“In the kingdom of consumption the citizen is king. A democratic monarchy: equality before consumption, fraternity in consumption, and freedom through consumption.”
It’s the most common of assumptions in America and other western democracies that a democracy is the best form of government. It’s worth questioning any commonplace assumption because even if it turns out to be true, you find out why it is true.
Countries like the United States and other western powers generally measure the success of their governance by two metrics. First, success is defined by engagement and representation of ‘the people’ in government. This breaks down into voting and other human rights issues. If a government is a successful constitutional democracy it means that basic human rights are guaranteed to all and all citizens (with a few exceptions) are allowed to participate in governance.
Democracies have often fallen short of the ideal. The 15th amendment to the US constitution, ratified in 1870, formally gave black men the right to vote. Although formally allowed to vote, coercion, violence and other forms of discrimination made the reality fall far short of the guarantee of law. In the US, it wasn’t until the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920 that women were given the right to vote. Despite the fact that they lived in America long before those of European or African descent, Native Americans weren’t considered US citizens (or allowed to vote) until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. It wasn’t until the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 that Native Americans were afforded many of the same rights as other US citizens. America certainly has improved on matters of human rights but it’s clear, especially now under the current presidential administration that it has a long way to go still. The same is true of many democracies. Australia has treated indigenous people and refugees equally dismally throughout history as one of many examples.
The second metric of success that most western democracies use is the metric of economics. Economic wealth is a hallmark of capitalism, which is as influential an idea on our government and society as democracy, perhaps more so. Free market economics is what determines the wealth and thus social standing of everyone in America.
As far as overall economic wealth, America has done well. According to a recent report, the US Gross National Income for 2016 was almost 19 trillion dollars. Wikipedia lists the US as 6th in the world on terms of GNI alone. Part of the problem is that GNI is deceptive and has little to do with equality, justice or overall happiness.
I visited Equatorial Guinea (EG) a few years back and spent five months there. In EG I saw a world of extremes. On the one hand, there were fancy modern skyscrapers being built in the city, but on the other, there were villages with no electricity or running water, connected to the outside world only by foot paths. Yet Wikipedia lists Equatorial Guinea as 73 in the world in terms with GNI, not too far from Mexico at 67. Much further down the list is Madagascar with a GNI at 178 in the world. Having spent months in all three countries, I found that many in Equatorial Guinea have much more in common with people in Madagascar than Mexico in terms of affluence.
Between Equatorial Guinea and Madagascar with a GNI rating of 127 in the world is Bhutan. Bhutan is an interesting case because it is the only country with a GNH or Gross National Happiness rating as a measure of successful governance. It’s worth noting that Bhutan is officially the Kingdom of Bhutan and is the last Buddhist monarchy in the world. The phrase ‘gross national happiness’ was first coined in 1972 by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, when he stated, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” Since it was first voiced the philosophy of GNI is one of measuring other aspects of development and well-being beyond economics. The Conversation sites that more than 50% of Bhutan’s land is protected in national parks while 80% is covered in natural forests and reforestation efforts are increasing that amount. This makes sense as ‘Ecological diversity and resilience’ is listed as one of the 9 components of Bhutan’s GNH. Other parts of the GNH can easily be connected to a healthy environment.
Psychological wellbeing, health and living standards are all connected to the environment in one way or another. A large part of Bhutan’s success in maintaining a healthy environment is related to religion, early animist beliefs were replaced largely by Buddhism and both religions acknowledge sentience in other organisms. Snow Leopards of Bhutan often prey upon yaks that some herders depend upon for their livelihood. Compensation for yak predation is paid by the government and small amounts of income are generated through ecotourism. Tourism in Bhutan though is severely limited, costing $200-250 per day to visit and certain areas are restricted. Tourism limitations are part of keeping the culture of Bhutan intact and healthy, rather than being swamped with globalism as many other places are. Beyond religion and culture, I believe one reason Bhutan is so successful in preserving culture, religion and environment is because it is a monarchy. It’s hard to imagine a democracy doing as well.
The United States has pioneered the way in many aspects of environmentalism. Teddy Roosevelt and others like him created a national park system that has been admired and emulated across the world from Europe to Africa. Even extreme environmental movements such as Earth First! were founded in America and have a distinctive American flavor. Yet much of what Teddy Roosevelt did seems to some to push the boundaries of democracy. National monuments are created by executive order as are national forests. In many ways this land conservation is the backbone of American environmental policy. When it comes to using executive orders, Teddy Roosevelt is quote in an article in Journal of Legislation as saying,
“…I declined to adopt this view that what was imperatively necessary for the Nation could not be done by the President, unless he could find some specific authorization to do it.”
Many presidents since Roosevelt have been accused of abusing power, often when declaring national monuments, including President Obama.
It seems apparent that a healthy environment is in the best interest of the people. Public lands likewise seem part of the greater good. It’s not apparent however that in all cases without coercion would the people themselves invest in this greater good. Often politicians working together have a hard time passing big environmental law. One individual working on what he or she knows is right can be convinced more easily to embrace environmentalism.
In a paper originally published in Ethical Perspectives, Stijn Neuteleers discusses the ideas of autocracy and democracy in regards to environmental goals. For the proponents of large scale geoengineering projects to control climate change, autocracy seems the best form of government to achieve those goals. Some environmentalists (including myself) consider geoengineering ideas nightmarish. Neuteleers quotes André Gorz in Political Ecology: Expertocracy versus Self-Limitation and article published in New Left Review:
“The ecological movement was born long before deterioration of the environment and the quality of life raised the question of human survival. It was born originally out of a spontaneous protest against the destruction of the culture of the everyday by the apparatuses of economic and administrative power. By ‘culture of the everyday’ I mean the whole self-evident collection of intuitive knowledge or vernacular know-how (in the sense given to this term by Ivan Illich), the habits, norms and modes of conduct that enable individuals to interpret, to understand, to assume responsibility for the way they inhabit the world that surrounds them (Gorz 1993, 57). The underlying motivation is always defence of the ‘life-world’ against the rule of the experts, against quantification and monetary evaluation, against the substitution of mercantile, dependent, client relations for the individual’s autonomy and capacity for self-determination”
This view promotes ideas opposite of those who think an autocracy or monarchy is able to promote environmental ideas through simple fiat. Instead we are left pondering ideas that the heart of environmentalism is connected deeply to ideas of freedom and self-determination. Indeed for many, myself included, the ideal goals of environmentalism is a free self-determining global environment. It’s good to remember that some of the best governments for the environment were those of hunter gatherer groups. Largely these groups are loosely governed with few formal laws or governing bodies. To have free species, we must have a free environment, to do that we must also be free.
By Zach Fitzner, Earth.com Staff Writer