With democracy becoming an endangered species, is sustainability in peril?


With democracy becoming an endangered species, is sustainability in peril? | Sara Parkin, Nov 2018

In 2008, Sara Parkin wrote a provocation for the FDSD: “Are Political Parties getting in the way of the sort of collaborative democracy we need to tackle sustainability? If so, what can we do about it?” Ten years later, she revisits her thinking, “in the light”, she says “of the corruption of our current democratic systems”.

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This has been written as a ten-year reflection on an earlier paper in which I concluded that political parties were more of an impediment than a help in our quest for a sustainable future for all life on earth. It was a (sort of) tongue in cheek call to revolutionise the way we select our political representatives.

Today, however, it is impossible to ignore the assault on democratic institutions and processes around the world. The cause and aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, as well as the electoral shocks in the United States and United Kingdom, require a larger canvas for analysis and a different call to action.

The scene is set by considering the vulnerability of our shoddily maintained democratic system and our misplaced complacency that those who have benefitted most from the now globally dominant neoliberal economic philosophy would lie back and accept a move to political strategies and policies that favour sustainable development. Heeding advice to ‘follow the money’ I found a strong, and not unexpected, link between very rich libertarian ideologues and contamination of the electoral process. These are people who want small government, low taxes and the freedom to move their (particularly financial) capital wherever they want. They hate regulation, working openly to dismantle the political unions of Europe and the United States.

What did we sustainability wonks expect? A roll-over realisation that we were right, followed by a rapid transition to sustainability-oriented governments around the world? Are we really surprised that ‘the empire (of the ultra-rich)’ is fighting back, not least when they were rattled by the Clinton-Blair years with social democratic governments in two-thirds of the European Union? Or that they would prove to be great strategists and tacticians in how they went about that fight, not least in the deployment of digital technologies?

Here in the United Kingdom, our parliamentarians forgot that parliament is sovereign and that they are supposed to represent us their electorate. This memory loss led them to agree to a referendum on UK membership of the European Union—as if throwing a yes/no button to the mob (us) was the best option to resolve a monstrously complicated, almost existential, issue which internal party feuding had kept clear from public debate for far too long. A difficult decision was made worse by an un-clarifying debate dominated by lies and dreadful political leadership on both sides. And most of the media, thrilled by the soap-opera, but bamboozled by the arguments, served us ill.

So, what to do? The worsening negative trends over such a long period suggest that waiting for political parties and governments to find a sudden vocation for leadership is not a good idea. That vacuum puts the leadership role down to us, one that we can pick up in a way that makes it easier, rather than harder, for others to follow.
Do we have an attractive, people-centred story to tell about how good an outcome sustainability for the human endeavour could be? No. The exhortations and threats of doom that we environmentalists favour, falls short of the hope inspired in the neighbourhoods by the rhetoric of Donald Trump or the likes of Nigel Farage. So I’ve considered how to start a more positive story.
I’ve also thought about how to counter fake-news with truth. If we behave as though sustainability was normal we can ask subversive questions that ensure people start to think harder about what is possible or necessary. For example, what evidence of dangerous climate change do you want to see before urgent action is taken? Why do we prioritise recycling, when the volume of waste is overwhelming and growing?

Engaging with politicians is unavoidably important. There is no time for revolutions, tongue-in-cheek or otherwise. By stiffening the resolve of our parliamentarians and local councillors to strengthen the democratic process and, wherever we can, joining in, a difference could be made quite quickly. This would be even more true if the move to reclaim the digital world for good gathers speed. Gaining control of our data, and supporting campaigns to subject artificial intelligence (huge data consumers) to human rights legislation and standards, for example, might bring the promise of digital communication back into the service of sustainability and democracy.

Seemingly mundane activities—such as telling good stories about sustainability, bolstering our elected representatives to defend and promote both democracy and pro-sustainability policies, and taking back control of our data—may seem pallid in the context of the billions of dollars and pounds spent by libertarian ideologues. But they can be DIY Trojan horses rallying the attention of the media, the chattersphere and our institutions around the ideas that really matter.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing for a sustainability wonk, or a caring citizen, is the feeling of powerlessness in a world where we can’t control our ecosystems and particularly our human institutions, which are the systems we use to decide and act together. Now we have something practical and deliciously subversive to do.

See you at the front line.

Sara Parkin
November 2018

Download full paper in pdf.