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.

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.

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.

The underlying problem is that democratic government has evolved to be so attuned to the micro-managerial processes of election wining and poll massaging that it is now incapable of dealing with the sort of profound problem that the environmental crisis represents. Neither the processes nor personnel exist within our political system to do so.

The closest we have come to facing a problem like the environmental crisis is world war. Twice last century western nations faced total destruction.

How did they cope? Well, firstly, the crisis was always going to be temporary – a few years at most – so emergency measures could easily be introduced on that basis. All the same, wartime emergency measures were extreme: to start with, overnight most governments did away with the basic rights of their citizens. Then they introduced more or less stringent command economies. Smaller nations simply handed national sovereignty over to their more powerful allies. In a real sense, the Allies won these wars by abandoning democracy.

Democratic processes were resumed at war’s end and Australia and the United States are now in the midst of important national elections. No one who witnesses these exercises can fail to notice their contrived character and the absence of genuine political contention.

Elections bring out the worst in democratic politics: they are little more than elaborate charades acted out by party leaders staying “on message”. The reality is that there is overall agreement on the policy essentials between the major parties, and thus only minimal debate on the margins. The media go along by highlighting each minor difference. Perhaps none of this really matters much when the economy is ticking over and when most problems are relatively trivial in terms of the big picture.

But when that big picture could so dramatically change so as to threaten everything we need or hold dear, then this approach to government is no longer adequate. When democratic government failed in Germany and Japan, fascism rose to fill the void.

As a global environmental crisis emerges, such a totalitarian response, using the emergency as justification, is likely. Unless we can re-energise politics to form governments that can make the necessary changes on a national and global scale, it is democracy itself that is in danger.