Democracy v. Sustainability?
Published 17th October 2009 - 5 comments - 796 views -
In one of her blog posts, Aija discussed people’s habits and why they struggle to change them for the sake of the environment. I decided to comment on this and we eventually ended up in a discussion about government intervention. I argued that environment protection is one of those fields in which the state should maybe "force" people to act and thus ensure a collective effort towards a specific end. However, in a democracy, this requires majorities (among people and even more importantly among politicians) in favor of such coercion. Does that mean that democracy constitutes an obstacle to sustainability?
As so many scientific theories suggest, human beings are rational and selfish creatures and always do what will result in their greatest advantage. This also means that they will opt for national policies which are most beneficial to them. Policies aiming at sustainability, however, usually don’t have that effect and often even work to the contrary. At least, this is most people’s perception, as their outlook is focused on the immediate rather than on long-term developments which probably won’t affect them anymore. Thus, even if national leaders are responsible enough to recognize the need for changes in order to secure sustainability, it might be impossible for them to bring those changes about in the face of disapproving masses.
Examples of this can be found in great numbers in recent German politics. With a population significantly shrinking and aging, Germany’s social security system, particularly the pension system, will be impossible to sustain in the present form for future generations. However, important reforms, reducing the amounts of unemployment benefits or pensions, are passionately resisted by German citizens. And who is to blame them? Why should they vote for or support a policy that decreases their income, only to secure that of imaginary people in the future? Younger people may be more in favor of sustainable development because they know that they might still be affected by the consequences of non-action. But they will age, too, and the circle of what we call the "generational conflict" will always be complete.
In regard to environmental issues, a similar attitude can be found. Why should people change their convenient behavior if this was to diminish their quality of life, while benefitting only future generations? In order to achieve sustainability, then, it might be much more effective if the government simply "forced" us to behave eco-friendly and responsibly rather than to wait for us to become "selfless". In this manner, Germany has introduced the "green dot" for recyclable waste as well as so-called "eco-zones" in many downtown areas. One might argue that, after all, it is not only the state’s duty to protect its present but also its future citizens from potential harm. But such action will never be possible without approval of the present public.
I would thus conclude that democracy might indeed sometimes constitute an obstacle to sustainable solutions. However, this is clearly not to say that any other form of political organization would be favorable in this respect. It is fairly unlikely that a dictator, a selfish person himself, would care much about the well-being of future generations. Besides, the initial emergence of the environmentalism itself probably owes a great deal to democracy. So what to do with this as an environmentalist? It might be easy to simply lobby governments and have them decide above people’s heads, assuming that these decision-makers "know better". But it might be right to work even harder and try to make citizens responsible enough to enable truly democratic and sustainable decisions. What do you think?
About the author
- TCKTCK: Got only 10 years to save ourselves!
- Denmark cries in Sea of Blood, 950 Whales and Dolphins KILLED…
- Micro pigs - the ultimate sweetheart energy saver
- If you want to see nude people click here
- Do we really care about our planet? Think twice before answering.
- Evolutions in the history of Environment Part 2
- Bunnies for fuels: not a good story to share in a grade school classroom