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Idiocy And Sustainability

What will it take for us to get smart about our use of the planet’s resources?

In Las Vegas, as in much of the American Southwest, new housing developments creep across the arid landscape like kudzu over a derelict Alabama farm. The faux haciendas are often bought by snowbelt refugees who flock to Nevada and other sunny regions in the tens of thousands every year. Their baggage sometimes includes attitudes, cultivated during long habitation in wetter climes, that can be as difficult to eradicate as kudzu. The Las Vegas Valley Water District employs investigators to remind people that water is scarce, but it is an uphill struggle. A recent story in The Washington Post tells how one of them confronted a new homeowner who was operating an illegal water sprinkler. “He got so angry,” the investigator said, “he poked me in the chest and he said, ‘Man, with all these new rules, you people are trying to turn this place into a desert!'”

If Sprinkler Man is typical, he thinks of himself as an environmentalist. Most Americans do, according to polls. Yet he is clueless about one of the most critical environmental issues facing his community and in that regard is also like many of us. Our poll-attested environmentalism is belied by our love of two-ton sport utility vehicles, our sprawl, our profligate energy use, our culture of heedless consumption, and all the rest of our unsustainable living practices. If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” then we must be the most brilliant nation ever.

Maybe so. More likely, we just don't grasp the contradiction. Sprinkler Man might see a story about water on the six o'clock news now and then, but every time he turns on his tap, the water flows. Except for rare encounters with water investigators, there are few checks on his casual expectation of cheap and abundant water. No wonder he doesn't pay attention. Ecological reality is, for him and many others, a feel-good abstraction.

The reason for this is that we are idiots.

That's what the ancient Greeks called politically uninvolved persons, and we have enshrined political uninvolvement in our governmental institutions. Our form of governance is technically not a democracy but a republic. Rather than exercising power directly, voters delegate it to elected officials and career bureaucrats.


If voting really mattered ...

This has some critical effects. Because those officials are the ones who have to face (and then address, finesse, or avoid) all the problems of governance, including those of environmental sustainability, they are among the few people who really know what is happening on the ground. And even though their interests and priorities are not necessarily the same as those of the voters, they are the only ones whose decisions matter. Going to the polls and voting every two or four years is mostly a token act, a truth which people implicitly acknowledge by staying away in increasingly large numbers. As the graffito has it, if voting really mattered, it would be illegal.

Journalist Robert Samuelson has written, “Americans consider freedom from politics to be part of their well-being.” We freely give away our power because we prefer consumerism to citizenship. But the cost is high: By consigning away our power and confining ourselves in consumerism's gilded cage, we lose the ability to actively choose the shape of our communities. With respect to sustainability, we thereby draw a veil between ourselves and the environmental consequences of our lifestyles. We settle, rather hypocritically, for grumbling about “The Government” in its roles of bogeyman and scapegoat. We cede the field of political deliberation to a wide variety of organized groups, especially corporations, trade groups, and nonprofits that can only coincidentally have our own best interests at heart.

But suppose we had a politics of engagement, rather than consignment, a politics of direct democracy in which the decisions of ordinary people did matter?

Suppose, for example, that Sprinkler Man lived in a community run according to direct democratic principles. Chances are that he, or his wife or brother or neighbor, would occasionally attend meetings of his neighborhood assembly — not just a civic association, but a local deliberative and legislative body with real decision-making power.

The agenda would frequently include water topics, since water is an ongoing concern in the desert Southwest. Water availability, distribution, and price would also be debated periodically during regional interactive television town meetings, and related issues would be resolved by means of local or regional referenda. The man might even have been chosen (by lottery) to sit on the local water resources board for a term. He would know more about the watershed he lived in, where his water came from, and its true monetary and ecological costs. He would inevitably have a fuller understanding of the factors that shape the precarious dependency relationship his city and region have with water, and so would everybody else in the neighborhood. The rules about water usage, rather than seeming to be imposed by a remote and arbitrary bureaucracy, would be part of a community covenant, informed by ecological understanding, that he had taken part in drawing up. Sprinkler Man's outrage would be unthinkable once he was educated into citizenship in this way. He would be less likely to abuse his water rights, and the neighborhood might be more inclined to gently point out the error of his ways.

A direct democratic system could help address other environmental problems in the same way. Take traffic congestion, for example. Motorists do not make decisions about transportation systems. They grumble about potholes, unsynchronized traffic lights and rush-hour gridlock, and they may vote for a politician who promises to build more roads. But they don't themselves debate the general issue of mobility in their communities or shape transportation policy. However, suppose there was a citizen-run Public Mobility Commission in charge of these matters. Members would have a clearer and more immediate picture of the relationships among sprawl, congestion and pollution, and a more acute sensitivity to the trade-offs involved. By involving themselves directly in the resolution of transportation conflicts, engaged citizens would be forced to see how the wish for green space tussles with the wish for greater suburban development; how an automobile-addicted culture enables pollution, vast subdivisions and strip malls, and so on.

Direct democracy would encourage deeper citizen engagement by means of:

• neighborhood assemblies, television town meetings, and Internet forums for promoting meaningful debate and self-education,

• referenda, electronic balloting, and use of selection by lot for picking delegates (when necessary) or members of boards and commissions, as a means of making decisions,

• a national service requirement that would promote a culture of engagement and common action through service in either the military or environmental cleanup and restoration.

Collectively these institutions would bring citizens together in an ongoing process of dialogue (talking and listening) that helps discern truth, investigate issues, establish bonds, explore mutuality, and lead to the common willing of action — in short, that creates a civic political community. The immediate focus would be on the local, because that is the scale at which the deep roots of direct democracy can best be nurtured. But local democracies would be aggregated into a “community of communities” at the regional and national levels for consideration of issues affecting the larger whole.


Democracy and human imperfection

Too utopian? On the contrary, it might just be non-utopian enough to work. Utopian communities are implausible in fiction, and generally fail in real life, for two reasons. First, in seeking perfection they deliberately try to expunge politics from the life of the community, yet politics is inevitable because it is the response to human conflict. Second, the visions expressed in utopian works and communities are so pure that they exclude most people. All but a faithful or fanatic handful find something too objectionable about such visions to take part. In contrast, direct democracy rests on pluralism and inclusion, seeks to transform conflict into community bonds, and strives to honor differences while exploring them in the process of seeking common ground.

Still (I hear the skeptics say), direct democracy couldn't work in the real world. People aren't interested. They can't handle the demands it would make, or they aren't up to the intellectual challenge of dealing, as nonspecialists, with the complex problems of modern life. Or the world is too big and globalized for local communities to be relevant. Or the moneyed and corporate interests that seem increasingly to dominate the democratic political process will never permit it.

These claims are refuted by both past and present practice. There are a number of historical examples of societies that demonstrate the viability of direct democratic governance, even though they limited suffrage to adult males. These include the Greek city-state of Athens during the reign of Pericles, colonial New
England town meetings, and the medieval Italian communes in cities like Florence, Venice, Bologna, Genoa and Milan. Especially noteworthy is the Republic of Raetia, now the Swiss canton of Graubünden. From 1524 until Napoleon forced its unification with Switzerland in 1799, the mountain peasants of Raetia governed themselves in village communes employing techniques of face-to-face democracy, having fought off attempts by kings, nobles, and churchmen to impose the kind of feudal or ecclesiastic controls common elsewhere in Europe. In Raetia, power was so firmly vested in the communes that office-seekers openly tried to buy elections and nobody cared, because everyone knew the offices did nothing important. The Raetians probably invented the referendum and used it often to aggregate the will of the communes and make policy at the national level (thereby demonstrating that local, self-governing communities can work together in larger bodies, even when the fastest means of communication is a horse and rider).

Direct democratic practices thrive in the modern world too, often in forms that are directly relevant to sustainability issues. For example:

Annual open town meetings are still the preferred form of government in most New England towns,
ranging from a low of 68 percent of Rhode Island towns to 97 percent of Maine towns. Attendance varies, depending on town size and the urgency of the issues, from 1 percent to 90 percent. Citizen committees, which study issues and present reports to the townspeople, help keep the quality of debate and decision high.

Watershed councils in Oregon and elsewhere in the United States bring together ordinary citizens to deliberate on land-use and salmon preservation issues and to resolve resource management disputes. They capitalize on the compelling need for bottom-up involvement of many stakeholders in addressing vexing problems that focus competing interests, such as the fate of the salmon.

In Denmark, the parliamentary Board of Technology convenes groups of laypersons to study complex technology issues and advise lawmakers on how to address them. The nuanced findings represent a considerably broader range of perspectives than typical expert reports on the same subjects.

A 1993 Brookings Institution study of five American cities (Birmingham; Dayton; Portland, Oregon; St. Paul and San Antonio) reveals that direct-democratic reforms carried out in the 1970s have stood the test of time. Power was distributed to the neighborhoods and extensive efforts made to broaden and deepen citizen involvement. The new systems were found to promote tolerance, reduce hostility, enhance feelings of personal political empowerment, reduce sour grapes among losers in policy conflicts, and promote a sense of community. Even city officials agreed that the benefits far outweighed the costs.

As for the influence of special interests, certainly our delegational democracy has resisted them imperfectly. Direct democracy might not do any better. But the theory suggests that dispersing power downward and outward to more people, and making governance more transparent — intrinsic features of direct democracy — would make it much more difficult for special interests to dominate the process. And that is exactly what the available evidence, such as the Brookings Institution study, suggests does happen.

Several additional lessons emerge from these examples. First, direct democracy engages people, despite the extra demands it makes on their time and energies, because their decisions count.

Second, a robust tradition of civic engagement can be created and maintained for a very long time; people can be educated into citizenship.

Third, ordinary people can grasp complex ethical and environmental issues and contribute thoughtfully to social decisions about them.

Finally, people with varying interests and viewpoints can come together as political creatures and will a common environmental future. These virtues are exactly what the challenge of sustainability requires of us. Direct democracy would give us both better eyes to see the environmental problems we face and superior political means to address them.

How do we get there?

I don't know. There are no instructions, other than “Some assembly required.” We have a bootstrap problem: direct democracy develops engagement, but people must be engaged to move toward direct democracy. The modern world, with its distractions and forces of division and disempowerment, tempts us away from involvement in governance of any kind. To combat this trend will require a certain virtue among a critical mass of people. The system by itself is unlikely to evoke such virtue, yet there is no such thing, as T.S. Eliot put it, as “a system so perfect no one needs to be good.” It boils down to a choice: good citizens working toward sustainability, or consumption-crazed idiots lurching toward the cliff of ecological ruin. Someone — many someones — need to do the good thing, and choose.


Thomas Prugh is the lead author of Natural Capital and Human Economic Survival and The Local Politics of Global Sustainabilitywith Robert Costanza and Herman Daly, upon which this essay is based.

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