Can Democracy Save the Planet?
Donald Trump’s announcement of US withdrawal from the Paris climate change treaty was far from unexpected. Both before and after being elected president, he publically and unswervingly, online and in campaign speeches, stated his opposition to climate action. Take, for instance his notorious tweet on November 6, 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
Why has Trump’s position on the issue, unlike his stance on sundry topics, remained so stable over time? This exceptional consistency has nothing to do with principles. What matters is that the evidence for climate change is not (at least, not yet) entirely direct and not quite mediatic; it does not provoke an instant sensory shock, as images of children who fell victim to a chemical attack did, presumably prompting Trump to order the bombing of military installations in Syria. Even if the extractive-destructive fossil fuel industry, to which the US President and many key players in his administration are directly linked, were magically to disappear overnight, little would change in his approach to global warming, which requires an intellectual as opposed to a purely sensory-emotive response, the work of imagining events over long timespans as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction to a present stimulus.
In a recent opinion piece, titled “America’s Broken Democracy,” Jeffrey Sachs attributes the fiasco of the Trump-led disengagement from the Paris agreement to a “deep corruption of the American political system,” which “has become a game of powerful corporate interests: tax cuts for the rich, deregulation for mega-polluters, and war and global warming for the rest of the world.” It is, however, unclear when the change from a pure politics to its corrupt version has actually taken place. When has the American political system been at the behest of interests other than those of powerful corporations? Paradoxically, Sachs underwrites Trump’s own discourse of the lost greatness of America, though he sees in the current US President the culmination of that loss, not the hope for salvation.
What caught my attention in Sachs’s analysis was not his misguided bemoaning of a “once-functioning democracy” in “America,” but his implicit assumption that representative democracies at the level of nation-states are the political formations best suited to tackling the planet-wide, anthropogenic environmental disaster we are in the midst of.
In addition to the class-based manipulation of public opinion and electoral choices under ideological covers, actually existing democracies (and we sorely need this concept that would be analogous to “actually existing socialism” coined in the twentieth century) operate with ultra-short timespans and have an extremely narrow spatial reach. Four- or five-year electoral cycles fail to measure up against the centuries of climate change, requiring policies with an equally long-term commitment. The territorial limits of national sovereignty do not give a sense that meaningful environmental action in one country (whether democratic or not) will have significant impact on a global scale. The fickleness of “the people’s choice,” as far as democratic political leadership is concerned, is more and more reminiscent of televised contests, such as the musical Idol competitions now popular everywhere around the world.
It is not that democracy is broken here or there, with political and economic corruption, no longer concealed by the screens of ideology, oozing through its open seams and fissures. Rather, democracy is brokenness. Broken in time, it is out of sync with the longue durée of the most pressing, life-and-death environmental problems, particularly air and water pollution, the melting of the icecaps, rising sea levels, and so forth. Broken in space, it is incapable of addressing these same problems that affect both human and non-human beings at every place on the planet. The Band-Aid solution of international agreements, such as the Paris accords, is ineffective, if they remain non-binding and at the mercy of shifting political moods at home.
Yet, if the brokenness of democracy is something we might for better or for worse live with (or even want to live with) for the time to come, then it is paramount to ensure that this political regime does not contravene the material conditions for life on earth. And we might as well do so in the open, neither by measuring actually existing democracies against an impossible ideal nor by bemoaning their bygone Golden Age, which is but a fiction. How then? By reinventing democratic actuality and asserting: Only a planetary democracy can save the planet.
A planetary democracy would be 1) planet-wide; 2) of the planet; 3) for the planet. These are its minimal parameters that refrain from specifying its form. Indeed, any imposition of a political form in this context would be both ineffective and dictatorial; another actuality of democracy must develop through a democratic discussion, itself responding to the three parameters I have listed. Such a conversation, in turn, must be authorized, promoted, and supported (including financially) by the vanguard of actually existing democracies mindful of their structural incapacities to make any other substantial contribution to a livable planet.
As I have indicated, I do not think that it is methodologically or ethically right for a philosopher to offer blueprints for a democracy beyond the nation-state and beyond the human, as Michel Serres or Bruno Latour among others have done. I do nonetheless consider planetary democracy to be a response to Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’s exhortation, “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” (Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch!) The Latin-derived meaning of the word “proletarian” exceeds the bounds of the human: it refers to the offspring or progeny (proles), which was the only service non-propertied ancient Romans could give to their political community. In this sense, not only humans but also plants and animals, fungi and bacteria, are members of the proletariat projecting themselves into the future through their descendants in a tendency that accounts for the variation vegetariat Cate Sandilands has introduced to express how contemporary capitalist exploitation taps into the vegetal capacities for nourishment and reproduction shared by plants, animals, and humans. (Lest such an objection arise, those who do not leave physical progeny behind are not excluded from this notion of the proletariat; as Plato taught, children can be of the body but also of the mind, the latter—creations, inventions, writings, artistic productions…—in fact preferable and closer to the realm of Ideas than the former.)
A planetary democracy would still unfold within broken outlines, the singular places and futures of its participants never amounting to a total unity. But these disjunctions to be negotiated against the backdrops and the timelines of environmental degradation are more in tune with planetary reality than the four- or five-year terms of actually existing national democracies. After all, here, on the planetary level, Trump—not only the empirical person bearing that name but everything that he stands for—would be a life-form among countless others, not the voice that trumps the right of everyone else to have a future.