Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 22 June 2008

The Problem with Democracy

Anyone who has read my posts on Trust (Apr.08) and Human Nature (Nov.07) will know that I already extol the merits of democracy. In fact, I think it is the best form of governance yet devised by humankind, but, then, I’m one of the few lucky ones who really does reap the benefits from this political system. I live in a country where changes of government and leadership occur without violence, bloodshed or even the need for large exchanges of money. Yes, deals are done, but, as proven by our most recent election, it is the populace who makes the final decision, and in an emphatic manner. To quote Confucius, ‘to rule truly means to serve’, and, in a genuine democracy, if the government doesn’t serve its people then it gets sacked. And, paradoxically, that is part of the problem that I allude to in the title of this post.

Many commentators lament the fact, especially in the current age of climate change, oil shock and looming famine, that, because of our election processes, governments are ham-strung when it comes to implementing long term agendas. But I believe this problem can be analysed in a more precise fashion. Let’s start with oil. I can remember reading in a small unobtrusive column in Scientific American in the late 1990s, of a highly respected expert in oil exploration (no, I don’t remember his name, only that his credentials were solid and his message was dire) forewarning that oil production would become a serious issue before 2010. So we’ve had ample time to pursue other sources of energy as well as more efficient means to use and distribute what we had.

Ironically, when I was working in Houston on an oil-related project in 2001, I read in USA Today that petrol consumption, per capita in the US, was the same as it was 25 years earlier. I can remember driving the US highways and seeing huge pickup trucks with semi-trailer size turntables towing ‘trailers’ (caravans for the rest of us English speaking nations) or motor homes towing a ‘compact’ or even a small jeep behind them. While I was there, registrations in trucks overtook registrations in cars for the first time (trucks include pickups and SUVs in the US). This, I learned later, was the direct result of political intervention because America had lost the car market to the Japanese, and the American motor industry was now dependent on ‘trucks’ for their livelihood.

An English TV car show, Top Gear, a couple of years ago, revealed that the biggest selling car in the entire world was in fact a Ford pickup truck. The show’s host, Jeremy Clarkson, pointed out that there were more examples of this specific vehicle on the road than people living in Australia. We live in a consumer society: consumption literally drives the economy; and that is why this situation not only exists, but is encouraged.

Also, while I was in Houston, someone lent me a book about the moon written by a professor of cosmology (sorry, I’ve forgotten his name). One of the chapters dealt with a subject that bears no relation to the moon whatsoever: the ozone hole over Antarctica. The author told the whole story of how a scientist predicted in the early 1970s that CFCs could affect the ozone layer. Even when his prediction came true his prognosis was ignored, debated and generally discounted. It took more than a decade to overcome the political inertia and misinformation fed by corporate interests before anything was finally done. Exactly the same scenario now applies to climate change. I read an article by a motoring journalist, earlier this decade, citing the ozone hole as an example of ‘crying wolf’ because the predicted catastrophe never happened. The journalist seemed unaware that it was averted only because of global political intervention in response to scientific advice.

As I related in a previous post, Living in the 21st Century (Sep. 07), I was one of a rare few who heard the scientific adviser to the English government (again, I don’t remember his name) give a lecture, at Oxford University in 2000, on the coming ‘pinch’ we will all experience in food, water, and energy as the result of global population pressure. I still wonder today, as I did then, why he was delivering this message to a small audience of academics rather than the politicians who apparently appointed him. The obvious, and cynical, answer is that the message was the wrong one because it would not win votes or elections.

Earlier this week I saw an interview with David Attenborough by Andrew Denton (on Australian ABC TV) whom Denton introduced as ‘the most traveled person on the planet’. When asked if he was an ‘optimist’ or a ‘pessimist’, Attenborough responded negatively. He lamented the effects of population growth on both the human and animal world and could see no easy resolution; an issue I’ve already commented on in the abovementioned post.

What have all these issues got in common? They all involve scientists advising governments, and the population in general, well in advance, that action needs to be taken on a global scale or we will all suffer economically, environmentally and health-wise. So why are they ignored? They are ignored at the time of their revelation because, they are not only future forecasts, and therefore debatable, but they require action and commitment on a large scale, and, more significantly, they won’t be supported by the very people who elect governments into power. And this leads to the problem with democracy: action is only taken when the people who elect governments are directly affected by the consequences of global issues. All scientific advisers will tell you, that, by the time that happens, it is simply too late.

In last week’s New Scientist (14 June 2008) there is a well-researched and well-articulated article written by Debora Mackenzie, entitled What Price More Food? She gives it the sub-heading: ‘It’s the crisis the world should have seen coming’; just like oil production shortages; just like climate change; and just like water crises, both future and present.

Economic growth is the universal paradigm that all governments and politicians swear by. It is the only criterion by which to judge the ‘health’ of a nation. Unfortunately, as I pointed out in Living in the 21st Century, it is currently linked to population growth. Tell any economic rationalist that zero population growth should be the goal and they will have a seizure. I’m merely stating the obvious, but the obvious is easy to ignore when its consequences, and therefore its resolution, can be postponed.

None of this is helped when we have a global religious institution determined to maintain its anachronistic standards on issues like birth control and contraception. Recently the Vatican attempted to portray itself as a 21st Century institution by announcing some new ‘mortal sins’ that include possible research into gene therapy – in other words, the demonisation of science. Personally, I find the Vatican’s stance on birth control and the use of condoms, in particular, morally irresponsible at best, and reprehensible at worst. As I’ve said elsewhere, ignorance is the greatest enemy facing the 21st Century, and unfortunately the Vatican is clearly part of the problem when it could be part of the solution.

Am I a pessimist or an optimist? Well, I’m a pessimist if we maintain the status quo, but I’m an optimist if we adopt a more politically amenable approach to science. We have both the intellectual ability and the technological resources to change a great deal. Global communication is a key instrument, I believe, in educating people at grass roots level and engaging in public debate, as I’m attempting to do now.

Politicians on the ‘right’ see science as subordinate to economic imperatives. There is still a strong belief that ‘market forces’ will overcome all our global ills, including climate change, food shortages and everything else. They may even be right, but it’s an imbalanced approach when it’s obvious that the global-majority-poor suffer the brunt of these ‘forces’ and the global-minority-wealthy remain the least affected. The wealthy are obviously in the best position to effect the greatest change, but they will only act when their ‘constituents’ are directly affected, hence the problem explicit in the title of this essay.

Politicians on the ‘left’, on the other hand, are more ready to demonise science; they see it as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Genetic engineering is a case in point, where they ignore the fact that all of the food we consume today is the result of genetic manipulation by humans over centuries (yes, even before Darwin); so it’s all ‘unnatural’, strictly speaking. The aforementioned article in New Scientist makes it clear that market forces and corporate interests have not delivered the result that the world obviously needs, but, equally, the author points out that genetic manipulation, either by breeding or specific gene splicing, is the only means we have to resolve this situation, and, more significantly, the technology exists today.

My point, I guess, is that science can deliver solutions and problems, depending on how it is employed. But we are in a period of unprededented growth (the world population has doubled in my lifetime) being driven by an almost religious dedication to an economic paradigm that is a significant contributor to the problem. There needs to be a balance introduced into the equation that not only allows for zero population growth but actively encourages it. Female emancipation and education is part of the solution, as many people, including Attenborough, acknowledge. But there also needs to be a recognition that scientists are the harbingers of future problems, and we ignore them at the cost to the quality-of-life for future generations. The 21st Century will be remembered, either as the century we turned things around or the century where we lost the best part of what we have gained. I truly, sincerely hope that my pessimism (and David Attenborough’s) is ill-founded.


Mr. Jan Hearthstone said...

The phrase "universal paradigm" caught my attention--what I propose is that instead of trying forever (and never catching up, really) to improve on the current globally dominant paradigm, we, collectively, should envision (from the scratch, as if) what the ideal state of affairs on Earth should be first, and then knowing what we want try to reach the ideal.

Please see:
http://www.ModelEarth.Org .

Thank you, Mr. Jan Hearthstone.

Journeyman Jr said...

Its all because no one listens to the Precautionary Principle. Until individuals are slapped across the face they will continue to maintain there lifestyle as 'it's never hurt anyone before'.

In order for change to happen people individually have to consider impacts of self to self

Nathan Hunt said...

Oopsie, I think I messed up my last comment sorry!!!

Anyhow people don't change or rather apply themselves to late because no one finds the 'Precautionary Principle' sensible.

Individuals only care when they are being affected, in order for democracy to truly work individuals need to be educated individually and independently of their peers.

Its much to easy to put aside issues of global warming when you have a comfortable SUV with nice cool AC telling you every things gonna be a'ok!

True democracy in which voters vote for every decision and are educated before there vote is the only workable political model in my view. Either that or a benevolent intelligent dictator, who has alot of time on their hands.