Ecological Democracy & Climate Democracy: Speech To Academy of Social Sciences Australia Symposium
I start by acknowledging that we are on the land of the Ngunnawal and Ngamberi people and paying respects to their elders, past, present and emerging. This always was and always will be Aboriginal land, and any conversation about its future, about how we face up to the enormous challenges of the years ahead, must put Indigenous people – their leadership, their wisdom, their skills – at its heart.
I want to use my time today to talk about ideas of ecological democracy and what I’m calling “climate democracy” – ideas which borrow heavily from Indigenous world views and structures of governance. I’ll start with a brief run-down on the political theory and philosophy before running quickly through a thumbnail sketch of one approach we might take to not just pull ourselves out of the mess but actively build a good society through a positive, inspiring, engaging vision and practice.
My analysis is underpinned by two basic contentions. Firstly, our current political systems – our democratic institutions and norms – are simply incapable of tackling the immense, overwhelming and interconnected crises we face. These systems are structured around, and built to enforce and buttress, the fundamental inequities – capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, resource extractivism – that are the cause of these crises. As such, they cannot enable the solutions. Secondly, these systems are uniquely ill-suited to enabling human survival in the far less hospitable world that they have created. In order to both turn around ecological collapse and generate the resilience we need to survive and thrive in the decades and centuries ahead, we need to cultivate new democratic norms and institutions – norms and institutions based on the principles and lessons of ecology.
Ecological thinking is conceptually grounded in interconnection, diversity, and impermanence. Every part of an ecology is connected to, and has impacts on, every other part. A small change for one species or community can have huge ramifications for others. In ecology, resilience comes from diversity; over-dominance of one species will generally trigger collapse. Whereas in a machine, each part of the whole is replaceable, in an ecology the parts matter as much as the whole, creating a complex interplay, a coexistence, a balance of cooperation and competition, teeming with ambiguity and unintended consequences.
We find ourselves today living in the hegemony of anti-ecological thinking. If ecological thinking values interconnection, diversity and impermanence, anti-ecological thinking is about disconnection, homogenisation and dominance. It’s a mechanistic, linear mode of thought, separating “man” from “nature”, from “woman”, from non-whites, tasking “man” with subduing the “other”. This is colonialist thinking; patriarchal thinking; capitalist and extractivist thinking. It drives a cycle of consumption and production and consumption, with government focussed on feeding the cycle. It is inherent in a representative democratic system which is designed to be vulnerable to corporate capture. It can be seen in the way governments enable private profit while suppressing public participation and protest. It’s horrifically visible in prison camps for refugees and the criminalisation of being black or brown. And, until we replace its dominance in our democratic norms and institutions, we cannot tackle the climate crisis, we cannot exit consumptagenesis, we cannot, frankly, survive.
So, we’re in 2050. We’re not just surviving, but thriving, despite the damage we caused. Because we’ve built an ecological democracy. What does it look like?
The interconnection of an ecology rather than a machine, where the parts matter as much as the whole, implies deep democracy, based in participatory processes, with nested subsidiary models from the local to the global, ensuring decisions are made by and for people at the most local level possible. Government’s role is to enable people and communities to find their own way together, within the context of equity and sustainability, backed by scientific and expert evidence, and within clear, democratically developed, limits to prevent abuse.
The recognition that diversity is key to resilience implies putting equity, decentralisation, and universalism at the core of ecological democracy. Neither erasing differences between people nor rejecting the other, it embraces coexistence. It will flip political practice from an antagonistic adversarial model to a cooperative, agonistic, consensus-based one in our more participatory democratic processes. Respecting complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity, it will see us replace linear, simplistic, silo’ed solutions to individual problems with systemic approaches that recognise a plurality of issues, causes and solutions, to be finessed at the local level by the local community.
The principle of impermanence helps us understand that government and economy are no more than tools that we invented and can reinvent; institutions need to change, not just to keep up with changing circumstances, but because new generations might be well advised to revisit them to construct their own models of trust.
This vision of ecological democracy provides a path to both addressing the climate crisis and cultivating the resilience we need to survive. It tells us that climate policy can’t be boiled down to an “efficient” carbon price. Climate policy is everything from supporting locally grown food and community transport initiatives to encouraging renewable energy cooperatives; from removing the ability of corporations to block action to officially granting the Great Barrier Reef the legal right to exist; from giving Indigenous communities the right to say no to coal mining on their land to enabling citizens to decide how their suburbs are developed for their own use rather than for developer profits. Climate policy is structurally replacing the discount rate with an interest rate in economic models to ensure we properly value our responsibility to future generations rather than deliberately reducing their value. Climate policy requires democratic participation at the hyperlocal level and at the global level, and every level in between, not just because local communities understand how to implement solutions for themselves, but also because this democratic engagement is vital to holding back the dark, exclusionary impulses that climate disasters are likely to exacerbate.
Based on this thinking, I’ve been discussing with various people an active, constructive “climate democracy” project, bringing together so much of what’s already being done in disparate, disconnected ways, around a vision of communities working together to co-design on-the-ground solutions, replicate and share them to build collective power, cultivate social cohesion locally and broadly, and build new democratic institutions and norms from within the ruins of the old.
There are so many people and groups already doing brilliant community outreach through doorknocking campaigns. What if we deepened that into community building? What if we used our doorknocking and letterboxing to let people know about local sharing groups and community gardens, repair cafes and sports associations, invite them to get involved in them, and invite them to community meetings to co-design more local climate-positive, social cohesion projects? What if we held thousands of citizens assemblies, supported by and connected through those local groups, through unions, interwoven with Indigenous truth-telling and leadership, actively embracing Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Community groups, new migrants and refugees, or just gathering around a bunch of streets, to discuss what each community can do locally and collectively to confront and prepare for the climate crisis? What if each of those assemblies sent representatives to regional assemblies, or even just shared what they’re doing through online clearinghouses, so they could learn from and inspire each other, and so they could consciously see their local action as a vital piece of collective action which is building power, challenging the anti-ecological hegemony, and cultivating the ecological alternative, growing up through the cracks in the pavement?
Some of these projects might use open-ended Asset Based Community Development models, some might be quite purpose-driven citizens assemblies, some might be purely community activities. Ideally, we’ll see an interweaving of all three, feeding in and out of each other in a lovely co-evolution. It’ll need a huge commitment to make this happen at scale – a radical vision, a willingness to let go of control and existing structures, a massive training effort so we have enough highly-skilled facilitators, a diversity of leaders to help seed the efforts in a wide range of communities from the lentil belt to the rust belt.
But if we do it, we can take the 3.5% of Australians who are already involved in climate action of one kind or another and create the massive social and political change that’s necessary. I firmly believe we can look back from 2050 knowing we averted the worst of runaway climate collapse, and cultivated the resilient communities and ecological democracies we needed to not just survive, but thrive.