Science & the Environment Ecology and Sustainable Development

Climate Change: We need eco-democracies

13 December 2010
Der Freitag Berlin

The major climate conferences aren’t just about CO2 emissions. They’re also about whether there are democratic ways to ward off an ecological catastrophe. Der Freitag champions environmental democracy over environmental autocracy.

From Marburg in northern Hessen to the deluxe spa resort of Cancun, it’s about 8,600 km as the crow flies. The two places are a 12-hour flight and worlds apart. But they have one thing in common these days: they’re both grappling with the question how much freedom or constraint is needed to ensure our survival on the planet Earth. The question is whether we are heading towards an environmental autocracy.

This question is being asked in Marburg for strategic reasons. The red-green [coalition of social democrats and environmentalists] municipal government is now requiring homeowners who renovate their roofs to add solar panels. The new regulation is democratically legitimised, padded with subsidies and girded by a court ruling. The civil opposition to the regulation calls it Öko-Diktatur [“eco-dictatorship”] because it forces homeowners to embrace their economic good fortune and their ecological future.

In Cancun, on the other hand, the same question is not being asked, again for strategic reasons. At the UN Climate Conference, a handful of states devoted to – and shelling out for – climate protection are trying to inch the slow wheels of UN world democracy forwards. Scientists and experts are talking there discreetly about the future prospect of “environmental autocracies” because they are capable of looking beyond the next elections.

Capitalism has also taken democracy hostage

The debate about imposing authoritarian restrictions on basic human rights in order to safeguard the survival of the planet is fuelled by doubts about whether parliamentary democracies can provide answers to questions of ecological survival. The facts suggest they can’t: the US, the foremost proponent of democracy and the market economy, is among the world’s leading polluters. The cumbersome UN won’t be able to ward off the climate catastrophe. Even Germany, a self-appointed paragon of climate protection and environmental technology, is hardly making any headway.

And yet democracy and environmental protection really ought to be a dream team. The ecology movement first got going amid the 1960s push towards democratisation. And democracies prove a whole lot more innovative in coming up with technological and social inventions. However, ever since citizens have been able to defend themselves, factories have been relocated to countries that are poorer and more defenceless. And hardly a single politician dares to confront consumers and voters with inconvenient truths.

As a matter of fact, we have been seeing tendencies toward environmental autocracy for some time now. Capitalism has also taken democracy hostage. Political and economic freedoms have been hitherto inextricably intertwined in Western thinking. The democracy we know has never been tried without resource-intensive capitalism. How is democracy to plan a future worth living if at the same time its twin sister, the unbridled economy, is ruining that very future?

The Bank for the Future

A good answer to that question has yet to be found. But environmental autocracy is surely not the answer. First of all, it’s unpopular. Secondly, it doesn’t work: what is needed is not central planning from the top down, but social and economic innovation from the bottom up. And thirdly, there actually is an alternative to environmental autocracy: namely, environmental democracy.

The term sounds worse than it is. Environmental democracy simply means carrying on our democracy with green means. Our form of government has often adapted to sea changes: at some point everyone got to vote; the rule of the Church and the nobility eventually gave way to the rule of law, just as charitable ministrations to the needs of the poor gave rise to the modern welfare state. Now it’s time to take the next step.

Environmental democracy is politically quite feasible: The European Union could conclude a “Maastricht II” treaty with ecological stability parameters and the establishment of a “European Bank for the Future” (EBF). Member states would transfer some of their sovereignty to the EBF in matters of protecting the climate and biodiversity. The Bank for the Future would have oversight over EU policies in such sectors as industry, transport and agriculture. And it could weigh in on subsidies: those who repeatedly breach the parameters would forfeit EU subsidies or be forced to let the EBF take the helm in some domains.

Self-restraint is of the essence

Is some such system inconceivable? By no means. We already have a financial regime that works along similar lines. The Greek and Irish crises go to show how tightly the screws can be put on a country in the European Monetary Union when it fails to make the fiscal grade. That harsh treatment is justified on the grounds that a financial meltdown would affect all the other countries – an argument that seems all the more applicable to a global environment.

Democracy must not consider itself as having a legitimate mandate to squander now its chances of future survival. Self-restraint is of the essence. We accept restrictions on individual liberties when we feel threatened, eg by the authorities and companies’ mania for gathering private information. We accept compulsory auto insurance without screaming “insurance autocracy”! But woe to those who mull the imposition of speed limits: that would be a threat to freedom. “Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger” [i.e. “green light for free citizens”] sums up in a nutshell the misconception that political rights are inseparable from economic freedoms. In fact they can and in some cases must be partially divorced.

These questions may well be thrashed out under the counter, if not on the table, at Cancun. The global community will be watching very closely to see who puts forth the best answer to the question of prosperity, stability and liberty: will it be unbridled capitalism made in the USA, the Chinese blend of state socialism and rampant capitalism, or an authoritarian raw materials-based regime à la russe? Europe, in contrast, could put forward a politico-economic export hit that might appeal to aspiring democracies like India, South Africa or Brazil.

Some say people who have visions need to see a doctor. But the opposite is true: people without visions ought to see a shrink.

Translated from the German by Eric Rosencrantz