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Democracy field notes

The Greening of Democracy

Taipei anti-nuclear protesters, during the Fukushima disaster, March 2011. jfahler/flickr

Dear reader, don’t let yourselves be fooled: whatever political charlatans, cynics or melancholics say to the contrary, democracy as we know it is turning green. There’s never been a period in the history of democracy quite like it. Slowly but surely, the spirit, visionary ideals, language and institutions of democracy are granting recognition and representation to the bio-habitats in which we dwell. The trend is subject to political setbacks, certainly. It has its enemies. Nothing is guaranteed. It could all end disastrously. Yet the trend is global, cuts deep into our daily lives and is defined by many developments, most of them unprecedented.

The greening of democracy runs far beyond spreading public talk of sustainability and climate justice. It’s more consequential than disputes about the price of carbon and emissions trading schemes. The trend includes the birth of new instruments of representation, such as green parties, pirate parties and environmental courts. Less obviously, it includes novel power-monitoring mechanisms such as deliberative forums, bio-regional assemblies and earth watch networks. These innovations are proof positive that we’re living through a new phase of what Alexis de Tocqueville famously called the democratic revolution, this time one that is marked by the empowerment of ‘nature’ in human affairs.

The trend would astonish our great grandparents. To see why, let’s take an example, the franchise, the question of who is legally entitled to vote. Pundits insist that the old battles to universalise the right to vote are over, that the question of who votes and is represented in public affairs is now a settled issue, yet they’re plainly wrong. Gradually, the interests of a whole new constituency are making their presence felt in human affairs: our biosphere.

Efforts to ensure its political representation include more than talk of animal rights, simian sovereignty and respect for sentient creatures. The greening trend runs much deeper. It prompts fundamental questions about the meaning of democracy, and whether it has a future. It forces us to think about how we think about democracy.

The greening of democracy goes beyond the familiar arguments about whether open democratic societies are capable of cultivating public awareness of future generations (they can) or whether democracies can act quickly enough to handle the coming mega-disasters (they can). The trend forces us to answer the most basic question: are we human beings capable of democratising ourselves?

The question has at least three pointed parts. Can we human beings humble ourselves by collectively recognising our ineluctably deep dependence upon the ecosystems in which we dwell? Can we simultaneously find new ways of practically extending voices and votes in human affairs to our ecosystems? Third, and consequently, is it possible in theory and practice to rid the whole idea of democracy of its anthropocentrism? Can it come to mean, descriptively speaking, a form of life and a way of rendering power publicly accountable by means of institutions in which humans and their biosphere are treated symmetrically, as interdependent equals, in opposition to the reigning view that humans are the pinnacle of creation, lords and ladies of the universe, ‘the people’ who are the ultimate source of sovereign power and authority on Earth?

This way of playing with words and asking questions may seem strange. It might even be judged a trite game in pseud’s corner. It isn’t. For it should be remembered that all human societies have created ways of registering or re-presenting their interdependence with the natural world and its (sometimes invisible, like the wind) elements by means of verbal, written and pictorial expressions. It should also not be forgotten that the democratic tradition, as I point out in The Life and Death of Democracy, is salted and peppered with many old customs, ways of politically representing ‘nature’, some of them, such as water tribunals, tings and dyke committees, stretching back well into medieval times. Memories of their importance have mostly been extinguished, although from time to time their spirit has been kept alive, especially in the world of literature, for instance in Erich Kästner’s classic children’s tale of an assembly of the world’s animals that calls on humans to behave more decently in the world.

Watercolour illustration by Walter Trier, The Animals’ Conference, by Erich Kästner (1947)

The contemporary greening of democratic politics brings to life and puts into practice new ways of imagining the political inclusion and representation of the biosphere within human affairs. It forces us to realise that we humans move among miracles, that we’ve a common primordial bond with every other living species, that we’re part of the earth’s ‘unfathomable flow of impacts over billions of years of evolution’ (the words of the American naturalist and philosopher Edward L. McCord). Green politics stimulates our awareness that there are many different ways of seeing and acting upon the biosphere, that it is not just raw, non-human, ‘out there’ nature but a complex set of interacting living elements whose dynamics and significance are shaped by humans embedded within the deep structures of their biosphere.

The point that human and non-human nature form part of a common but fragile dynamic needs to be registered in the very language of democracy. Language shapes who we are; it speaks us, as Heidegger noted, and that’s why in matters of democracy, the most power-sensitive political form yet invented, the language of democratic politics should never be taken for granted.

Thinking hard and deeply about language is necessary therapy for democrats. There are indeed times when the key terms of democracy need to be challenged. The history of democracy is full of phrase struggles. Think of the still-unfinished job of subverting sexist or homophobic language; or the invention and popularisation of terms such as social democracy, liberal democracy and Christian democracy; or the (hardly remembered) contribution by democrats of words like ‘ok’ to the English language.

Recent campaign poster of the Spanish far-right party, Democracia Nacional: Don’t be a Fool!

Now think of the way the language of democratic politics is a carrier of unwarranted insults and blind indignities thrust at our biosphere. Let’s take the surprising example of donkey voting. It’s a familiar phrase, dating from the early 1960s. It refers, especially in compulsory parliamentary elections using preferential voting systems, to citizens who thoughtlessly rank each candidate in the order they are listed on the ballot paper. The donkey voter is a stupid voter, an idiot who pays no attention to the merits of the candidates. The presumption buried deep within the phrase is that donkeys are foolish, gloomy and (as in an old icon still used by supporters of the Democratic Party in the United States) mulishly stubborn.

The Kicking Donkey logo of the Democratic Party.

The main trouble with the phrase is its ignorance of donkeys. Humans are often enough stubborn, gloomy and foolish. Donkeys aren’t. They’re patient, gentle and as loyal as Eeyore, or Sancho Panza’s Platero and Dapple. Their learning capacity is higher than horses. Donkeys require little feeding, and can easily survive the harshest conditions. They ferried wounded soldiers out of the hellish trenches of the Somme; transported Napoleon across the Alps; delivered Jesus to Jerusalem. They’re surefooted and brave: they’ve been known to survive 50-metre cliff falls, and jennies will walk through raging fires to save their young.

Laboratory tests show that compared with all other mammals donkey milk is closest to human milk. That’s reason enough to stop insulting the donkey, to remember that the future of humanity is bound up not just with donkeys but with all living species, and to see that the future of democracy thus depends on greening its own language.

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