Seeing democracy as an ecosystem

To strenghten parliamentary institutions, we should learn some lessons from natural ecology.

Anthony Smith
14 March 2017

A red squirrel in the woods at Wallington, Northumberland, where they are under threat. (Owen Humphreys/PA Images)

A red squirrel in the woods at Wallington, Northumberland, where they are under threat. (Owen Humphreys/PA Images)

Analogies in the parliamentary strengthening world are like a one-metre high jump – the bar isn’t very high so almost anything will get a medal. That said, over my time working for the UK government and as Chief Executive of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, I have heard some very good ones. Greg Power, founder of Global Partners Governance, once told me the one about parliaments being like football teams – you can buy great players but you can’t guarantee that they will work together and win. And Alina Menochal, senior research fellow at ODI, has used a sailboat analogy to illustrate that parliamentary development does not move in straight lines but is subject to cross-winds and occasional tempests.

So when an analogy of my own popped into my head during WFD’s research ‘Deliberating Democratisation’ conference last week, I thought I would take the plunge and share it with you.  Having heard quite a few comments in the debates about the importance of context and about unintended consequences, I suddenly thought of ecosystems as an analogy for democratic systems. A few things clicked for me. Ecosystems are not static – they evolve, and democracies do too.

First, the context is critical and every ecosystem is unique. But there are a bunch of standard types such as deserts, savannahs, wetlands etc. The same applies to democracies. Every country and every democracy is unique, but there are standard types – parliamentary, mature, transitional etc.

Second, there is plenty of scope for unintended consequences. It is well-known that introducing exotic species can cause damage that was not foreseen. For example, grey squirrels introduced from the US have pushed Britain’s native red squirrels out of their normal habitats andto the brink of extinction. More dramatically, when Australian scientists cut the (non-native) rabbit population on Macquarie Island, the (non-native) cat population started feeding on the seabirds.  They then culled all the cats which led to an explosion in the rabbit population and devastation of the native grasses. Unfortunately, parallels with democracy-promotion are all too easy to think of.if parliament is weak, then the executive will flex its muscles

Third, nature abhors a vacuum. This means that if one species weakens or dies another will be ready to step into its place. That feels a bit like some of the main democratic institutions – if parliament is weak, then the executive will flex its muscles more than it could before. The opposite can also be true.

Fourth, ecosystems may be individual but they do not exist in isolation. Each can be affected both by neighbouring ecosystems and by global trends – a sort of political climate change.

I like the implications for change in this analogy. Ecosystems are not static – they evolve, and democracies do too. In ecosystems, change is usually slow and the result of many small, apparently insignificant changes. Occasionally though, big change happens suddenly, perhaps because a meteor landed and wiped out a whole species.

Of course, there are some weaknesses to the analogy. Ecosystems are natural phenomena that evolve through the silent hand of natural selection, whereas democracies are human constructs that must conform to principles purposely designed by society. When ecologists intervene, it is often to conserve the status quo rather than to speed up the natural pace of evolution. By contrast, political scientists and democracy supporters usually intervene to accelerate evolution rather than to slow it down. But perhaps the fact that we are now in the Anthropocene age means there is some convergence between the two types of ecosystem.

Which leads to the question of what those of us involved in democracy support could learn from the analogy. Some things are obvious, such as considering the pace of change and the need to consider a web of relationships and potential impacts that could result from seemingly minor actions. But thoughts on other lessons that democracy supporters might draw from environmental science techniques would be welcome. Any ideas? 

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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