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Democracy challenged by the global threat to the environment

By Peter McMahon - posted Thursday, 16 September 2004


Is democratic government up to the challenge of the global environmental crisis?

The weather has been bad again. Unusual climate variation and powerful storms have caused disruption, property damage and loss of life around the world. It may not be the result of global warming, but it is exactly the sort of thing the scientists tell us we can expect, only much, much worse.

Oil is also a worry. Prices seem to be set substantially higher than the historical norm and there is now open talk about "peak oil". Modern industrial society is built on cheap oil, so this is also a very important issue.

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These two problems are similar in that they both centre on the long-term impact of mass industrial development on natural systems. Either could derail global development and international order and as such, both present a similar challenge to an increasingly global society and its governing bodies. So are governments up to it?

The environmental crisis is inherently global in character, but we do not have a global governance structure yet. Instead we have a very weak formal international relations forum, the UN, and a de facto international governance system, currently dominated by the US, which is mostly focussed on military and economic matters. So far there has been very little co-ordinated, collective action to deal with crucial global matters.

A basic problem is that governments and politics still function primarily at the national level. Even the European Union, explicitly oriented towards creating a transnational governance system, is having great difficulty moving beyond national politics. When it comes to government and politics, doing anything that requires acting in the overall global interest is extremely ambitious.

Furthermore, the system of representative democratic government as it has evolved in the west is just not suited to dealing with systemic problems on a global scale. The reasons for this are partly structural, but partly are a result of the specific history of western politics.

Western politics is still dominated by the remnants of great class conflicts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which became increasingly focussed on economic issues or who got what. All western-style governments now accept that maintaining the conditions for maximum economic growth is the main task of government. Since most core policies now place market solutions over government agency, this means that governments have been steadily losing the capacity to initiate and maintain genuine socio-economic change.

An aspect of this retreat of government is the rise of the mass media as primary agenda setter. Or more accurately, the media effectively control ideational formation through tacit support of some ideas and rejection of alternatives. For instance the media have generally supported neo-liberal (economic rationalist) ideas while rejecting attempts at basic drug reform. The media are now the ideational gatekeepers.

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This used to be the work of politicians who would transform the ideas that originated in various places into viable political platforms. For instance, while socialism never really got going anywhere in the west, Labour and Social Democrat parties took the basic spirit of reform and translated it into programs acceptable to both the popular mainstream and the structural power centres (such as high finance and organised labour).

Whatever left and right might think of party politics as a winnowing process, in a real sense it did work to represent the changing interests of the major social classes and allow a workable socio-economic system to emerge. But such a process of practical compromise between competing social interests will not work when it comes to solving global environmental problems.

We cannot compromise with the physical world. Politics has always been a social interaction, a sustained process of negotiation about power and as such often a zero sum game. Now in the truest sense we are all on the same side, because the material change in global systems is already under way. Ultimately we either deal with it as a species or we face catastrophe.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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