• On light and darkness

    by  • August 21, 2010 • Everything Else • 22 Comments

    We have the ability to transform the world.

    Previous generations had the possibility to transform society, but since the technological breakout of the 20th century we have attained the power to transform the world.

    Our first real transformative step was to leave the planet a desolate husk, devoid of life, a quiet radioactive wasteland with occasional airless flags.

    Fortunately although all the tools and know how and project management were put in place for that job, we didn’t quite follow it through. The weapons stayed in their silos, and we waited for better days. We got better days too, as I covered in an earlier post.

    A generation has passed since the nuclear golfball threat (largely) abated. Now we have a new challenge: we are eating the world. It’s that simple – we’re no longer harvesting what grows and eating the slow ones in the herds. We have taken the herds into captivity, nothing runs free. The trees and plants are sitting targets as we pave nature to install capitalist ecologies which convert nature into money. We have gone from being the world’s cleverest apes to its doom.

    But still, progress. From ending it all in the nuclear weekend to the current death of a thousand species approach is progress. We are getting less bad. We are improving.

    This all pivots on solar panels. Konarka and Nanosolar, and various other companies, have the know-how to convert our energy economy from one which is causing destructive chaos in nature to one which will be neutral or benign. These panels are cheap enough to out-compete coal and nuclear energy, and the force of the market will align with what is right for the world. Wind etc. have their part to play too.

    With these technologies we have a fighting chance of keeping a high tech society and living within natural limits. Without them, it is likely that ecological responsibility will cost us many of the benefits of civilization, at which point it is likely that we will choose to remain rich and foolish for as long as we can.

    Our problem is that our system of governance has made us unable to absorb pain. There are two men to vote for: one pleads sacrifice, and the other promises plenty. Voters are emotionally motivated, on average, and will vote for the fellow with the reassuring tone and message.

    Even if he is wrong.

    Even height makes a difference, never mind gender. Charisma over content.

    Our behavior through the cold war period makes it perfectly clear that we were putting the wrong people in charge. Our leaders threatened the nuclear annihilation of all life on earth in a debate over how two different cultures chose to divide up scarcity. We are using essentially the same systems of governance to manage global environmental policy, and they are working no better.

    The idea that democracy is the end-all system of governance is just wrong.

    The Libertarians chip away at state power at one end. Bioregionalists and similar chip away at the other. But what sits in the middle is a simple belief: that the aggregated will of the average man is the word of god.

    Advertising shapes elections.

    What stronger argument against democracy as the right way to handle the worst of our problems could I make? The candidate with a better marketing and PR team carries the day. The taller candidate carries the day. The male candidate carries the day. People’s innate biological prejudices are manifested at the voting booth. Putting the wrong people in charge, electing the wrong despots, risks costing us the planet.

    Democracy isn’t working. It is not failing because of the manipulation of the system by corporate interests, it is failing because herding a bunch of mammals together and asking them to pick a leader puts the big one, not the smart one, and certainly not the wise one, at the head of the team.

    The skill of winning elections is not correlated to the skill of knowing what to do next.

    If you fan power out to the edges, you get rural Arizona making it legal to dump nuclear waste down canyons “as long as they’re far enough away from people, ok?” If you centralize it through some form of world government, all the eggs are in one basket, and if absolute power corrupts absolutely, the whole world is lost. No man (or woman) can be trusted that much.

    I think the solution is specialized technical councils, which are appointed in a non-revokable way, like Supreme Court judges in the United States of America, to rule on specialized areas like the environment. I think these appointments should be for 20 years or life, and should carry the full weight of legislative power, so they can simply enforce what needs to be done, while the whims of public sentiment come and go. We need people who are good at governing, and fully versed in the technicalities of environmental policy to run the show on environment, not politicians.

    I think there are four areas that we need these “Supreme Courts” on.

    • The environment
    • Self-replicating systems (biotech, nanotech, other)
    • Nuclear weapons
    • Population & resource protection

    None of these areas are being managed appropriately by our current short-sighted, election-to-election law-making. All of these areas involve making real sacrifices and forcing populations to do unpopular things for their own future survival.

    Nobody who speaks the truth on the environment can win a popularity contest, so we need to stop expecting politicians to make good decisions on the environment and start building new power structures above the political level to put the power in safer hands.

    I am actually pretty serious about this. We have seen the 20th century shattered by the failings of democracy (and the failings of authoritarianism), and we are facing a wall of unprecedented challenges to our ability to govern ourselves, particularly in highly technically complex areas.

    We need new structures to govern in the areas where democratic governance has been demonstrated to fail: environment, nano/biotechnology, nuclear weapons and population.

    Take it out of the hands of the politicians, and into the hands of specialized councils selected under the mandate of existing governance structures, with long enough tenure to do the right thing for the future, not just for the next election.

    I would suggest that these Supreme Courts would have veto power over environmental legislation, but probably not the power to draft legislation. Very careful mechanisms must be designed to give these groups the power to compel a government to act. Without a simple framework of constitutionality, the precise nature of the powers of the court, and the limits to their power must be defined with exquisite care.

    I believe this could work. I do not believe democracy can.

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    22 Responses to On light and darkness

    1. August 21, 2010 at 12:43 pm

      Nonsense and you know better than to write this. I sense you are feeling frustrated with the ‘sheeple’ and are ‘kicking out’ with this article.

      Remember Churchill’s line about ‘democracy being the worst form of govt. apart from all the others…’ He was a bastard in many ways but on this he is correct.

      As I tweeted to you, “SupremeCourts’ above elected rep’s is another way of saying ‘benevolent dictatorship’ and we know what happens with them….” – as power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, so all dictatorships end up in the same totalitarian hell.

      This is not what you truly want for your fellow beings.

    2. August 21, 2010 at 12:47 pm

      Nothing so comfortable, Arthur. The Supreme Court in America has been a brake on populism and Presidential power for two hundred years, and it’s done a very good job in that period.

      That doesn’t mean that the Americans aren’t a democracy – after all, the members of the Supreme Court are appointed – but it changes much more slowly that the President, and therefore can take a longer view on the issues.

      Democracy on a four year cycle is not enough. That does not mean democracy is wrong in principle, but _in practice_ it is failing on the most important issues of the day.

      Unsurprising given the mismatch between the four year popularity contest and the actual needs of the situation: generations of restraint to make up for the blow out of the 20th century.

    3. A Historian
      August 21, 2010 at 2:24 pm

      The U.S. Supreme Court has also served as a very effective conservative control mechanism, allowing things such as imprisoning people for anti-war speeches by analogy with “shouting fire in a crowded theatre”. I’m sorry, but you seem to have a rosy view of the United States that is simply not borne out by their history.

      And frankly, I’d be very interested in knowing what specific ‘failings of democracy’ we’ve supposedly seen.

    4. zac
      August 21, 2010 at 4:30 pm

      unfortunately, this is not a new line of reasoning. authoritarian institutions always proceed from the logic that democracy is flawed, that the voters are too stupid to know what’s good for them, and that they need to be excluded from the decision making process in favor of experts who know how to govern. that’s been going on explicitly at least since world war II.

      if you create some kind of super-council of un-elected bureaucrats, you’re essentially rolling the dice. maybe you get benevolent green dictatorship, who will steward the planet for our own good, and maybe you will get a Malthusian elite looking to reduce population with crushing austerity, while business continues to make record profits externalizing all their costs onto the environment. in a democracy you will probably get a little of both.

      i think the answer is ultimately going to be more democracy and more accountability, not less. and that means you have to educate and empower people to make decisions and take action. that’s the only way us stupid people will learn to take some responsibility for the world we live in. either you have some faith that we can learn, or you don’t. I choose to think that we can. the planet is taking a hit while we do that, but the planet has taken a lot of hits over it’s history. we’re not especially worse than an ice age or an asteroid impact, and the potential benefit if we start living up to our potential justifies that risk, I think.

    5. August 21, 2010 at 5:07 pm

      Are you suggesting the Supreme Court is a super-council of unelected bureaucrats that we’re taking our chances with? I think it’s more than that.

      I think it’s a Good Thing and we need more of it.

    6. zac
      August 21, 2010 at 6:08 pm

      no, but the supreme court is a different thing compared to what you’re suggesting. the problem is not that we don’t have enough people to interpret and rule upon the laws, it’s that we don’t have intelligent enough laws to begin with, to rule upon. you don’t want unelected bureaucrats making the laws, and that seems to be the only way to get what you’re suggesting. it would be like having a permanent state of martial law, with military commanders ruling by decree. you’re just hoping that you get a benevolent tyrant. and if your basic premise is that we’re foolish monkeys, then why so eager to make foolish monkeys even less accountable then they already are?

      our essential problem, is that most of the critical decision making process is in the hands of private tyrannies and collections of finance capital, who have a veto over anything that might get done. IF you can find enough benevolent people to be on these supreme courts, and IF you can get the suitable legislation on the books, given all the obstacles in place to doing that in the first place, then we might be onto something. but those are two big if’s.

    7. August 21, 2010 at 6:29 pm

      I’ve modified the post to make the idea I had clearer. The challenges, to my eye, are the same as those for the Supreme Court as it currently stands – same risks, similar benefits.

      One could argue that with appropriate environmental clauses added to the Constitution the existing Supreme Court could fulfill these functions. However, I don’t think that answers the need for real technical expertise on these panels.

      We need a flexible mechanism to govern the risks which accompany our increasing technological capacity. This is just the beginning of our learning to live with our inventiveness…

    8. August 21, 2010 at 7:00 pm

      The essence of the problem is that you provide no mechanism for adopting a Constitution that they would operate under, nor for providing a body of law to adjudicate upon.

      These are provided by an electorate, even if at a remove or proxy, and are legitimised by every election where the ‘system’ is subscribed to by virtue of ‘participation’.

      ‘If wishes were fishes….’ – I don’t disagree with your analysis or aspirations but there are no means or will that I can see that will get us (all of humanity) there before serious oncoming emergencies change ‘the game’ for us anyway.

      Do not try to catch the ‘falling anvil’ – step aside and be ready to repair the damage it causes.

    9. August 21, 2010 at 7:43 pm

      Only with local engagement can we achieve true participation and therefore democracy. To your point, the system we have today is not perfect – in fact, I’d argue it’s not democracy. It’s not even representative.

      The answer is not another layer, nor another check or balance. It’s a shift from centrality to decentrality. This shift will be empowered by the internet to enable hyper local governance systems which can truly bring of/by/for back to the people while at the same time enabling communication between these networks to ensure effective commons management.

    10. August 21, 2010 at 7:49 pm

      I wonder how much of this is down to the growing sense that we are falling off a cliff and doing nothing about it, because what you suggest (to me) sounds like a green version of the declaration of martial law in a time of crisis. Of course, I’m not suggesting you’re implying total state control; you’re focussing specifically on environmental issues, and for what it is worth, this idea is the only idea I’ve come across that could be a useful and immediate stop-gap – should Zac’s Big Ifs be met – until we do learn and act accordingly as a species.

      However, as has been ably pointed out above, the root cause of our inability to act has not been dealt with, and any government or judicial body is likely to follow suit with our existing bureaucracies, namely straight into the pockets of the criminal elite; it will take a fundamental shift in core values to truly deal with our current problems, and although that sounds very far off and perhaps a miracle, I don’t believe it is as unreachable as it currently appears…

    11. August 21, 2010 at 7:59 pm

      ‘authoritarian institutions always proceed from the logic that democracy is flawed, that the voters are too stupid to know what’s good for them,’

      Just to stir up the pot, we do have to accept that people are burying their heads in the sand about a whole number of issues, and wilfully bending over and taking it up the arse (ass for you non-Brits) from a whole host of corporate scams and criminal cartels. *Do* voters know what is good for them? Seeing as the power has and always will remain with them, what exactly are they doing?

    12. August 21, 2010 at 8:03 pm

      Matt R – local control does nothing to deal with the case where local people agree to do something environmentally toxic for profit. I very specifically gave the example of a locally-approved nuclear waste dump in the initial post to address that line of inquiry.

      Local control does not buy us global protection, I’m afraid. I wish it would.

    13. August 21, 2010 at 8:07 pm

      Alan, yes, this model is very much a “9/12″ approach. If something breaks, badly, the question will be “what to do?”

      There’s a fine balance to be trod there, between ecostalinism, pollyannaist market-based solutions, and what I believe to be the correct approach: an extension of existing frameworks to protect the environment much as we protect human life.

      I’m not saying these systems are perfect but I believe that extending them could be as effective as any other measure, with substantially lower risks to civil liberties.

      It’s a serious business. That’s why I’m worrying about it.

    14. August 21, 2010 at 9:52 pm

      Please excuse my cynicism, but I wonder if what you are suggesting would have a much warmer reception if you were to leave the democracy critique out, per the ‘creeping control’ of our governments.

      In this country (although I doubt it is very much different for the rest of the West) we have an ever expanding and bloated unelected Third Sector (plus quangos) that determine many aspects of our lives. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but no one seems to give a shit. Consider how we deal with the preservation of Grade II listed buildings; it’s not democratic, yet I see no one screaming ‘building totalitarianism’.

    15. August 21, 2010 at 9:58 pm

      Vinay – I mentioned commons – if everywhere is commons, then everyone is incentivized to protect it.

      We cannot slap more of the same style of bureaucratic centrality and expect to get a different result. Plain and simple. We need to build incentive structures that promote stewardship, not destruction…

    16. August 21, 2010 at 10:06 pm

      There are always going to be people who want to run cowboy incinerators or budget nuclear waste dumps. We need criminal prosecution of these people, wherever they go.

      It’s not a question of incentives, it’s a question of policing. Criminal behavior, criminal prosecutions. Incentives are for behaviors we want to see, not for preventing what amount to crimes of violence.

      IMHO, of course.

    17. August 21, 2010 at 11:50 pm

      Vinay, I think that you’ve missed a fundamental point here. In both the UK and the USA, there is a sense in which these ‘supreme councils’ for the environment already exist – the Environmental Protection Agency and the Environment Agency in particular,and a handful of other quangos and agencies.
      Part of the quango philosophy is taking decision making and putting it at one remove from elected politicians. In the UK, the EA ploughs a different furrow to central Government, with arguably a more consistent and unarguably more environmental focus. In the US, the EPA has been able to begin the process of regulating CO2 under laws laid down by central government that were conceived with different pollutants in mind.
      Your supreme court for the environment, if the analogy is tolerably close, would work in a legal framework set by democratic government. I think you would agree that democrats are able to pass general principles of environmental protection (e.g. the Clean Air Act) but tend to fall short when they are called upon to balance these environmental protections with other priorities. Regulators like EPA, in principle, are ready to do the job you’ve outlined.
      So, the question follows, why isn’t this system, already set up to do what you want, doing it?
      Well, part of the explanation can be a measure of degrees of freedom. The supreme court in the US, and the courts in general, are widely understood to be somewhat above political interference, and tend to appoint judges for the long periods you mentioned. Agencies tend to have short term appointees more directly answerable to their political masters, and therefore must tread a careful line between fulfilling their role and poking the democratic bear too firmly. The reduced activity of the EPA under Bush, and the many areas in which environmental legislation remains unenforced are good examples of this probably higher susceptibility to political interference.
      More widely, however, the EPA and EA aren’t achieving what you want from them because they do not have the scope of powers to do so. They are limited within the framework of powers granted by the democratic government. The Supreme Court acts only within the legal framework of the democratic government, but because it acts as an arbitrator between two third parties (whether private or public, corporate or individual) it has no limitation of power – it has power wherever a case is brought. Of course, it has no power if a case is not brought – the supreme court cannot see a guy littering and decide to adjudicate without a prosecutor setting the ball rolling. Perhaps one answer would be to bring environmental crime into the purview of the existing courts by empowering citizens to bring complaints against environmental degradation *regardless of whether they or their property were directly affected*.
      Of course, there is additional context in the UK at the moment – the SDC had some of the characteristics of the type of body you advocate, and has just been shut down. We are in a phase in which government is downsizing but also bringing decision making power back to its heart. In that climate, your argument may be one that pisses into the wind a little. But more fundamentally, environmental issues are increasingly ubiquitous – if you’re a political Green, you believe that all economic decisions are environmental decisions. I’m not sure that democratic government is ready to further empower external environmentally focused decision makers to take decisions that would inevitably impinge upon centres of wealth and power, and potentially seriously affect growth. And if they just aren’t going to do it – I’m not sure whether you’ve got this question posed in a useful way yet.

    18. August 22, 2010 at 12:00 am

      The critical problem is that the director of the EPA is a political appointee, and there’s only one of them – so you have both subservience to the agenda of the President, and a concentration of power in the hands of a single individual (the director.)

      So imagine an EPA governed by 9 people, who were on 18 year terms of service. They can run their show any way they like, within the bounds of the law, and they are not answerable to the President.

      That’s sort of the direction I’m seeing this go. Of course you then need to change the legal status of the EPA – it needs something resembling judicial independence – but those are the key attributes I was trying to get at here: independence from Presidential power, and panel rather than individual judgment.

      Hopefully that’s a useful clarification.

    19. August 22, 2010 at 6:22 am

      I think that is useful, but (while on this point I don’t know about EPA so much) for British institutions, we do have the ‘boards’ of the various agency type British institutions – a group of people who (by design) are not vulnerable to political interference. This may not be working, but I think understanding why and how it isn’t would be crucial to making the system work more effectively.

    20. August 25, 2010 at 1:45 am

      I’ve only read a bit of the post and skimmed some of the comments but I agree with Matt R that the systems of so-called democratic governance we have in UK/ US etc are not at all democratic.

      In the words of Frances Moore Lappe, “To save the democracy we thought we had, we must take democracy to where it’s never been.”


    21. August 25, 2010 at 1:47 am

      In short, please stop perpetuating the myth that popularity contests and democracy are the same thing and get back to writing good stuff. :P

    22. August 26, 2010 at 9:36 am

      I know it makes you uncomfortable, Josef, but these truths have to be faced.

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