After Carbon Democracy

After Carbon Democracy

The Green New Deal is a wager that more democracy, rather than less, is the way to tackle climate change.

Flames from the Maria Fire burn through an oil field in Santa Paula, California, in October 2019. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

If you’re worried about democracy, climate change won’t make you feel better. For decades now, climate—and before it, the ecological crisis more generally—has been a prime exhibit for those who argue that democracy can’t solve our most pressing problems.

The challenges are legion: climate action requires national commitments to benefit foreigners and present sacrifices for future generations, on the basis of science that, although easily summarized, is complex enough to give narrative hooks to denialists. People simply won’t impose harsh limits on themselves willingly, the story goes, especially not to benefit strangers.

As evidence, democracy-skeptics point to the angry protests against policies raising the costs of fossil fuels, like the gilets jaunes in France or Ecuadorean protests against the end of fuel subsidies. Add to this the rejection or repeal of carbon taxes in places ranging from Australia to Washington state, and the election of virulently anti-environmental presidents in the United States and Brazil, two of the world’s biggest democracies.

In the Financial Times, a reliable barometer of elite opinion, a columnist recently asked, “Can democracy survive without carbon?” His answer: “We are not going to find out. No electorate will vote to decimate its own lifestyle. We can’t blame bad politicians or corporates. It’s us: we will always choose growth over climate.”

Even sympathetic observers on the left can’t help but worry about what a drastic change in material conditions might entail for democracy. In Carbon Democracy, historian Timothy Mitchell argues, “Democratic politics developed, thanks to oil, with a peculiar orientation towards the future; the future was a limitless horizon of growth.” We know now that the horizon is closing.

So are we the problem? What are the prospects for a no-carbon democracy in the twenty-first century?


A Short History of Climate Democracy

The current wave of anxiety about democracy and the environment has plenty of precedent. As modern ecological politics emerged in the 1970s, the political theorist William Ophuls imagined what would happen if economic growth were to come to an end—a common prediction among both radicals and centrists at that time. Ophuls argued that scarcity is the inescapable condition of human life, and politics the inevitable struggle over scant resources. This was why Thomas Hobbes, the first modern political theorist, insisted that an absolute sovereign was necessary to political order: to keep people from one another’s greedy and starving throats. What was distinctive about the modern era, and the mid-twentieth century in particular, was the belief that scarcity could be escaped—that wealth could be made not only abundant but boundless. The ecological crisis seemed a sharp rebuke to that way of thinking and to ...

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