12 A Politics Worthy of the Name

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Genuine politics—politics worthy of the name . . . is simply a

matter of serving those around us: serving the community, and

serving those who will come after us.

—Vaclav Havel

Relative to the problems we face, our politics are about the most miserable

that can be imagined. Those who purport to represent us and

who on rare occasions try to lead us have been unable to take even

the smallest steps to promote energy efficiency to avoid possibly catastrophic

climatic change a few decades from now. They have failed

to stop the hemorrhaging of life and protect biological diversity, soils,

and forests. They ignore problems of urban decay, suburban sprawl,

the poisoning of our children by persistent toxins, the destruction of

rural communities, and the growing disparity between the rich and

the poor. They cannot find the wherewithal to defend the public interest

in matters of global trade or even in the financing of public elections.

Indeed, the more potentially catastrophic the issue, the less

likely it is to receive serious and sustained attention from political

leaders at any level.

Our public priorities, in other words, are upside down. Issues that

will seem trivial or even nonsensical to our progeny are given great attention,

while problems crucial to their well-being are ignored and allowed

to grow into global catastrophes. At best they will regard us

with pity, at worst as derelict and perhaps criminally so. The situation

was not always this way. The leadership of this country was once capable

of responding to threats to our security and health with alacrity

and sometimes with intelligence.

In light of the dismal performance of the U.S. political system relative

to the large environmental and social issues looming ahead, we

have, broadly speaking, three possible courses of action (assuming

that we choose to act). The first is to turn the management of our environmental

affairs over to a kind of permanent technocracy—a

priesthood of global managers. The idea that experts ought to manage

public affairs is at least as old as Plato. In its current incarnation, some

propose to turn the management of the earth over to a group of

global experts. Stripped to its essentials, this means smarter exploitation

of nature culminating in the global administration of the planet

with lots of satellites, remote sensing, and geographic information systems

experts mapping one thing or another. The goal of smarter ecological

management is to keep the extractive economy going a bit

longer by merely improving our management instead of rethinking

our aims (Sachs 1999). Technocrats will manage the environment efficiently

without much public participation or discussion of goals. If

history is any indication, they will ride roughshod over communities,

indigenous people, native cultures, farmers, and small landowners.

Planet managers will hold expensive conferences in exotic places,

issue glossy and reassuring reports, and ingratiate themselves with the

rich and powerful. In the end, however, they will fail because the

knowledge, foresight, and wisdom necessary for planetary management

are beyond human grasp and because people everywhere will

reject imperialism in its new guise of planetary management.

A second possibility is to admit that all politics is really about

economics anyway and turn things over to business corporations and

the market. Given the scale of our problems, the need for quick action,

and the difficulties of reforming democracy, there is much to be

said for turning matters over to people who know how to get things

done. But capitalism, whatever its other qualities, is not famous for

protecting environments or serving the public interest. Could it be reformed

along ecological lines? Some believe so. Factories would be

made over into industrial ecologies in which every waste product

would be used somewhere else. Businesses would sell “products of

service,” not just consumer goods, that are forever turned back into

new product. They would sell green and energy-efficient products.

Taxes would be levied on things we do not want such as pollution and

removed from those that we do want such as income and profits.

Above all, an ecologically solvent capitalism would account for its environmental

and social costs.

An ecologically reformed capitalism would be a great improvement

on the present system. As a strategy of change it is logical because

capitalism is virtually everywhere ascendant and governments

everywhere seem to be in retreat. Business, in short, is where the action

is. Operating along the model of ecosystems, businesses presumably

would not require close regulation. The role of government,

therefore, would be minimal and the need for a democratically informed

citizenry would diminish accordingly. Best of all, relying on

business to lead the transformation would require little of the public.

Instead, the logic of enlightened economic self-interest would drive

us toward a sustainable relationship with nature. But why would capitalism,

a system based on ruthless pursuit of short-term self-interest,

yield to such changes? If it were only a matter of logic, a decent concern

for our grandchildren, or even enlightened self-interest, we

could be optimistic, but alas, the issue is not so simple.

First, there is the question of whether it is possible to redesign

capitalism to accord with ecological realities. The problem is simply

that “the self-organizing principles of markets that have emerged in

human cultures over the past 10,000 years are inherently in conflict

with the self-organizing principles of ecosystems that have evolved

over the past 3.5 billion years” (Gowdy and McDaniel 1995, 181).

Markets are inappropriate tools to solve many problems of ecological

scarcity. For example, blue-fin tuna have been fished almost to extinction.

But the logic of the unrestrained market will not reduce the take

but, rather, will work to ensure that the last blue-fin tuna, selling for

hundreds of thousands of dollars, will be caught and sold and the

money invested elsewhere. The owners of capital do not care whether

they make money in fisheries or condominiums. The logic of exploitation

is relentless, predisposing the system to tragic ends with

many luxury goods but few fish.

The problem, in other words, is not that capitalists lack the right

information about the full ecological costs of what they do, but rather

that capitalism and ecological management are two fundamentally

different value systems that aim at different things. Markets, driven by

the logic of self-interest, are intended to maximize profits and minimize

costs for the owners of capital in the short term. Ecosystems, in

contrast, operate by the laws of thermodynamics and processes of

evolution and ecology that are played out over the long term.

Second, the possibility that increasingly powerful and predatory

corporations will reform themselves is remote while countervailing

forces, governments, an active citizenry, and labor unions are in decline.

The political arrangements of the New Deal that tamed some of

the worst excesses of U.S. capitalism for a time have come undone.

Now a global capitalism in the age of free trade is more powerful and

less restrained than ever. The result is a kind of robber baron phase of

global economic history with no remedy in sight (Soros 1997). Corporations

now operating in a free-trade environment have fewer constraints

than ever before. The problem is compounded by the several

trillion dollars that wash around the planet each day in search of the

highest rates of return. The results of footloose capital and unrestrained

corporate power are all too clear: too many dams, too many

cars, too many shopping malls, too many mines, too many factories,

and toothless environmental controls.

Third, the discipline of economics that explains, informs, and justifies

capitalism and educates capitalists has so far successfully resisted

accommodation with ecology and thermodynamics. The profession

has proven to be largely impervious to the devastating

critiques of maverick economists such as Kenneth Boulding, Nicholas

Georgescu-Roegen, Herman Daly, Robert Constanza, John Gowdy,

and Hazel Henderson. Logic, data, and evidence, notwithstanding,

mainstream economists hold with remarkable tenacity to beliefs that

technology can substitute for the loss of natural capital, economies

can grow without limits, and human desires are insatiable. Both the

profession of economics and its practice as capitalism are perpetuated

as belief systems by denial, repression, alienation from life, addiction,

and what theologian Thomas Berry (1999) calls a kind of ecological

autism (see also Gladwin et al. 1997). The collective irrationality

masquerading as realism or even science, in other words, is a manifestation

of life-denying pathologies that are now deeply embedded in a

professional caste.

Fourth, a reformed capitalism is still capitalism—a system that

thrives only when people buy and buy more than they need. Even if

they make “green” products and recycle all of their wastes, corporations,

for reasons of scale and power, will act to undermine political

participation, weaken the sense of community, and subvert democracy.

Even a reformed capitalism would still be a system that works

best when people confuse who they are with what they own. And it

would still be a system that must move large volumes of stuff long

distances as rapidly as possible. Capitalism, once a system largely contained

within national borders, has evolved into a global system in

which consumers cannot know the larger human and ecological costs

of the system that provisions them and in which sellers cannot be

held accountable for what they do.

Capitalism, in other words, is no more likely to transform itself

into ecotopia than lions are to become vegetarians.We urgently need

an economy that works ecologically, but the decision to reform capitalism

or to invent some other kind of economy is a political, not an

economic, choice. Issues having to do with the distribution of costs,

benefits, risks, and wealth within and between generations are matters

of fairness and decency, not efficiency. The scale of the economy relative

to the environment is a political choice that can be made only by

an ecologically literate public. Capitalism on its own is expansive and

will ride roughshod over boundaries and limits of all kinds. If limits

are imposed on the economy, they must be imposed politically by a

citizenry that knows when enough is enough. Questions of what to

tax and how to distribute public revenues wisely have to do with justice,

fairness, accountability, and ecological prudence. These are political

decisions. The economy, in other words, is a means, not an end.

The third possibility—and our only real choice—is to create a

better kind of politics and political institutions better suited to ecological

realities. The task would require rethinking the foundations of

public life much as the founders of this republic did in the eighteenth

century. To do so we would have to rethink basic questions of political

life as they did, but in recognition of ecological facts which they

did not know. The challenge before us is a design problem: how to

build a decent civilization that fits harmoniously into the ecology of

North America over the long term.

We are not accustomed to thinking of the effects of political decisions

in the long term, let alone as a problem of ecological design. In

fact, we’ve come to think of politics as mostly having to do with jobs

and economic growth in the short term. All of the ideologies of the

twentieth century—capitalism, communism, socialism, and fascism

—are essentially competing views about how to organize industrial

society. For all of the wars and ideological huffing and puffing, the differences

between them in historical perspective are quibbles having

to do with who owned and managed capital. Otherwise agreement

prevailed that humans ought to dominate nature, technology should

be unfettered, that we should burn fossil fuels as rapidly as possible,

and that economic growth is the supreme value. Politics was reduced

to questions having to do with the ownership of the means of production

and how to distribute the profits. Political views, accordingly,

arrayed themselves along a single axis of left to right denoting the extent

to which one favored public or private control of capital. But we

have entered a new political era in which the Left/Right dichotomy

no longer works, not because questions of ownership are unimportant

but because other issues have surged to the forefront.

These issues were there all along, of course. In The Great Frontier,

historian Walter Prescott Webb described the great increase in per

capita wealth generated by the discovery of the New World. The ratios

of people to land and resources were fundamentally transformed

until the middle of the twentieth century, when they once again approximated

those of the year 1500. The rapid exploitation of fossil

fuels has allowed us to continue the expansion for a while longer, but

the end of the human efflorescence has come into view.“The modern

age,” Webb wrote, “was an abnormal age. . . . The institutions developed

in this exceptional period are exceptional institutions” (1964,

14). At the end of the boom those institutions “and their attendant

ideas about human beings, government, and economics . . . may be expected

to undergo much change when those conditions have passed

away and history returns to normal” (ibid.).

James Madison had a premonition that we would come to such a

time. Richard Matthews says of Madison: “A Malthusian before

Malthus, he constructed a political system that would postpone

the inevitable decay for as long as reason would allow” (1994, 244).

The inevitable for Madison would be caused by a surplus of consumers

created by population growth and technological development.

The Louisiana Purchase and continental expansion would buy

some time but would not resolve the underlying political problems of

eventual scarcity. Good Calvinist that he was, Madison sought only to

delay what he regarded as inevitable, but he could see no way out

(1994, 210).

The Great Frontier is now spent; we live on a full planet. There

will be attempts to extend the boom a while longer by heroic technology

such as genetic engineering. When they fail, we will have to rethink

the foundations of political life, retracing the steps of Madison,

Jefferson, Hamilton, and the other architects of modern politics but

under much less favorable conditions and without the safety valve

provided by the frontier. The end of the Great Frontier means, in

short, that we can no longer avoid basic political issues of fair distribution

of wealth within and between generations by expanding production

to keep the poor content. Discarding old truisms about rising

tides lifting all boats and larger pies, we will be forced to reconsider

politics and economics relative to the limits of the biosphere and in

relation to the way the world works as a physical system.

In this light, societies have only four choices about how they provision

themselves with food, energy, materials, and water, and how

they dispose of their wastes. The choices have to do with

• how far the things used or consumed are transported

• the rate at which materials are used up and discarded

• the volume of materials used

• the sources of energy that power the entire system.

Until the industrial revolution, all societies met their basic needs locally

or regionally. The rate and volume of resource use was low, and

populations grew slowly if at all. Energy was derived from contemporary

sunlight in its various forms of biomass, wind, and water power.

In contrast, we are supplied by a global network of forests, farms,

mines, wells, and factories powered by the combustion of large

amounts of fossil fuels. Population growth is high. We measure our

success in terms of the gross national product, which is roughly the

speed and volume with which materials flow through the economic

pipeline from mines, wells, forests, and farms to dumps, smokestacks,

and outfall pipes. In the language of physics, this is the rate at which

we convert ordered matter or low entropy into waste and heat or high

entropy. To keep this system going we provide easy and underpriced

access to resources and lucrative tax and financial incentives to extractive

industries and subsidize timber cutting, road building, automobiles,

energy generation, and land sprawl (Myers 1998). And to

keep demand growing, corporations spend perhaps as much as $500

billion each year on advertising (United Nations 1998, 7). Environmental

protection is an add-on in the form of pollution control at

the end of the entropic pipeline and comes too late in the process to

be effective.

The large-scale systems and global organizations established to

provide us with an abundance of cheap food, fossil energy, materials,

and water and dispose of our wastes were created on assumptions

that nature was inexhaustible and that human actions counted for

little given the immense bounty of nature. At a scale far greater than

their creators could have imagined, those systems have nearly ruined

us. They have degraded our landscapes and ecosystems, spread toxins

worldwide, weakened community ties, undermined our democracy,

and reduced our capacity to take responsibility for what we do because

we cannot know what we are doing or undoing. These are not

side effects or accidents but predictable results of the way we have organized

the flow of food, materials, energy, and water.

We take great pride, for example, in being the best, and most

cheaply, fed people in history. But we are fed by a ruinous fossil

fuel–powered industrial system that contributes to climatic change,

water pollution, biotic impoverishment, depletion of groundwater,

and soil loss. It exploits labor and rural communities and undermines

future productivity of the land. The system encourages obesity, cancer,

and heart disease—all signs of a national eating disorder. Given its

scale and complexity, it cannot work responsibly, nor can consumers,

ignorant of how it works, know enough to eat responsibly. The system

dominated by large agribusiness firms, petrochemical companies, and

seed companies undermines democracy. In fact, it works only to the

extent that real democracy does not work and people do not know

these things or do not see them as part of a larger pattern or fail to see

opportunities to create a better food system.

These problems are not isolated events or accidents in an otherwise

good system. They are, rather, the logical results of a bad system

that just grew without anyone thinking much about how it fit (or did

not fit) into the patterns set by ecology, evolution, thermodynamics,

community, or democracy. If we want a better politics, we must first

design better ways to meet our essential needs and remove the

sources of tyranny from our lives. To do so we must take greater responsibility

for how we are fed and supplied, replacing the elaborately

destructive systems that provision us with better ones that rely

on local resources and local competence.We cannot make democracy

work unless we can make it work with, not against, the ecology of the

particular places in which we live. By whatever name, the alternatives

to large-scale, corporate control of our lives and politics require that

people, neighborhoods, and communities assume a larger responsibility

for meeting their own needs. The roots go back to Thomas Jefferson.

The enemy in his time and ours is what he termed “remote

tyranny.” For Jefferson that meant the king and Parliament living an

ocean away. In our time remote tyranny means both geographically

remote and remote in time—in other words, any source of unaccountable

power, corporate, governmental, or societal.

There is no way to hold a global economy accountable. Consequently,

people and local communities are defenseless, without any

good way to redress grievances or protect themselves from crises elsewhere.

In a global system, a crisis anywhere becomes a crisis everywhere.

There is no buffer, no margin, and no recourse when things go

bust. It is now possible to see that Jefferson, for all of his ambiguities,

was the great realist and Alexander Hamilton the dreamer. Jefferson

knew what Hamilton and his followers did not know: that the health

of democracy and that of the economy can be maintained only if citizens

control the basic circumstances of their lives and livelihood. Jefferson’s

alternative plan stressed local independence, agrarianism,

public accountability, widespread land ownership, and democratic

participation. Hamilton’s vision prevailed, at least for a time, but Jefferson’s

retains a hold on the human imagination virtually everywhere.

Vaclav Havel, for example, describes a Jeffersonian vision for

the Czech Republic in these words:

Every main street will have at least two bakeries, two sweetshops,

two pubs, and many other small shops, all privately

owned and independent. . . . Small communities will naturally

begin to form again, communities centred on the street,

the apartment block, or the neighbourhood. People will once

more begin to experience the phenomenon of home. It will

no longer be possible, as it has been, for people not to know

what town they find themselves in because everything looks

the same. . . . Our villages will once again have become villages.

. . . Agriculture should once again be in the hands of the

farmers—people who own the land, the meadows, the orchards,

and the livestock, and take care of them. In part,

these will be small farmers who have been given back what

was taken from them. . . . A pluralistic network of processing

and marketing cooperatives, to which farmers belong, will

exist. (Havel 1992, 104, 110–112)

I would tend to favor an economic system based on maximum

possible plurality of many decentralized, structurally

varied, and preferably small enterprises that respect the specific

nature of different localities and different traditions and

that resist the pressures of uniformity by maintaining a plurality

of modes of ownership and economic decision-making

from private through various types of cooperative and shareholding

ventures, collective ownerships. (Havel 1991, 16)

Jefferson’s vision for this country was never really tried. Instead,

it was dismissed in the national rush to expand to continental proportions

and to become a world power. Even though it is dismissed as impractical,

it is still trotted out for sentimental reasons from time to

time. But knowing more about the ecological and human costs of

Hamilton’s vision of America, Jefferson’s looks better and better with

the passage of time. So, too, does his idea that no generation ought to

impose debt on succeeding ones. In a famous letter to James Madison

in 1789, Jefferson asked whether “one generation of men has a right

to bind another.” His answer was no based on the principle that “the

earth belongs to the living and not to the dead.” Jefferson concluded,

“No generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during

the course of it’s own existence” (1975, 244).1 Were he alive now,

1. Madison’s initial response was not positive. He objected that some debt

incurred for "improvements" or "repelling conquest" benefited posterity.

I think that Jefferson would agree that the dead could also encumber

the living by leaving behind depleted soils, denuded landscapes, hazardous

wastes, biotic impoverishment, and changing climate; debt

could be both ecological and financial.

For us, Jefferson’s political vision has two great advantages. First,

his insistence that no generation encumber the future with debt is a

principle that transcends the present impasse between liberals and

conservatives and bears resemblance to the views of Edmund Burke

described in chapter 11. Jefferson, a man of the Left, and Burke, the

patron saint of modern conservatism, both agreed that decisions of

the present must be measured against the degree to which they encumbered

future generations. Both saw the possibility that tyranny

might be remote in time as well as in space. Writing within a year of

each other, the views of the founders of modern conservatism and

modern radicalism converged on a similar point: the welfare of future

generations. That standard cuts across the divisions between Left and

Right that have stalled our national politics. It coincides with every

major religion in the world, and it appeals to the heart as well as to

practical reason.

The second great virtue of Jefferson’s vision is that it coincides

with what we have come to understand as the principles of resilient

systems that can withstand outside disturbances. Principles derived

from ecology, systems theory, engineering, mathematics, and the

study of the evolution of living systems over 3.8 billion years bear a

strong similarity to those Jefferson proposed for the new nation. The

basic design principles for resilient systems of all kinds have common

characteristics (Lovins and Lehmann 1977, Lovins and Lovins 1982),

such as:

• small units dispersed in space

• redundancy

• short linkages between modules

• simplicity and repairability

• diversity of components

Eventually, however, Madison came to accept the idea of limiting the public

debt for reasons similar to those originally proposed by Jefferson (Matthews

1995).

• self-reliance

• decentralized control

• large margins

• quick feedback.

Jefferson’s nation of small farmers no longer exists, but the underlying

principles are still valid. For his time Jefferson proposed the

creation of a society capable of preserving democracy while withstanding

the turmoil of a simpler agrarian world. In the twenty-first

century, that same goal would aim to create resilient communities

that provide a large fraction of their own food, energy, shelter, health,

recreation, and financing in order to withstand global financial crises,

volatile stock markets, the effects of capital mobility, corporate downsizing,

terrorism, and interruption of resource supplies. More resilient

communities would create more of their own jobs without importing

footloose capital. They would control most of their own money.

Ownership would be widespread (Gates 1998, Shuman 1998). They

would grow a large fraction of their own food locally or regionally.

They would utilize local and renewable energy to the maximum. The

sophisticated modern mind atrophied by all of the nonsense about

the global economy and the necessity for economic growth has dismissed

these notions as nostalgia or worse. In fact, resilience and

democracy both require a social order that features rich community

life, neighborliness, competence, self-reliance, human scale, and ecological

durability.

We need not expect help from those who fatten at the trough of the

global economy. The reason is simple: money—specifically the $125

billion in welfare handed out by the federal government to corporations,

the $300 billion in subsidies for highways and automobiles, and

the $1.4 trillion in global subsidies for environmental destruction

(Barlett and Steele 1998, Myers 1998). Until such time as we have

the good sense to establish a complete and total separation between

money and politics—like that between church and state—our national

and state politics will be corrupt and ineffective.We must remove

money from politics at all levels once and for all. Federal funding

for national elections is a start. The next step is to rein in the

power of corporations by insisting that they abide by the terms of

their charters. The charters of those that cannot do business within

the terms of the law should be revoked. A corporate version of “three

strikes and you’re out,” for instance, would have a salutary effect on

corporate behavior.

None of this, however, is likely to begin in Washington, D.C. It

will have to begin in communities, towns, urban neighborhoods

where consumers decide to become citizens and take control of their

lives and livelihood. The effect would be a diminution of power of

those who cultivate what Jefferson called dependence and venality.

Local food production and cooperatives would begin to weaken the

power of the giant food monopolies. Power systems distributed to

rooftops and buildings would weaken the hold of giant utilities. Local

currencies and local investments would weaken the hold of financial

speculators and money brokers. Every alternative to the consumption

of gasoline, from better designed communities to cars that run on

solar hydrogen, would weaken the hold of the giant oil companies.

Over years and decades the quiet withdrawal from large-scale systems

reduces the prospect of ecological catastrophe, social injustice,

and remote tyranny. A more resilient social order does not guarantee

the rejuvenation of democracy, but it does change what the public

perceives to be possible. Every solar collector, every community garden

or wind farm, every local currency is a declaration of independence

from remote tyranny and a declaration of interdependence with

all of life and with generations unborn. The eventual reform of national

politics will begin when elites begin to feel the desperation that

comes from the awareness of being left behind. The strategy is the

same as that described by Lewis Mumford, who once proposed to use

the power of “animated individual minds, small groups, and local

communities” not to seize power, but to “withdraw from it and quietly

paralyze it” (1970, 408).

You and I will have to do the hard work of reviving democracy

and rebuilding a decent country and ecologically sustainable communities

the old-fashioned way: from the bottom up. There is no use pretending

that it will be easy to do, but it will be a great deal easier than

vainly trying to make our peace with the forces of tyranny in our

time. Eventually the small brigades will win for the same reasons that

small mammals survived and the dinosaurs died out, that Drake’s

fleet defeated the Spanish Armada, and that all large organizations

eventually become sclerotic and rigid. The reasons have to do with

agility, the capacity to respond quickly, adaptability, and the princi-

ples of resilience. These are things that can be sustained only at an appropriate

scale.

Eventually, urban neighborhoods, communities, small towns will

quietly paralyze the sources of remote tyranny by withdrawing from

them. The transformation, already under way, is easy to overlook because

it is not dramatic, it does not make for good slogans, and it does

not need a national organization. It is people taking back power by

forming community-supported farms and land trusts, by using local

currencies, by using less fossil fuels and more solar energy, by starting

community businesses, and doing all of the hard work of becoming

citizens again. The logic of decentralization—democracy from the

bottom up—is founded on simple facts of how the world really does

work. Local economies prosper by minimizing dependency on the

outside economy and by meeting local needs with local resources.

Are we up to it? Time will tell. The sources of remote tyranny in

our time prefer to keep us in a state of consumer-besotted ignorance.

But, in Jefferson’s (1816, 473) words, “If a nation expects to be ignorant

and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be.”