Dinosaurs and dimwits

In last Sunday’s Observer David Mitchell lambasted the looming referendum on EU membership as a failure of political leadership. He says (more or less) that issues like this are not a matter of personal preference, but demand technical knowledge and expertise. If we’re honest, while everyone might have an opinion, it’s not just a matter of opinion, and Mitchell argues that we appoint political leaders to inform themselves properly and make these decisions on our behalf.

Underpinning this argument is the point that our democracy is not designed to ensure our politicians reflect our views (which may or may not be worth reflecting); it’s to ensure that politicians remain answerable for their decisions to the electorate, and so will continue to govern in the interests of the electorate, rather than (say) their immediate friends. I imagine this is what Churchill meant when he described democracy as the least bad of the available options.

We all know that we’re not having this referendum because it’s important to where we find ourselves at this moment in the world, but because David Cameron hoped (and even this was a stupid hope) to silence the anti-EU majority in his own party. As Martin Wolf suggested recently in the FT, this is possibly the most irresponsible decision by a UK prime minister in living memory.

It strikes me that this kind of abdication of responsibility (as if the problem were too difficult to be addressed through parliament’s normal channels) reflects a much deeper and potentially more serious failure of government. The gravest issue of our time is not whether the British are European (we have been for at least 1000 years), nor whether free markets are the answer to everything (they are not), nor even the problems posed by the rise of religious fundamentalism, but whether we have been inducing a fundamental change in the Earth’s climate, and whether we can still do anything about it.

This matters because we really are facing a global catastrophe, not in my shrinking lifetime perhaps, but probably, devastatingly, within 100 years. My children’s lives are likely to be hit, and if I ever have any grandchildren they will face a very different world, a world where rising sea levels have removed substantial areas of land, where established water and food sources have been devastated and other resources, including energy, are subject to increasing constraints. It’s probably true that these effects will be felt most acutely in the developing world (which would be cause enough for action), but no one can seriously imagine Europe and the Americas will be untouched.

There are still people who want to deny the overwhelming science in play here. It would be a better world if we could simply ignore them, though tragically they have held positions of substantial influence, particularly in the US. The worst of it is that they have helped the world’s governments sit on their hands for the last 20 years, when there might still have been time to set us on a different course.

Our governments continue to pat themselves on the back over “progress”, for instance at the recent Paris summit, but they are still playing to their imaginary galleries, while the hard truth is that it’s probably too late already. Click here for some tough data. As the blog’s author David Roberts puts it “The obvious truth about global warming is this: barring miracles humanity is in for some awful shit.”

It’s probably true that global realities have changed faster than our inter-governmental institutions, and those changing realities have highlighted increasingly pressing questions about what governments might be for. Historically that question might not have seemed so problematic. I’d argue that elites have always deliberately confused “rule” and “government” to legitimise the exercise of their power in their own interests, but as societies have grown more complex the argument has usually invoked some notion of a contract between governors and governed, so that we the people would accept the imposition of laws (and tithes) in exchange for peace, stability (and binding arbitration).

With the rise of nations, standing armies and empires through the 18th and 19th centuries, the dynastic squabbles of royal families and other leaders morphed into warfare as an extension of trade, and governments appointed themselves the guardians of a much broader concept of national interest, while the “people” dutifully lined up behind them. This murderous willy-waving reached its nadir in the 20th century and its global wars. For a while it seemed the horrors unleashed might bring “leaders” to their senses, and in this crucible both the UN and the EU were born, but in one form or another the willy waving continues to define the conduct of foreign affairs, while globalising business interests (empowered by technology) have been rewriting the rules to suit themselves (with suitable proxies in place in government to align those rules with selective national interests*).

If ever there was an issue demanding collective government action and leadership, that issue must be climate change. They’ve talked, and some have set targets, and some countries have tried to set examples, but it’s beginning to look like it’s all been too little, too late. I doubt future generations, dealing with the consequences, will judge this prevarication kindly, though ironically what’s been exposed is a fault line in the notion of popular government, democratic or not. Real leadership would have meant agreeing and imposing measures that made our lives a bit harder, for the sake of a greater good. But our leaders don’t trouble themselves with that kind of difficulty.

In my more optimistic moments I comfort myself with the thought that as and when the consequences begin to make themselves felt, they will force a shift in outlook and conduct, towards the kind of large scale co-operation and co-ordination which is the best excuse for the continuing existence of such government. In these optimistic moments too I can take comfort from the emergence at grassroots of a new communitarianism, which itself reflects a perception of the increasing failures of national governments to address what actually matters. This all looks pretty Utopian at the moment, as relatively small groups of people seek to take back some control over their lives, growing their own food, developing community energy projects and so on. Then again it hardly seems Utopian to want to step out of the fairyland in which many in our society and its politicians seem to live.

In Germany recently there were successive days when the nation’s electricity needs were supplied (and even oversupplied) entirely by renewable resources, many of them based in local communities. What may be emerging is a new relationship between large scale and local infrastructure, with consequences for political organisation too.

A commercial housing development in the Netherlands suggests how this might develop. Concepts like the ReGen village, which are moving quickly from the drawing board to practical reality, promise to redefine the relationship between local self-organised communities and larger infrastructures. It’s unlikely they could be an entirely “closed loop”; health, education, wider transport and telecommunication systems, not to mention justice, are still going to need to work on some kind of larger scale. But where government will fit in this redefined relationship is as yet an open question, particularly if coming generations are asking that question in the light of the failure of our government structures to address the most urgent issues of the day.

Then again this is me thinking in optimistic mode. If I look to present realities and the preoccupations of our politicians, it’s like watching a herd of brontosaurus turning away from that big rock falling from the sky to argue about the threat of velociraptors.

We tend to imagine the future a 100 years from now as a bit like now, but with better phones and spaceships. I doubt it’s going to be like that. I doubt our work, our leisure, or even our basic ways of eating and buying things will be the same. I doubt the way we regard or handle government will be anything like it is now. I certainly hope not.

*I don’t particularly want to blame business here. Setting aside the disastrous notions of “shareholder-led capitalism”, business people are in my experience pragmatic. You can’t expect much in the way of social vision from them, but on the whole they’d rather be part of the solution than the problem and still look to governments to provide the context in which they can be. The trouble is that governments in the last 30 years have given up on that role, because it was getting harder and harder, and short term commercial interest has filled the vacuum (inadequately of course).

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