9 Arguments for Democracy

Demonstration for "System Change not Climate Change"

Global warming has made many environmentalists believe that democracy is too slow and complicated to solve the climate crisis. Some argue that what we need is wartime mobilization and a strong global leadership with excessive powers. This belief is deeply flawed and dangerous. The climate crisis needs to be solved by more, and not less, democracy.

1. The climate crisis is 
of a systemic nature

The ecological crisis we find ourselves in is not the result of ill judgment or ignorance, neither on part of “world leaders” nor on part of the majority of the world’s population. It is a crisis of a systemic nature, stemming from the very way our economy works. It is the capitalist economic system, that is based on relentless expansion and growth, which is devouring the world’s natural resources.

The main aim of any capitalist enterprise is to increase the profits of its owners, and if it cannot expand and grow it will be eaten up by others in the marketplace. Therefore, in the capitalist economic system, environmental or human considerations are seen as obstacles to the accumulation of wealth.

It is capitalism in a specific form, where the relentless economic growth has been combined with the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas as the main source of energy, that is the force behind global warming.

It might seem as if it is the average citizen, you and I, who are the main problem. Who else are driving polluting cars, buying plastic toys or eating food grown on the other side of the planet? But we ourselves are part of this economic system, and constantly assaulted by an immense commercial industry trying to make us into mindless consumers. Unless we change the basis of the way we produce and consume things, we will never be able to do anything about the harmful consumerism we are all caught up in.

2. Capitalism is the very
 opposite of democracy

This economic system is the very opposite of democracy. The most fundamental feature of capitalism is the concentration of human and natural resources in the hands of the few (giant corporations, financiers, and all owners of capital) and not in the hands of ordinary people. The only democracy existing in the marketplace is the democracy of those who possess the most amount of money.

Poor land workers, farmers and urban slum dwellers in the southern hemisphere, by far the most powerless in this economic system, are the same ones who are worst hit by the climate change already occurring, and will be with the changes to come.

It is through this concentration of wealth and power that the capitalist economic system is able to persist. Ignorance, for example, is not the reason why gas, oil and coal companies continue their business as usual. It is because it is in their interest to do so, and because they have the power to do it. This is a fact that basically everyone knows.

Hence, the absence of democracy lies at the heart of our ecological crisis, and neither human nor environmental considerations will be easily taken into account as long as this concentration of economic power persists.

3. “Our” global leaders 
are part of the problem

Limiting this blind economic expansionism has shown to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Despite the rising awareness of the consequences of CO2 emissions in the past decades, most industrialized countries have not even been able to bring down their annual rate of increase in CO2 emissions. As more industrial production is moving to developing countries, the de facto amount of global warming pollution by rich countries is far higher than often shown in official statistics.

Instead of taking radical measures to seriously reduce greenhouse gas emissions, government leaders tend to prioritize the competitiveness of their countries before the health of our environment. This does not happen because we live in an age of stupidity, but rather because “our” global leaders are caught up in a stupid system. A system in which every country’s economy continuously has to grow or face the grim repercussions of falling behind in the international competition: Unemployment, growing poverty, capital flight and lack of foreign investments. Nor is the absence of action a result of a lack of necessary courage and stamina among government leaders. It is because the whole political system is entangled in the web of capital.

In fact, the recurring appeals by environmental movements to national and international leaders to step up and rescue us from ecological disaster, is undermining our ability to do something about the situation. First of all, it enforces the feeling that we, the so-called “silent majority,” are passive bystanders who need to be saved by a strong leader – not that we, in fact, should take steps to govern our own leaders. Secondly, it diverts our attention from the systemic causes of our crisis, and makes us believe that as long as our leaders have the right knowledge and attitudes they will be willing to take the necessary steps to green our societies.

4. Decentralized solutions 
are efficient

For “our” world leaders, the hope for a better future lies in large-scale, centralized energy plantations based on renewable resources such as gigantic solar arrays in the Southern US or Northern Africa, or wind mill parks in the North sea or North Dakota.

But a recent study by the Institute for Local Self Reliance shows that this is not the best solution. The study estimates that half of the US states could be energy self-sufficient by harnessing renewable energy within their borders, whereas all states could satisfy a considerable fraction of their energy needs in the same fashion. In addition, it reveals that using local renewable resources is even more cost-effective than large-scale, centralized installations!

Similarly, energy is more efficiently used when it is produced close to where it is consumed. It is now a conventional truth that massive amounts of energy is lost when transferred over long distances, and the potential for energy efficiency is enormous as long as it utilized locally.

A major problem with large scale centralized solutions is that they retain a vision of a high energy society, in which living, transportation and industrial production continues in pretty much the same fashion as today. That means the continuation of a highly wasteful and ecologically harmful society. There is nothing inherently wrong with large-scale renewable energy plantations, and the truth is probably that we need a diversity of energy sources in the years to come. But we have to maintain that decentralized energy is effective enough to supply a large slump of our energy needs in an advanced industrial society, and that it is necessary to achieve an ecological and democratic society.

5. Ecological solutions 
demand democracy

The changes in direction towards an ecological society will have to take place at the local and regional level; in communities, neighborhoods, municipalities, counties and so on. No national government agency or multinational corporation can initiate or carry out the immensely diverse and carefully tailored solutions which are necessary to achieve sustainability. Solutions like domestic or industrial recycling, construction of small-scale energy plants based on renewable energy, reshaping transportation patterns or growing suburban foods requires an active citizenry with intricate knowledge of the potentials and needs of their own localities – not government or company executives with standardized views on how people act or how they want them to be.

In short, it demands democracy.

There exists a widespread belief among social scientists that bureaucracy and top-down strategies—whether private or public—are highly incapable of accomplishing any positive change in society,  because of their rigid models and the resistance people put up when being commanded from above. Participatory and bottom-up strategies on the other hand, are much more effective in evoking people’s knowledge and their sense of commitment to social change. As David Morris has put it, people who put up their own rooftop solar panels will most likely be more aware of ecological issues and therefore more interested in making other changes in their own lives and communities.

For environmentalists a few decades ago, our system of national and international government was an intrinsic part of the problem and they believed that the solution had to come through the grassroots mobilization of ordinary citizens at the local as well as the international level. We must not be stupid enough to ignore the fact that most major advancements in environmental (as well as social) legislation, has been the result of grassroots pressure, and not from initiatives from the political class. We have every reason to believe that change will continue to come from below.

6. The climate crisis
is a social crisis

Some argue that things like participation, distribution of wealth or liberation are secondary concerns in the face of the epic transformation of our natural environment caused by global warming. They forget, however, that aside from being a natural crisis, the climate crisis is also a social crisis. Global warming strengthens the inequalities in between people by worsening the consequences of class divisions, gender oppression and marginalization.

It is the world’s poorest farmers, land-workers and urban slum dwellers who will face the worst effect of global warming. The rich will always be able to pay their way out of this crisis, something that is well illustrated by the current swine flue pandemic. Whereas people in groups at high risk from the H1N1 virus in poorer countries are unprotected from the pandemic, rich countries have been able to hover up stocks of vaccines from the pharmaceutical companies.

As diseases will spread more rapidly as a result of warmer climates, this is a scenario that will recur again and again until something is done about this social crisis. This crisis comes precisely from the absence of democracy: The total powerlessness caused by dispossession, domination and exploitation of the poor by the rich.

7. Democracy means 
global equality

The dreadful scenes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina are an all too familiar site in countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines or Bangladesh. But the dreadfulness of those scenes is further strengthened by the absurdity that those who are worst hit by the climate crisis are the ones who are least responsible for global warming. Not only are they left out of the material abundance of the capitalist economic system, but they also have to carry its heaviest burdens. This is the essential message of the climate justice movement: Those who are responsible for global warming also bear the responsibility to stop polluting and carry the costs of climate change.

What is happening today is the exact opposite. Those who are responsible for global warming are doing an absolute minimum to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and do nothing to mitigate its consequences. Change will not happen until the poor and exploited of the world regain control of their lives, and the forces affecting them. Solving the climate crisis means a concerted effort between people of the northern and southern hemispheres, to achieve a global equality where power is equally shared. In short, solving the climate crisis demands global democracy.

8. We need popular control 
of economic resources

For the majority of the world’s population “democracy” is a joke. Even with free elections the governments of their countries are under the sway of capital, and their representatives are totally out of popular control. This is true in both the South and the North. The rulers of this world are the ones who command through money. Surely enough, the havoc of capital can be eased by popular pressure and government intervention, but this does not change the essential power structure of our society.

Economic power, therefore, has to be radically dissipated in order to do something fundamental about the roots of our crisis. The relentless growth of the capitalist economy will not stop until reason and environmental and human concerns come to the fore when it is decided what and how to produce things. This implies popular control of the economic resources, where people directly participate in making these decisions and putting them into practice, and it implies a confederal system of municipal democracy where power is flowing from the bottom-up. If the absence of democracy lies at the heart of our crisis, the presence of real democracy—the rule by the people in all important affairs—will have to lie at the heart of its solution.

9. We are not on a sinking ship!

Metaphors can be insidious, especially if they are used in the wrong way. Several environmentalists are using metaphors, such as being on a sinking ship or in a burning house, to justify their demands at the global leaders to rescue us from an imminent catastrophe. If we were on a sinking ship there would of course be no time for deliberation among the passengers on what would be the best course of action. We would rather need a captain with experience and knowledge of the boat, who would order us around to achieve the fastest possible evacuation.

The problem is not a sinking ship, and we do not have the choice of evacuation. A far better metaphor is that we are stuck in a very large building. We are gathered in groups around scattered bonfires. In the inner circle the group members who control the fire are sitting, and they continue to throw logs onto the flames. The smoke from the bonfires is slowly choking everyone in the building, and there is no room for escape. On the one hand we have to put out the flames to avoid being choked, and on the other hand we have to find new ways of keeping ourselves warm and full and having the light to socialize with each other.

There is no captain or master janitor to save us in this situation – no single person who knows all the rooms or the floors of the building. We ourselves have to cooperate with each other to stop the ones in the inner circle from keeping the fire alive, and we have to look around to invent new ways of creating heat and light without contaminating the air we are breathing. Otherwise we will have to face the grim consequences of our own inaction.


— Published in Communalism #1 (December 2009)