Thursday, December 5, 2013

Book Review: The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy

The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy by David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith (Praeger, Westport, Connecticut, 2007, 181 pages).

A dangerous book? Green and fascist: are ecology and democracy incompatible?
Contains index, footnotes, exceedingly well documented. Part of the Praeger Politics and the Environment series.

The authors are environmentalists, academics, authors, physician, scientist, lawyer, philosopher - definitely not people to dismiss - which renders the book the more dangerous, being signed by such (apparently) credible witnesses. They are committed environmentalists with quite a few notches on their guns. The book begins with the unoffensive dedication:

"This book is dedicated to all who work for a truly equitable and environmentally sustainable world"
The authors then procede to a devastating analysis of "liberalism", democracy and "liberal democracy" showing how they have aided and abetted enivronmental crises: climate change, habitat destruction, etc. Their analysis is cogent and deserves reading and reflection upon. Unfortunately, the authors then procede into a minefield of semantic errors and draw some really dangerous conclusions from their faulted logic:

1- They conflate "liberalism" with "economic liberalism", ignoring the antinomian, paradoxical nature of the latter: unfettered freedom to accumulate leads necessarily to inequality of power / opportunity thus negating the liberal ideology used to justify economic liberalism.

Liberalism: attitude, philosophy, or movement that has as its basic concern the development of personal freedom and social progress.

2- Critique of Democracy. Representative democracy leads to "temporal myopia". Politicians pander to the electorate's basest drives in order to win the next election. In effect, society ends up incapable of thinking or seeing more than four years ahead. Politicians also must pander to corporate power both for campaign contributions and to provide jobs to buy votes. These critiques are, alas, all too true but do they necessarily apply, to such an extreme degree, to decentralized, community based, participatory forms of democracy? The authors make the mistake of painting all forms of "democracy" with the same brush when, in fact, there may be vital differences which need to be explored and exploited for socity's benefit.

3- The authors employ a facile, "common sense", Darwinism-based argument to justify authoritarian, top-down social regulation: authoritarianism is genetically programmed. This is virtually undeniable: man is, after all, a terrestrial vertebrate (mammal) and, at the most primitive level of social behavior should - obviously! - function like other mammals, dduuhhh.. See, for example, Stanley Milgram's pioneering research on "authoritarian compliance":
The authors then go on, from this sociobiological truism to argue, counter-factually, that democracy can't work and that some form of " idealistic authoritarianism" is needed to save the world from greed and plunder

The big "elephant in the room" that these authors ignore is that man is also, almost certainly, "genetically programmed" for face-to-face, participatory, "tribal village democracy". Stop to think about it for a second: why, exactly, did the human capacity for speech arise? Other higher primates don't have this highly evolved, "genetically programmed" capacity for communication through speech. Not the gorilla, nor the chimpanze, nor even the ourang-outang (though they come closest to us in this ability). Speech communication synergistically co-evolved with face-to-face, participatory, "tribal village democracy", the oldest, primordial form of human governance. That is to say, our ancestors were "naturally selected" to speak - and speak well - because group solidarity and group co-ordination, which possess "survival value", are facilitated by the capacity to communicate effectively vocally.

4- The authors blame liberals for the crimes of the neocons (who intensely hate liberals!). Thus the politics of fear of the Bush Administration as well as the abolition of human rights at Guantanamo Bay are laid squarely at the doorstep of "liberalism, liberals, democracy and liberal democracy". This is painting with a broad brush indeed! (The authors' penchant to conflate all these terms together, wily-nily, is itself a warning that a stretch of faulty logic is ahead. It is reminiscent of the Right's tendancy to conflate "liberals", "socialists", "secularists", "humanists", "secular humanists", "atheists", "communists", etc
What I find disturbing about this book is not so much its content or its argument - who among us has not proven wrong-headed on occasion? - but the fact that it is published by Praeger in their Politics and the Environment series: the book is intended to be a serious intellectual contribution to a serious social issue. I can't really blame Praegar though: if this is where we have arrived as a society, so be it! It is the fact that we have actually arrived at this level of intellectual bankruptcy as a civilization that is chilling.
The authors themselves seem relatively "blameless" too. From my reading, they arrived at their tragic conclusions out of desperation at the failure of modern society to halt its headlong rush toward ecological suicide. They appear, in effect, to be decent men acting from good, not evil, intent. And THAT really sends chills up my spine..

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