for a just and prosperous world, as opposed to redirecting the results of her efforts to the benefit of an undifferentiated crowd that did nothing to deserve it. There lies the reason why raising taxes to keep the possibility of a fighting chance for all is considered backward politics in neoliberal circles. It is an insidious form of punishment for those who have succeeded in finding their way ahead. In this view, therefore, a social net undermines the possibility for the best of us to show the way ahead and will 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 severe medical condition should pay higher insurance 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. 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!
The power of money left to itself and the ideology modeled upon it give 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 is not made of individuals pursuing their self-centered interests. Since the common good is 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. Even though there is an absolute emergency to tackle climate change by all practical means, there will be no lasting results if this fight is not inspired by the meaning we give to forming a society. In other words, the indispensable condition under which economic practices can become durably constructive instead of systematically turning back into mere predation is recognizing where our true wealth lies as human beings. To get out of the process of setting up our demise as a civilization and, most likely, as a species, there needs to be, therefore, a clear intelligence of the different steps by which we can fulfill the promise of an open, just, and sustainable world.
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II. The three stages of democratic recovery
a/ Activism and citizens’ assemblies
When someone has a heart attack, the first thing to do is get this person out of danger. However, doing so wouldn’t make much sense 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 must eventually become its own medicine and its own guideline, notably through the adoption of 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 quickly frowned upon when they voice 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 at large. By clamoring their civic dissent, organizing, and mobilizing, activists can be seen as the first responders in an environmental or human rights crisis. “How bad is the situation, one might ask, for them to prevent me from peacefully driving to work or entering that bank investing in oil drilling?” Bad enough. We are dying. “We” being the entire ecosystem. 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. Activism is also a core element of genuine democracy at a deeper level.
At first glance, it would seem that citizens can only influence the course of public affairs through elected offices in a democracy. 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, therefore, expect our human and civil rights to be respected. For this reason, and even though an activist organization may find great support on a public issue, only lawmakers have the last word on what can or cannot be done. This is also why the success of such organizations cannot be measured by the direct influence they have in crafting the law. By this token, their success is indeed minimal when trying to convince 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 voting by default for what often amounts to the least bad candidate, people may also aggregate around a common concern because they have the motivation to do so. This is the active and vibrant part of politics, most personally felt in a constructive and positive way. The legitimacy of the cause at hand provides the inner strength needed to exercise the mandate that gives sense to all others in a democracy: being part of the demos, being a citizen. On the other hand, it is no wonder that the representatives who favor authoritarianism call the rest of us “rioters” or “extremists” when we are simply voicing our concerns.
At the very least, activism is a much-needed alternative to the short-term polling goals and seductive relationship most politicians have toward their constituents. It is the citizenry’s voice, as expressed by those who have put time, energy, and brainpower to imagine a better world. To politicians, activists are helpful and sometimes indispensable interlocutors in building a way forward. Though activist organizations are more often facing stubborn opposition or near-total indifference from the political world than anything else, their strength in making a case is to have it backed by indisputable data. Beyond spectacular events, they provide the public with deep expertise regarding specific issues, shunting the traditional bi-partisan political game by allowing for a well-informed dialog.
Moreover, in this essential dialog of society with itself, activist organizations crucially work from the ground up. It is regular people fighting for regular people. In a democracy, this moral justification is also a political one, as the need for citizens to have a decisive influence on their destiny is an integral part of the social contract. Grassroots organizing is, in that sense, the most potent political force there is.
It so appears that in a democracy, there is no contradiction but complementarity between institutional representative power and citizens’ power. The former is indispensable in its authority to craft the law and protect it, the latter in its energy and 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 between representatives among themselves and with the citizenry 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. Consequently, the formal political decision process couldn’t care less about activists’ contribution to a debate that does not take place. One of Extinction Rebellion’s programmatic documents vividly and accurately depicts the situation:
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 P.R. campaign – it didn’t work.
Countless NGOs did their best – it didn’t work.7
What can work, then, is to go deeper into the political empowerment of ordinary people. Not only does the urgency of the situation commands it, but establishing a more direct form of democracy is simply achieving in our time the democratic process engaged by the American and French revolutions of the eighteenth century. This process can take today the form of citizens’ assemblies.
Ireland is a beautiful place to be, with vibrant social life and landscapes that would invite anyone to an 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 challenge the outdated national status quo. Then, in 2016, citizens decided to peacefully take the matter into their own hands. With the government’s backing, 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 thorough and complete information so that all could make up their mind in a genuinely rational way. Each participant was invited to expose their personal views, and the debates were facilitated by professionally trained neutral actors. During the five months debate, Irish voters could access in real-time all of the assembly’s submissions and recommendations. The ensuing referendum resulted in a 180-degree constitutional change regarding abortion.8
Backed by a referendum at their conclusion, citizens’ assemblies would offer several crucial advantages in the race against climate change. If anything, the decision process will always be more effective and much quicker than decades of paltering from local and national governments. Another essential point is that integrity is at the core of the process since the usual barrage of corporate lobbying and legalized bribery is averted. Instead, to make up their mind ordinary citizens directly receive all of the objective and relevant data they need from scientists and genuine experts. Finally, citizens’ assemblies 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 actual conviction.
Citizens’ assemblies are not rocket science. Most of all, they show that to acquire its real legitimacy, the voice of the people can only be the voice of reason. In a democracy, citizens are citizens primarily by educating themselves. But it consequently follows that if the proper conditions are in place to conduct a citizens’ assembly, a referendum is then its natural outcome. One can only wish that this democratic path be the one chosen with climate change, so that wide and small communities alike tackle the issue at their own level and scale.
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b/ Science-based governance
Whether in its most well-known form of peaceful protests and political lobbying or 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 mandated to decide on the best course of action for the country. Experience shows, however, a frequent disconnect between what the heart needs and asks for and what the political body is ready to accomplish. Citizens’ assemblies are just but one option; governments can entirely ignore it. Which is the last citizens’ assembly you heard of about climate change?
Not that all politicians are corrupt, stupid, or mere cowards. More than a lack of goodwill, the issue is primarily structural. 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 being rescued will increase the stakes of an even more severe accident happening sometime later. A treatment is a structural answer that changes the conditions of a situation to prevent 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 that historical representative systems were born at a time when a global issue such as climate change was simply unfathomable. Consequently, 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 structures 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 in 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. In the face of climate change and the collapse of the biosphere, humanity has now no choice but to formally integrate nature as a founding principle of politics.
The primary reason why protecting the biosphere should be at the core of all economic policy decisions is that it only makes sense. Why go 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. They assumed nature had no other role to fulfill for humanity than to serve as 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. Today’s necessary evolution is to recognize nature as the indispensable partner of humanity that it truly is.
The second reason is that humanity’s survival is as strict a moral obligation as one can think of. 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 and financial system destroying the balance of life on Earth is a novel political challenge. The right to a sustainable world requires acting proactively by relying on accurate scientific data about the predictable future, whereas implementing other human rights only needs going back to principles. 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 climate change seriously, and thus human rights in general too, is to use data as a commanding principle of their policies. So far, they chose not to. Blah, blah, blah.
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’ interests makes no sense at the geological scale of climate change. 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 will soon be entirely deprived of a livable planet if we do not react at scale right now.
Reacting “at scale” can only come from the work of governments since they are the only legitimate instances to make decisions affecting society at large. But contrary to what one may think, this is not about doing the right thing—governments already have that option—this is about having them formally incapacitated to do the wrong ones. Effectively fighting climate change, in other words, 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, i.e., from within the very process of making collective decisions. The whole body of governments must be geared toward sustainability, not just their punctual decisions. 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. Environmental policies would have a legitimacy far above reforms in other fields, preventing them from being easily reversed later on. If only for the sake of being loyal to the Constitution, moreover, governments would act proactively in favor of the biosphere. Last but not least, this constitutional change would be a powerful reminder that nations were purposely created to allow future generations to take advantage of the best possible legacy from those who preceded them. Learning to thrive without destroying the conditions of life on Earth is undoubtedly 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. It is indeed a valid argument. The simple 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. Since several nations would ally to commit to it, this would make the process far easier to sell to their respective population. This alliance would also relieve heads of state from worrying that their country might be left in a position of weakness relative to others. Besides, what better political destiny for these heads of state and all officials involved than being part of humanity’s survival dream team? This dynamic would play out even further. Seeing how serious some of the most powerful nations are about the issue, others would find there a powerful incitement to adopt the same constitutional change.
Having the text itself of the Constitution embracing nature and humanity as a whole would be a decisive step forward. In and of itself, however, this broadened view of human rights and needs would only be a formal commitment to respect them. Therefore, the following step is 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 all policies having, directly or indirectly, an environmental impact. Today, even governments most concerned by the overwhelming ecological degradation of the planet hesitate to use its recycling capacities as the definite policy compass that it should be. Too many economic issues are at play, and each country fights first for itself. A common instance of decision regarding what can and cannot be done for the sake of the natural world we belong to would simplify this inherently complex situation and would thus allow for effective progress at the required global scale. We shall refer to this instance as the “Academy of the Future.”9
Referring to this instance as an “academy” means that its role would be to collectively agree on the environmental impact of specific economic policies in order, then, to synergize their efforts toward the most sustainable ones. Aside from using tariffs to make each other pay for the actual environmental cost of their exportations, all countries would work together to figure out how the goal of sustainability can provide the best economic outcomes. It may seem counterintuitive to neoliberal dinosaurs, but fulfilling this goal is an economic opportunity, not a hindrance.
If anything, moreover, the overarching goal of maintaining the global increase in temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century is too huge not to be invested upon and monitored in close international cooperation. One may think that this cooperation already exists through dedicated bodies such as the UNO. The Academy of the Future would nevertheless differ in a fundamental way since it would have actual legislative power. What can be done globally for trades with the World Trade Organization can all the more be done for a viable planet. This is not, therefore, advocating for some dystopian worldwide government to replace national ones, but for a collegial form of power to implement the conditions of life’s sustainability on earth. Nation-states are not the end-all and be-all of politics; people are, and we are now at a time when a limited collegial power at an international level may well be indispensable.
The Academy, in other words, justifies its existence by the simple need to stop governments indefinitely kicking the environment can further down the road. To that aim, a collegial form of power sanctioning the international collaboration toward substantial economic, environmental, and social benefits fostered by sustainable economic practices is a necessity. Whatever their political leaning might be, all governments understand by now that the planet is an economic partner who deserves the same fair treatment as any other (only Republican thugs in the U.S. don’t). Respecting your partner makes economic sense. Delegates sent to the Academy of the Future would just need to figure out how to do this best.
Rather than the legitimacy of the institution or its efficiency, the main concern is its transparency and accountability. How can we trust that the game of thrones governments have always played toward one another would not occur inside the Academy of the Future?
There again, we have to go back to its primary purpose, which is to ensure that scientifically established facts are acknowledged and have authority in the political decision process. Politicians, obviously, cannot operate under such stringent conditions for very long. Next to them, scientists must consequently share political power as well. But not just them. Collusions and conflicts of interest are always possible. A third party is needed, which is civil society itself. Being the direct expression of the voice of the people, NGOs would naturally play this role, serving as a force of proposal as well as a blocking minority if proposed policies seem too weak or ill-intended. Beyond this, they would also be indispensable to ensure that professional standards always come before politicians’ preferences in the nomination of scientific members inside the institution. Lastly, to avoid NGOs becoming themselves the vehicles of different lobbies they would shift every few years. Their nomination would be left each time to a panel of randomly chosen citizens in each country, so that the equity of the process is guaranteed. As for the overall balance of power between scientists, politicians, and NGOs, the optimal solution seems to divide voting rights into 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 necessity and the natural evolution of democratic governance. Not to replace nation-states but to complement them. It could even be argued that such an institution is inherently more democratic than the forms of representative governments elaborated in the eighteenth century. All purely political representative systems tend to create a political cast due to the gravity pull of the power endowed to those in charge. In the Academy of the Future, by contrast, 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 nationally elected representatives. Since the Academy of the Future is in the practical impossibility to substitute political power games to the genuine concern for the common good, it is an unequivocal expression of democracy for the 21st century.
An institution such as the Academy of the Future would coordinate synergies internationally, but policies to tackle climate change will always be finalized and enforced nationally. What adaptions would be required for each country to implement sustainability as their policies’ backbone?
In its traditional role upstream and downstream from the Parliament, the Senate would have to elaborate the main law projects to fulfill the Academy of the Future guidelines. It would also 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, ordinary citizens would randomly be chosen as senators on initial NGOs’ list proposals for the same duration in office as their elected peers. This would be to keep nature at the top of the political agenda and avoid the classical bi-partisan drift professional politicians love to play at.
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 from erring, seduced by personal ideologies, or by the enthralling tune of donors’ money.
As for the executive branch of government, it would have to consider the transversal nature of environmental issues. Before its implementation, each policy would explicitly integrate its potential positive or negative impact on nature. Officials in charge would have to provide all relevant data whenever asked. No political campaign for the supreme elective office would be allowed without providing a thorough body of literature dedicated to long-term environmental challenges.
For those of us who believe in the values of democracy, structural reforms allowing both people and science to duly weigh upon political decisions are 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. Granted, such reforms and the Academy of the Future itself look like a distant dream from where we stand now. But where does the principle of power lies? If it is indeed in the people, it’s up to the people to reach out for what they need and want. Nothing has ever happened otherwise. First responders—activists—have to ask for the proper treatment—stable political institutions geared toward sustainability.
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c/ Change(s) of consciousness
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 for them, 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 a chosen public destiny, democracy itself is their nightmare.
Any structural reform to hasten the transition away from money power and toward people power will hardly take shape without a heartfelt recognition of the constructive and positive outcomes at stake. Even though democratic reforms are a practical necessity to tackle down climate change, putting them in place requires a peaceful and positive form of energy born from the heartfelt vision of something new and different. Going back once more to the example of a heart attack, the third step beyond the emergency response and the 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. Since it 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, a change of consciousness has to take place.
We made this planet which is not only ours sick. 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. We never really questioned our ways, behaving as if indefinitely striving for more was individually as well as collectively meaningful. Trapped in the immediacy of material gains, we lost touch with ourselves; namely with the importance of our relationship with others and nature. However confusedly, we nevertheless recognize that knowing, respecting, and honoring nature may provide the foundations we need to rekindle with the world around us. What are the old ways of thinking that drove this world to the brink of an irreversible environmental catastrophe? By which healthy principles should they be replaced? How does this all relate to democracy?
The view about our natural environment has been conditioned by a conventional and incomplete one about science since the dawn of the modern era. If the scientific method pioneered by Copernic (1473-1543) and Galileo (1564-1642) has fostered constant progress in understanding physical phenomena, the respective understanding of the inner limits of its mechanical 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 Darwin’s theory of evolution, these principles have then been formalized in today’s General System Theory.10 Far from being the brainchild 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. This is true, for instance, with the study of ecosystems, computer networks, weather patterns, the spread of diseases, or economics.
Early modern philosophers Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and René Descartes (1596-1650) imagined that humanity could enjoy a total mastery of nature by achieving a thorough understanding of its mechanisms. Science was supposed to operate on a single line back and forth from complex elements to their simple parts. In their demiurgic dream, they were confusing truth and validity. Knowledge is built and the many ways to build it depend on its respective fields of study. And in all cases the distance between the observer and what she observes only stands from within the specific methodology she must use. Fundamentally, both the observer and the observed belong to the same whirl of interdependent processes that makes the world. It follows that, contrary to Descartes’ confident assertion that man is to become “maître et possesseur de la nature” (master and possessor of nature), our vocation is to be aware and knowledgeable about being part of nature itself. Understanding the relativity of science provides two benefits: making science more certain and having humankind fall from its mental pedestal.
What has been the influence of these early modern philosophers and their posterity over our relationship with nature? Looking at the latter from the height of its intellectual constructs, Western culture has been accustomed to arrogating the mind (without positively knowing what that is) to humankind exclusively, thus seeing nature as mindless and, therefore, not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The assumption has been that the world divides itself into two distinct realms: one endowed with consciousness, as attested by the use of articulate language, and the other being a mere aggregation of material parts. Quite logically, this absolute and abstract separation between mind and matter has had the living world falling in the gap. Unfortunately, as anthropologist Gregory Bateson once put it: “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.”11
By which healthy principles should this old pattern of thinking be replaced? Once the scientific approach’s inner limits are clarified, this is not so much an intellectual quest that must be engaged rather than the direct realization that there is not the environment and us. We are the environment. We breathe nature and evolve co-dependently with it, both physically and spiritually. We need this broader sense of identity to reconnect with our true selves. 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. 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.
Evolving this way, moreover, saves from 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 concerning 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.”12
This intimate recognition of a broader 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 expressed the ideals to which communities aspire, thus tending to entrench a society’s fundamental idea of itself and how the world works. Today, laws and contracts overwhelmingly protect the property rights of individuals, corporations, and other legal entities. Considered as an object and not as a 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; at a closer look, it does not.
The notion that nature has rights does not relate to any particular claim on her 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 property rights’ perpetual encroachment on the natural world. The purpose is not to deny anyone anything but to formalize the terms upon which we can honor our existential debts toward nature and do it for all parties’ present and future benefit.
The case of Sierra Club v. Morton in 1972 was the first legal illustration in the U.S. 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.
Still to this day, unfortunately, most courts of justice in the U.S. and the world have not recognized that nature might have directly enforceable rights. Reflecting on this, one must 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.”13
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 be common consent about nature’s rights without entering into the technicalities of a legal framework? Most corporations would likely adopt this view to keep “greenwashing” their acts with little to no accountability. 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. 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 elders’ wisdom and the community, nature has its chance. The practical interests of the individual systematically enter 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 to nature itself its proper legal standing.
How and where has the legal status of nature been 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.”14 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.15
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 corporations’ claimed “rights” to cause harm for profit. The respective changes of consciousness regarding the rational and legal landmarks of our relationship with nature open to a third one about property rights and, ultimately, power itself.
As a force, power necessarily results in domination over what it is opposing. In human affairs, this domination translates into a complementary quest for protection, notably through the right of ownership. Protecting oneself this way is undoubtedly useful, but it does not say anything about the true benefit of human interactions. Looking at society through the lens of trade and rights of ownership, as it has almost exclusively been the case since the creation of the modern corporation in the 17th century, only puts people under the domination of whoever has more leverage.
Since respecting property is the crucial tenet explicitly or implicitly referred to by all modern states in the “pursuit of happiness,” it is easy to lure oneself into equating property rights to human rights. But the administration of justice differs from the mere administration of property rights. Property is a right by convention only, specifically 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.”16
People’s movements have always succeeded in bringing change into society by directly addressing the underlying governance frame. Abolitionists in the U.S., for example, were not fighting for a slave protection agency but a change in the Constitution. However insulting the thought of a slave protection agency may seem in hindsight, this is exactly where we are regarding climate change and the environment. In Tom Linzey’s words, there needs to be “a shift from regulating the activity to defining the actor.” Abolitionists did not miss this point. 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 happens to go 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 underlying governance frame in the U.S. is that property right is absolute, regardless of the actor and regardless of ethical and moral consequences. This is only possible because property right is wielded in the abstract, equating corporate legal entities to real people. Although people cannot be considered property anymore, corporations will be de facto the people’s masters as long as there is a lack of political will to define who is who and what a right is grounded on.
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 essential social services, or witness the web of life on Earth thinning at an alarming rate. The other mode of reading the Constitution is to refer to the “people” and the subsequent values attached to the respect of humanity. The debate over which has precedence between people’s rights and property rights as the founding principle of a stable society is not new. Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law, already made the case for the latter during the English civil war of the 1640s. As citizens, it is our responsibility to remember what we put our faith in—property or humanity.
It is not just a matter of faith. We, the people, have much more power than we think. We usually do not see things that way because we refer to the wrong type of power. Control and domination are power over. The other type, 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 power lie in opening itself to the charge and letting the signals through. Only then can the larger system — the neural net — learn to respond and think.”17
Democracy is this neural net. You do not want to hamper its flow of information, vital 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 hears a regular litany of high-level cover-ups, scientific findings quashed, 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, democracy is in grave danger in the neoliberal era and the survival of humanity with it.
What prospect of success do we have of turning things around? In his book, Blessed Unrest,18 Paul Hawken compares organizations’ proliferation in our time to how the immune system functions. As the biological immune system learns to recognize self and non-self, what sustains the body’s life 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. Neither of these systems depends on fire-power and brute force. Their resiliency is obtained through diversity, which depends on the quality of their connectedness. This is the power of synergy, and it is far greater than any dominion money can build for itself.
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 is totally at odds with what people’s power truly is. Not one particular person or group possesses all the courage, strength, insight, and endurance required to operate the transition toward a sustainable future. On the other hand, the same way parts of a living whole self-organize and let new capacities emerge that could not have been predicted, we can all build upon each other’s contribution and bring new answers and possibilities into play.
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Except for short-term financial interests, ignoring the conditions necessary for a sustainable economic system makes no sense. These conditions are nevertheless largely ignored by most governments, unwilling that they are to radically change the structure of economic incentives set in the seventeenth century, at the dawn of modern capitalism. Profit-making is assumed to summarize what the economy is about; as a consequence, sustainability is a non-issue. Democracy appears to be the answer to climate change because it questions the power of money.
Today, the democratic ideal faces an intellectual scam promoting the idea that a just and happy world ultimately depends on how much cash is flowing in it. This idea conveniently ignores that money attracts money and might overwhelmingly flow in one direction, following carefully established circuits. As importantly, all quests for meaning, the notion of mutual human enrichment, or the idea that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere are relegated to the background as foreign and potentially damaging to economic efficiency.
All that the neo-liberal scam has for itself is a competitive and regressive notion of freedom, based on the gratuitous claim that there is no such thing as a society but only individuals and their families. Except for a few lunatics, it would nevertheless be hard to deny that, as humans, we inherently are social beings and build our destinies both individually and collectively. Through open-minded confrontations with others, for its part, democracy is meant to provide the conditions to thrive as a society. At the time of climate change’s existential threat, then, which would you choose? The neo-liberal intellectual void postulating that there is no duty toward others aside from wishing them good luck; or taking charge of ourselves as people?
But democracy is not the answer to climate change by opposing the power of money in principle only. Democracy is practical because it cannot exist otherwise; it has always had to reinvent itself to bear the fruits of freedom and justice. And, in this day and age, the time seems ripe for civil society to take part in the political decision process directly. Beyond representative democracy—not against it—citizens’ assemblies, a constitutional clause about humanity’s right to existence, and the Academy of the Future with its subsequent reforms in national political institutions are all necessary aspects of shutting down political games and corporate lobbies’ influence.
Finally, democracy is the answer to climate change by promoting a constructive view of politics. The respect of others at the core of the democratic ideal is, first and foremost, power with, as opposed to the power over we usually refer to spontaneously. Nature entirely relies on the former—and so can we. The delusion of having power over other beings, be they people or nature at large, rests on the idea of a definite separation between us and those we look down upon. Our gains can only be short-lived in that perspective, and our losses can prove to be huge. Bringing resilience and creativity, power with, on the contrary, sets us free to individually and collectively enrich ourselves. At long last, incidentally, the interdependence between humanity’s rights and nature’s rights can be acknowledged.
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An affiliate link may be used for some of the books referenced in the footnotes. This is at no extra cost to you and with free delivery worldwide.
- 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)
- Rahm Emmanuel. See The Limits of Rahmism, New York Times, 03/14/2010.
- 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)
- $5.9 trillion (with a T) of global subsidies in 2020. That is 6.8% of global GDP, expected to rise to 7.4% by 2025 as the share of fossil fuel consumption in emerging markets continues to climb. Costs are as follows: local air pollution (42%); global warming (29%); other local factors (15%); consumption tax (6%); explicit subsidies (8%). See the International Monetary Fund’s working paper titled Still Not Getting Energy Prices Right: A Global and Country Update of Fossil Fuel Subsidies, by Ian Parry ; Simon Black ; Nate Vernon, September 24, 2021.
- Interview by Douglas Keay for Woman’s Own magazine, September 23, 1987
- Roger Hallam, Common Sense for the 21st Century. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2019.
- How 99 strangers in a Dublin hotel broke Ireland’s abortion deadlock The Guardian, March 8 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. In the same vein of practical implementation, see the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill presented in the U.K. Parliament in September 2020 by Caroline Lucas M.P. and supporting M.P.s from seven political parties.
- 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.
- 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