02 January 2010

Books: Climate scientists against democracy

One of the arguably most progressive movements of our times – environmentalists fighting global warming and climate change – shows signs of turning anti-democratic in the wake of the perceived failure of the climate summit in Copenhagen.

Before Copenhagen, hardly anyone took notice of anti-democratic thought arising out of environmental science, one of the most fashionable fields of research at this time. Let me highlight some of the recent developments.

Two years ago, Australians David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith published a book called "The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy" (Praeger, 2007):


From the publisher's description: "Climate change threatens the future of civilization, but humanity is impotent in effecting solutions. Even in those nations with a commitment to reduce greenhouse emissions, they continue to rise. This failure mirrors those in many other spheres that deplete the fish of the sea, erode fertile land, destroy native forests, pollute rivers and streams, and utilize the world's natural resources beyond their replacement rate.

"In this provocative book, Shearman and Smith present evidence that the fundamental problem causing environmental destruction – and climate change in particular – is the operation of liberal democracy. Its flaws and contradictions bestow upon government – and its institutions, laws, and the markets and corporations that provide its sustenance – an inability to make decisions that could provide a sustainable society.

"Having argued that democracy has failed humanity, the authors go even further and demonstrate that this failure can easily lead to authoritarianism without our even noticing. Even more provocatively, they assert that there is merit in preparing for this eventuality if we want to survive climate change. They are not suggesting that existing authoritarian regimes are more successful in mitigating greenhouse emissions, for to be successful economically they have adopted the market system with alacrity. Nevertheless, the authors conclude that an authoritarian form of government is necessary, but this will be governance by experts and not by those who seek power.

"There are in existence highly successful authoritarian structures – for example, in medicine and in corporate empires – that are capable of implementing urgent decisions impossible under liberal democracy. Society is verging on a philosophical choice between liberty or life."

It is certainly noteworthy that both authors did not work at universities at the time this book was published – and haven't done so since. After holding faculty positions at Edinburgh and Yale, Shearman now works as a practicing physician. Smith is described as a lawyer, philosopher, and book author. Predictably, just like my own book, "Anti-Democratic Thought" (Imprint Academic, 2008), they received largely negative and even hostile reader reviews, simply for opposing democracy – along the lines of "Superficial Diatribe" and "Genocide, anyone? Sure would cut the ol' carbon footprint if you could just feed all those consumers and wrong-thinkers into the shredders ..."

Few academics showed themselves supportive: "For those wanting to think outside the square on climate change issues, this book is indispensable" (Bob Birrell, Monash); "This is an argument-moving book, a fresh and audacious contribution to the climate change debate" (Otis L. Graham, University of California, Santa Barbara); "If political thinking at its best makes the pressing questions of the day an occasion to revisit cherished fundamentals, then this book qualifies" (Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary – a fellow Imprint Academic author and critic of democracy).

The book is fully searchable on Google Book Search (including table of contents):


However, since then a number of climate scientists have adopted positions akin to those advanced by Shearman and Smith. James Hansen, for example, a renowned climate modeller with NASA (and billed as "[t]he scientist who convinced the world to take notice [...] of global warming"), is quoted in the "Guardian" as saying "that corporate lobbying has undermined democratic attempts to curb carbon pollution. 'The democratic process doesn't quite seem to be working,'" for "money is talking louder than the votes". "In Hansen's view, dealing with climate change allows no room for the compromises that rule the world of elected politics."

90-year-old British scientist James Lovelock (also a former NASA consultant and named one of the world's top-100 global public intellectuals by "Prospect" magazine in 2005), in "The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning" (Allen Lane, 2009), may be appalling his readers, according to "Publishers Weekly", with "his contention that democracy may need to be abandoned to appropriately confront the challenge [of climate change]":


Hansen and Lovelock, too, have gained the freedom to say what they really think about democracy (and its dangers) by not standing in the (sole) employ of a university. While Hansen only holds an adjunct professorship at Columbia, Lovelock, though having been an honorary visiting fellow at an Oxford college since 1994, works independently out of his private laboratory.

Much more in this vein can be found in the fora and on message boards of the environmental science community.

It remains to be seen whether such sentiments uttered more frequently by climate scientists will be able to turn public opinion against democracy, and if the protesters that got themselves beat up and arrested on the streets of Copenhagen will turn away from the anti-authoritarian and decentralized grassroots democracy that is still the preferred mode of operation of most anti- and alter-globalization and environmental activism.

Also, Shearman and Smith are correct to stress that the environmental record of today's authoritarian regimes is by no means better than that of democratic governments. From what we heard last week, it appears that China with her obstruction policy is largely responsible for the apparent failure of the Copenhagen summit – for which the western democracies took the blame. China is not interested in curtailing her economic and industrial growth and the burgeoning capitalism (which, in time, will lead to democratic reforms).

Rule by experts, as proposed by climate scientists, is not a new idea either, though. It is as old as Plato's philosopher kings, H.G. Wells' liberal fascism, communist planning, and the EU bureaucracy. Let's just say, it hasn't worked.

We need new alternatives.

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