James Lovelock: greenery vs democracy

Does the pioneer of “gaia” have a point: could democracy be an obstacle to planetary safety?
Andrew Dobson
20 April 2010

The parlous state of the global environment and the apparent incapacity of governments to do much about it - illustrated by the farrago that was the climate-change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 - created ideal conditions for impatience with the slow-burn methods of constitutional government and policy-making. It was always likely that alarm over the prospects for the planet would spill over into the suggestion that political business-as-usual might need to be suspended in order to address the urgent issues involved.   

True, there has always been a strain of quasi-green thinking that identified the incapacity of existing democracies to take decisive and quick action to protect the planet. But in almost all cases, this is combined with a commitment to deepening democracy so that it is able to match the needs of the age (see Dougald Hine, “Climate change: a question of democracy”, 2 March 2007).

This is what makes James Lovelock’s intervention so notable. The pioneering theorist of Gaia expressed to the Guardian his doubts that modern western democracies have the will to take the measures required for sustainability. ‘"We need a more authoritative [sic] world … We've become a sort of cheeky, egalitarian world where everyone can have their say. It's all very well, but there are certain circumstances – a war is a typical example – where you can't do that. You've got to have a few people with authority who you trust who are running it. They should be very accountable too, of course – but it can't happen in a modern democracy. This is one of the problems.”

“What's the alternative to democracy?”, he asks. There isn't one, he says. But, he goes on: “even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while” (see “James Lovelock: 'Fudging data is a sin against science'”, Guardian, 29 March 2010).

The environmental movement already regards Lovelock with mixed feelings because of his support for nuclear power. But modern greens are also firmly committed to achieving sustainability and justice by democratic means. So his latest contribution is likely to reinforce their scepticism about his ideas.

But does Lovelock have a point?

Learning to live

The idea of “putting democracy on hold” is not new. In the 1970s, the “limits- to-growth” idea was fashionable; it gave rise to a slew of books and articles arguing that the situation was so drastic, and the need for change so urgent, that only authoritarianism could drive through the lifestyle-changes required for what would now be called “one-planet living”. At the heart of the notion of “limits-to-growth” is the threat of scarcity, and the early eco-authoritarians argued for the necessity of authority under conditions of scarcity (see Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers & Dennis Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update [Chelsea Green, 2004]).

In one of the best known interventions of the time, William Ophuls wrote: ‘‘In brief, liberal democracy as we know it - that is, our theory or ‘paradigm’ of politics … is doomed by ecological scarcity; we need a completely new political philosophy and set of political institutions” (see William Ophuls, with A Stephen Boyan Jr, Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity Revisited: The unravelling of the American Dream (WH Freeman, 1992). Ophuls reckoned that liberal democracy is possible only under conditions of plenty – conditions that, looked at over the whole of human history, are very rare indeed. 

What made the Enlightenment, liberal democracy, individual freedom, and the very idea of progress possible, was the overcoming of scarcity:

   •     “Our own era has been the longest and certainly the most important exception [to scarcity]. During roughly the last 450 years, the carrying capacity of the globe (and especially of the highly developed nations) has been markedly expanded, and several centuries of relative abundance have completely transformed the face of the earth and made our societies and our civilisation what they are today - relatively open, egalitarian, libertarian, and conflict-free.”

For Ophuls, the limits-to-growth thesis signalled the end of this period of exception. “The boom is now over”, he writes “The found wealth of the Great Frontier has been all but exhausted. And technology is no real substitute, for it is merely a means of manipulating what is already there rather than a way of creating genuinely new resources on the scale of the Great Frontier.”

The political consequences of this for Ophuls were clear. “[The] golden age of individualism, liberty, and democracy (as those terms are currently understood) is all but over. In many important respects, we shall be obliged to return to something resembling the premodern, closed polity”.

The resonances are remarkable, the basic idea is the same - even if the language has changed somewhat. The “limits-to-growth” talk has been replaced by talk of “peak oil” or even “peak everything” (see Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything: waking up to the century of decline in Earth’s resources [Clairview, 2007]). The ubiquitous objective of “sustainability”’ is being challenged by the idea of “resilience”. Behind these terminological changes lies familiar (and continuous) story: we only have one planet and we need to learn how to live on it.

Can we learn to live on the planet in freedom and democracy - or are William Ophuls and James Lovelock right that the new scarcity will bring with it the suspension of democracy and new forms of authoritarianism? The question is all the more pertinent as these individuals’ concerns are echoed by a number of serious contemporary writers, among them Tim Flannery (see The Weather Makers: Our changing climate and what it means for life on earth [Penguin, 2007]) and David Shearman (see “Democracy and climate change: a story of failure”, 27 November 2007).

Those committed both to green ideas and to democracy will disagree with Ophuls’s view that “the steady-state society will not only be ostensibly more authoritarian and less democratic than the industrial societies of today …  it may also be more oligarchic as well, with full participation in the political process restricted to those who possess the ecological and other competencies necessary to make prudent decisions.” But it up to them, to us, to say why - and to take up the challenge; or to face honestly the prospect of having to make an impossible choice. 


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