Politics Worthy of the Name

Genuine politics—politics worthy of the name ... is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community, and serving those who will come after us.

—Vaclav Havel

Relative to the problems we face, our politics are about the most miserable that can be imagined. Those who purport to represent us and who on rare occasions try to lead us have been unable to take even the smallest steps to promote energy efficiency to avoid possibly catastrophic climatic change a few decades from now. They have failed to stop the hemorrhaging of life and protect biological diversity, soils, and forests. They ignore problems of urban decay, suburban sprawl, the poisoning of our children by persistent toxins, the destruction of rural communities, and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. They cannot find the wherewithal to defend the public interest in matters of global trade or even in the financing of public elec tions. Indeed, the more potentially catastrophic the issue, the less likely it is to receive serious and sustained attention from political leaders at any level.

Our public priorities, in other words, are upside down. Issues that will seem trivial or even nonsensical to our progeny are given great attention, while problems crucial to their well-being are ignored and allowed to grow into global catastrophes. At best they will regard us with pity, at worst as derelict and perhaps criminally so. The situation was not always this way. The leadership of this country was once capable of responding to threats to our security and health with alacrity and sometimes with intelligence.

In light of the dismal performance of the U.S. political system relative to the large environmental and social issues looming ahead, we have, broadly speaking, three possible courses of action (assuming that we choose to act). The first is to turn the management of our environmental affairs over to a kind of permanent technocracy—a priesthood of global managers. The idea that experts ought to manage public affairs is at least as old as Plato. In its current incarnation, some propose to turn the management of the earth over to a group of global experts. Stripped to its essentials, this means smarter exploitation of nature culminating in the global administration of the planet with lots of satellites, remote sensing, and geographic information systems experts mapping one thing or another. The goal of smarter ecological management is to keep the extractive economy going a bit longer by merely improving our management instead of rethinking our aims (Sachs 1999). Technocrats will manage the environment efficiently without much public participation or discussion of goals. If history is any indication, they will ride roughshod over communities, indigenous people, native cultures, farmers, and small landowners. Planet managers will hold expensive conferences in exotic places, issue glossy and reassuring reports, and ingratiate themselves with the rich and powerful. In the end, however, they will fail because the knowledge, foresight, and wisdom necessary for planetary management are beyond human grasp and because people everywhere will reject imperialism in its new guise of planetary management.

A second possibility is to admit that all politics is really about economics anyway and turn things over to business corporations and the market. Given the scale of our problems, the need for quick action, and the difficulties of reforming democracy, there is much to be said for turning matters over to people who know how to get things done. But capitalism, whatever its other qualities, is not famous for protecting environments or serving the public interest. Could it be reformed along ecological lines? Some believe so. Factories would be made over into industrial ecologies in which every waste product would be used somewhere else. Businesses would sell "products of service," not just consumer goods, that are forever turned back into new product. They would sell green and energy-efficient products. Taxes would be levied on things we do not want such as pollution and removed from those that we do want such as income and profits. Above all, an ecologically solvent capitalism would account for its environmental and social costs.

An ecologically reformed capitalism would be a great improvement on the present system. As a strategy of change it is logical because capitalism is virtually everywhere ascendant and governments everywhere seem to be in retreat. Business, in short, is where the action is. Operating along the model of ecosystems, businesses presumably would not require close regulation. The role of government, therefore, would be minimal and the need for a democratically informed citizenry would diminish accordingly. Best of all, relying on business to lead the transformation would require little of the public. Instead, the logic of enlightened economic self-interest would drive us toward a sustainable relationship with nature. But why would capitalism, a system based on ruthless pursuit of short-term self-interest, yield to such changes? If it were only a matter of logic, a decent concern for our grandchildren, or even enlightened self-interest, we could be optimistic, but alas, the issue is not so simple.

First, there is the question of whether it is possible to redesign capitalism to accord with ecological realities. The problem is simply that "the self-organizing principles of markets that have emerged in human cultures over the past 10,000 years are inherently in conflict with the self-organizing principles of ecosystems that have evolved over the past 3.5 billion years" (Gowdy and McDaniel 1995, 181). Markets are inappropriate tools to solve many problems of ecological scarcity. For example, blue-fin tuna have been fished almost to extinction. But the logic of the unrestrained market will not reduce the take but, rather, will work to ensure that the last blue-fin tuna, selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, will be caught and sold and the money invested elsewhere. The owners of capital do not care whether they make money in fisheries or condominiums. The logic of exploitation is relentless, predisposing the system to tragic ends with many luxury goods but few fish.

The problem, in other words, is not that capitalists lack the right information about the full ecological costs of what they do, but rather that capitalism and ecological management are two fundamentally different value systems that aim at different things. Markets, driven by the logic of self-interest, are intended to maximize profits and minimize costs for the owners of capital in the short term. Ecosystems, in contrast, operate by the laws of thermodynamics and processes of evolution and ecology that are played out over the long term.

Second, the possibility that increasingly powerful and predatory corporations will reform themselves is remote while countervailing forces, governments, an active citizenry, and labor unions are in decline. The political arrangements of the New Deal that tamed some of the worst excesses of U.S. capitalism for a time have come undone. Now a global capitalism in the age of free trade is more powerful and less restrained than ever. The result is a kind of robber baron phase of global economic history with no remedy in sight (Soros 1997). Corporations now operating in a free-trade environment have fewer constraints than ever before. The problem is compounded by the several trillion dollars that wash around the planet each day in search of the highest rates of return. The results of footloose capital and unrestrained corporate power are all too clear: too many dams, too many cars, too many shopping malls, too many mines, too many factories, and toothless environmental controls.

Third, the discipline of economics that explains, informs, and justifies capitalism and educates capitalists has so far successfully resisted accommodation with ecology and thermodynamics. The profession has proven to be largely impervious to the devastating critiques of maverick economists such as Kenneth Boulding, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Herman Daly, Robert Constanza, John Gowdy, and Hazel Henderson. Logic, data, and evidence, notwithstanding, mainstream economists hold with remarkable tenacity to beliefs that technology can substitute for the loss of natural capital, economies can grow without limits, and human desires are insatiable. Both the profession of economics and its practice as capitalism are perpetuated as belief systems by denial, repression, alienation from life, addiction, and what theologian Thomas Berry (1999) calls a kind of ecological autism (see also Gladwin et al. 1997). The collective irrationality masquerading as realism or even science, in other words, is a manifestation of life-denying pathologies that are now deeply embedded in a professional caste.

Fourth, a reformed capitalism is still capitalism—a system that thrives only when people buy and buy more than they need. Even if they make "green" products and recycle all of their wastes, corporations, for reasons of scale and power, will act to undermine political participation, weaken the sense of community, and subvert democracy. Even a reformed capitalism would still be a system that works best when people confuse who they are with what they own. And it would still be a system that must move large volumes of stuff long distances as rapidly as possible. Capitalism, once a system largely contained within national borders, has evolved into a global system in which consumers cannot know the larger human and ecological costs of the system that provisions them and in which sellers cannot be held accountable for what they do.

Capitalism, in other words, is no more likely to transform itself into ecotopia than lions are to become vegetarians. We urgently need an economy that works ecologically, but the decision to reform capitalism or to invent some other kind of economy is a political, not an economic, choice. Issues having to do with the distribution of costs, benefits, risks, and wealth within and between generations are matters of fairness and decency, not efficiency. The scale of the economy relative to the environment is a political choice that can be made only by an ecologically literate public. Capitalism on its own is expansive and will ride roughshod over boundaries and limits of all kinds. If limits are imposed on the economy, they must be imposed politically by a citizenry that knows when enough is enough. Questions of what to tax and how to distribute public revenues wisely have to do with justice, fairness, accountability, and ecological prudence. These are political decisions. The economy, in other words, is a means, not an end.

The third possibility—and our only real choice—is to create a better kind of politics and political institutions better suited to ecological realities. The task would require rethinking the foundations of public life much as the founders of this republic did in the eighteenth century. To do so we would have to rethink basic questions of political life as they did, but in recognition of ecological facts which they did not know. The challenge before us is a design problem: how to build a decent civilization that fits harmoniously into the ecology of North America over the long term.

We are not accustomed to thinking of the effects of political decisions in the long term, let alone as a problem of ecological design. In fact, we've come to think of politics as mostly having to do with jobs and economic growth in the short term. All of the ideologies of the twentieth century—capitalism, communism, socialism, and fascism —are essentially competing views about how to organize industrial society. For all of the wars and ideological huffing and puffing, the differences between them in historical perspective are quibbles having to do with who owned and managed capital. Otherwise agreement prevailed that humans ought to dominate nature, technology should be unfettered, that we should burn fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, and that economic growth is the supreme value. Politics was reduced to questions having to do with the ownership of the means of production and how to distribute the profits. Political views, accordingly, arrayed themselves along a single axis of left to right denoting the extent to which one favored public or private control of capital. But we have entered a new political era in which the Left/Right dichotomy no longer works, not because questions of ownership are unimportant but because other issues have surged to the forefront.

These issues were there all along, of course. In The Great Frontier, historian Walter Prescott Webb described the great increase in per capita wealth generated by the discovery of the New World. The ratios of people to land and resources were fundamentally transformed until the middle of the twentieth century, when they once again approximated those of the year 1500. The rapid exploitation of fossil fuels has allowed us to continue the expansion for a while longer, but the end of the human efflorescence has come into view. "The modern age," Webb wrote, "was an abnormal age. . . . The institutions developed in this exceptional period are exceptional institutions" (1964, 14). At the end of the boom those institutions "and their attendant ideas about human beings, government, and economics ... may be expected to undergo much change when those conditions have passed away and history returns to normal" (ibid.).

James Madison had a premonition that we would come to such a time. Richard Matthews says of Madison: "A Malthusian before Malthus, he constructed a political system that would postpone the inevitable decay for as long as reason would allow" (1994, 244).

The inevitable for Madison would be caused by a surplus of consumers created by population growth and technological development. The Louisiana Purchase and continental expansion would buy some time but would not resolve the underlying political problems of eventual scarcity. Good Calvinist that he was, Madison sought only to delay what he regarded as inevitable, but he could see no way out (1994,210).

The Great Frontier is now spent; we live on a full planet. There will be attempts to extend the boom a while longer by heroic technology such as genetic engineering. When they fail, we will have to rethink the foundations of political life, retracing the steps of Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and the other architects of modern politics but under much less favorable conditions and without the safety valve provided by the frontier. The end of the Great Frontier means, in short, that we can no longer avoid basic political issues of fair distribution of wealth within and between generations by expanding production to keep the poor content. Discarding old truisms about rising tides lifting all boats and larger pies, we will be forced to reconsider politics and economics relative to the limits of the biosphere and in relation to the way the world works as a physical system.

In this light, societies have only four choices about how they provision themselves with food, energy, materials, and water, and how they dispose of their wastes. The choices have to do with

• how far the things used or consumed are transported

• the rate at which materials are used up and discarded

• the volume of materials used

• the sources of energy that power the entire system.

Until the industrial revolution, all societies met their basic needs locally or regionally. The rate and volume of resource use was low, and populations grew slowly if at all. Energy was derived from contemporary sunlight in its various forms of biomass, wind, and water power.

In contrast, we are supplied by a global network of forests, farms, mines, wells, and factories powered by the combustion of large amounts of fossil fuels. Population growth is high. We measure our success in terms of the gross national product, which is roughly the speed and volume with which materials flow through the economic pipeline from mines, wells, forests, and farms to dumps, smokestacks, and outfall pipes. In the language of physics, this is the rate at which we convert ordered matter or low entropy into waste and heat or high entropy. To keep this system going we provide easy and underpriced access to resources and lucrative tax and financial incentives to extractive industries and subsidize timber cutting, road building, automobiles, energy generation, and land sprawl (Myers 1998). And to keep demand growing, corporations spend perhaps as much as $500 billion each year on advertising (United Nations 1998, 7). Environmental protection is an add-on in the form of pollution control at the end of the entropic pipeline and comes too late in the process to be effective.

The large-scale systems and global organizations established to provide us with an abundance of cheap food, fossil energy, materials, and water and dispose of our wastes were created on assumptions that nature was inexhaustible and that human actions counted for little given the immense bounty of nature. At a scale far greater than their creators could have imagined, those systems have nearly ruined us. They have degraded our landscapes and ecosystems, spread toxins worldwide, weakened community ties, undermined our democracy, and reduced our capacity to take responsibility for what we do because we cannot know what we are doing or undoing. These are not side effects or accidents but predictable results of the way we have organized the flow of food, materials, energy, and water.

We take great pride, for example, in being the best, and most cheaply, fed people in history. But we are fed by a ruinous fossil fuel-powered industrial system that contributes to climatic change, water pollution, biotic impoverishment, depletion of groundwater, and soil loss. It exploits labor and rural communities and undermines future productivity of the land. The system encourages obesity, cancer, and heart disease—all signs of a national eating disorder. Given its scale and complexity, it cannot work responsibly, nor can consumers, ignorant of how it works, know enough to eat responsibly. The system dominated by large agribusiness firms, petrochemical companies, and seed companies undermines democracy. In fact, it works only to the extent that real democracy does not work and people do not know these things or do not see them as part of a larger pattern or fail to see opportunities to create a better food system.

These problems are not isolated events or accidents in an otherwise good system. They are, rather, the logical results of a bad system that just grew without anyone thinking much about how it fit (or did not fit) into the patterns set by ecology, evolution, thermodynamics, community, or democracy. If we want a better politics, we must first design better ways to meet our essential needs and remove the sources of tyranny from our lives. To do so we must take greater responsibility for how we are fed and supplied, replacing the elaborately destructive systems that provision us with better ones that rely on local resources and local competence. We cannot make democracy work unless we can make it work with, not against, the ecology of the particular places in which we live. By whatever name, the alternatives to large-scale, corporate control of our lives and politics require that people, neighborhoods, and communities assume a larger responsibility for meeting their own needs. The roots go back to Thomas Jefferson. The enemy in his time and ours is what he termed "remote tyranny." For Jefferson that meant the king and Parliament living an ocean away. In our time remote tyranny means both geographically remote and remote in time—in other words, any source of unaccountable power, corporate, governmental, or societal.

There is no way to hold a global economy accountable. Consequently, people and local communities are defenseless, without any good way to redress grievances or protect themselves from crises elsewhere. In a global system, a crisis anywhere becomes a crisis everywhere. There is no buffer, no margin, and no recourse when things go bust. It is now possible to see that Jefferson, for all of his ambiguities, was the great realist and Alexander Hamilton the dreamer. Jefferson knew what Hamilton and his followers did not know: that the health of democracy and that of the economy can be maintained only if citizens control the basic circumstances of their lives and livelihood. Jefferson's alternative plan stressed local independence, agrarianism, public accountability, widespread land ownership, and democratic participation. Hamilton's vision prevailed, at least for a time, but Jefferson's retains a hold on the human imagination virtually everywhere. Vaclav Havel, for example, describes a Jeffersonian vision for the Czech Republic in these words:

Every main street will have at least two bakeries, two sweetshops, two pubs, and many other small shops, all privately owned and independent. . . . Small communities will naturally begin to form again, communities centred on the street, the apartment block, or the neighbourhood. People will once more begin to experience the phenomenon of home. It will no longer be possible, as it has been, for people not to know what town they find themselves in because everything looks the same. . . . Our villages will once again have become villages____Agriculture should once again be in the hands of the farmers—people who own the land, the meadows, the orchards, and the livestock, and take care of them. In part, these will be small farmers who have been given back what was taken from them A pluralistic network of processing and marketing cooperatives, to which farmers belong, will exist. (Havel 1992, 104, 110-112)

I would tend to favor an economic system based on maximum possible plurality of many decentralized, structurally varied, and preferably small enterprises that respect the specific nature of different localities and different traditions and that resist the pressures of uniformity by maintaining a plurality of modes of ownership and economic decision-making from private through various types of cooperative and shareholding ventures, collective ownerships. (Havel 1991, 16)

Jefferson's vision for this country was never really tried. Instead, it was dismissed in the national rush to expand to continental proportions and to become a world power. Even though it is dismissed as impractical, it is still trotted out for sentimental reasons from time to time. But knowing more about the ecological and human costs of Hamilton's vision of America, Jefferson's looks better and better with the passage of time. So, too, does his idea that no generation ought to impose debt on succeeding ones. In a famous letter to James Madison in 1789, Jefferson asked whether "one generation of men has a right to bind another." His answer was no based on the principle that "the earth belongs to the living and not to the dead." Jefferson concluded, "No generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of it's own existence" (1975, 244).1 Were he alive now,

1. Madison's initial response was not positive. He objected that some debt incurred for "improvements" or "repelling conquest" benefited posterity.

I think that Jefferson would agree that the dead could also encumber the living by leaving behind depleted soils, denuded landscapes, hazardous wastes, biotic impoverishment, and changing climate; debt could be both ecological and financial.

For us, Jefferson's political vision has two great advantages. First, his insistence that no generation encumber the future with debt is a principle that transcends the present impasse between liberals and conservatives and bears resemblance to the views of Edmund Burke described in chapter 11. Jefferson, a man of the Left, and Burke, the patron saint of modern conservatism, both agreed that decisions of the present must be measured against the degree to which they encumbered future generations. Both saw the possibility that tyranny might be remote in time as well as in space. Writing within a year of each other, the views of the founders of modern conservatism and modern radicalism converged on a similar point: the welfare of future generations. That standard cuts across the divisions between Left and Right that have stalled our national politics. It coincides with every major religion in the world, and it appeals to the heart as well as to practical reason.

The second great virtue of Jefferson's vision is that it coincides with what we have come to understand as the principles of resilient systems that can withstand outside disturbances. Principles derived from ecology, systems theory, engineering, mathematics, and the study of the evolution of living systems over 3.8 billion years bear a strong similarity to those Jefferson proposed for the new nation. The basic design principles for resilient systems of all kinds have common characteristics (Lovins and Lehmann 1977, Lovins and Lovins 1982), such as:

• small units dispersed in space

• redundancy

• short linkages between modules

• simplicity and repairability

• diversity of components

Eventually, however, Madison came to accept the idea of limiting the public debt for reasons similar to those originally proposed by Jefferson (Matthews 1995).

• self-reliance

• decentralized control

• large margins

Jefferson's nation of small farmers no longer exists, but the underlying principles are still valid. For his time Jefferson proposed the creation of a society capable of preserving democracy while withstanding the turmoil of a simpler agrarian world. In the twenty-first century, that same goal would aim to create resilient communities that provide a large fraction of their own food, energy, shelter, health, recreation, and financing in order to withstand global financial crises, volatile stock markets, the effects of capital mobility, corporate downsizing, terrorism, and interruption of resource supplies. More resilient communities would create more of their own jobs without importing footloose capital. They would control most of their own money. Ownership would be widespread (Gates 1998, Shuman 1998). They would grow a large fraction of their own food locally or regionally. They would utilize local and renewable energy to the maximum. The sophisticated modern mind atrophied by all of the nonsense about the global economy and the necessity for economic growth has dismissed these notions as nostalgia or worse. In fact, resilience and democracy both require a social order that features rich community life, neighborliness, competence, self-reliance, human scale, and ecological durability.

We need not expect help from those who fatten at the trough of the global economy. The reason is simple: money—specifically the $125 billion in welfare handed out by the federal government to corporations, the $300 billion in subsidies for highways and automobiles, and the $1.4 trillion in global subsidies for environmental destruction (Barlett and Steele 1998, Myers 1998). Until such time as we have the good sense to establish a complete and total separation between money and politics—like that between church and state—our national and state politics will be corrupt and ineffective. We must remove money from politics at all levels once and for all. Federal funding for national elections is a start. The next step is to rein in the power of corporations by insisting that they abide by the terms of their charters. The charters of those that cannot do business within the terms of the law should be revoked. A corporate version of "three strikes and you're out," for instance, would have a salutary effect on corporate behavior.

None of this, however, is likely to begin in Washington, D.C. It will have to begin in communities, towns, urban neighborhoods where consumers decide to become citizens and take control of their lives and livelihood. The effect would be a diminution of power of those who cultivate what Jefferson called dependence and venality. Local food production and cooperatives would begin to weaken the power of the giant food monopolies. Power systems distributed to rooftops and buildings would weaken the hold of giant utilities. Local currencies and local investments would weaken the hold of financial speculators and money brokers. Every alternative to the consumption of gasoline, from better designed communities to cars that run on solar hydrogen, would weaken the hold of the giant oil companies. Over years and decades the quiet withdrawal from large-scale systems reduces the prospect of ecological catastrophe, social injustice, and remote tyranny. A more resilient social order does not guarantee the rejuvenation of democracy, but it does change what the public perceives to be possible. Every solar collector, every community garden or wind farm, every local currency is a declaration of independence from remote tyranny and a declaration of interdependence with all of life and with generations unborn. The eventual reform of national politics will begin when elites begin to feel the desperation that comes from the awareness of being left behind. The strategy is the same as that described by Lewis Mumford, who once proposed to use the power of "animated individual minds, small groups, and local communities" not to seize power, but to "withdraw from it and quietly paralyze it" (1970,408).

You and I will have to do the hard work of reviving democracy and rebuilding a decent country and ecologically sustainable communities the old-fashioned way: from the bottom up. There is no use pretending that it will be easy to do, but it will be a great deal easier than vainly trying to make our peace with the forces of tyranny in our time. Eventually the small brigades will win for the same reasons that small mammals survived and the dinosaurs died out, that Drake's fleet defeated the Spanish Armada, and that all large organizations eventually become sclerotic and rigid. The reasons have to do with agility, the capacity to respond quickly, adaptability, and the princi ples of resilience. These are things that can be sustained only at an appropriate scale.

Eventually, urban neighborhoods, communities, small towns will quietly paralyze the sources of remote tyranny by withdrawing from them. The transformation, already under way, is easy to overlook because it is not dramatic, it does not make for good slogans, and it does not need a national organization. It is people taking back power by forming community-supported farms and land trusts, by using local currencies, by using less fossil fuels and more solar energy, by starting community businesses, and doing all of the hard work of becoming citizens again. The logic of decentralization—democracy from the bottom up—is founded on simple facts of how the world really does work. Local economies prosper by minimizing dependency on the outside economy and by meeting local needs with local resources.

Are we up to it? Time will tell. The sources of remote tyranny in our time prefer to keep us in a state of consumer-besotted ignorance. But, in Jefferson's (1816, 473) words, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free ... it expects what never was and never will be."

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment