"Our founding fathers warned us that democracy can't last unless we are willing to fight for it in every generation. Wars are not the only kinds of fights, and foreign dictators -- or foreign campaign contributors -- are not the only threats to government of, by, and for the people. If we want our democracy back, our battle has to be, as was that of our founding fathers, against the corrupt power structure that rules us."
That's a line from a newspaper column my mentor and teacher Donella Meadows wrote in in 1997.
I remembered it this week when I read the transcript of a a talk delivered to the National Press Club on February 26, 2007 NASA climate expert James Hansen.
Hansen's talk presented five recommendations he believes could solve the problem of climate change (or at least the US contribution to it).
(Pay attention to the word solve. In this time of rising worry about climate change we can't lose sight of the fact that to scientists like Hansen this is still a solvable problem.)
Three of his five recommendations have to do – not surprisingly – with limiting carbon emissions. These steps include placing a moratorium on the building of more coal-fired power plants until carbon dioxide sequestering technology is fully developed, charging for carbon pollution, and putting energy performance standards on buildings and vehicles.
The fourth involves increased study of the behavior of ice-sheets, so that we can better anticipate their reaction to a warming world.
These proposals are large and sweeping, and the sort of thing we've come to expect from clear thinking climate scientists like Hansen. Could we accomplish them, the US would be doing its part to make sure that carbon dioxide levels don't rise into the danger zone.
But it was Hansen's fifth recommendation that really caught my attention, and reminded me of Donella Meadow's writing, because his fifth recommendation had nothing to do with climatology and everything to do with democracy.
Hansen says, "The global warming problem has brought into focus an overall problem: the pervasive influence of special interests on the functioning of our government and on communications with the public. It seems to me that it will be difficult to solve the global warming problem until we have effective campaign finance reform, so that special interests no longer have such a big influence on policy makers."
In systems terms, democracy is a feedback loop that connects the people with the ability to sense a problem – from scientists to residents of New Orleans' low lying neighborhoods – with those with the ability to take steps to solve it, including Congress and the Federal government. When special interests overwhelm those voices then the feedback loop of democracy is delayed and weakened.
And now, when there is no time to loose, that is something we really cannot afford.
To save ourselves, we just may need to save our democracy, as well. But it means that we need to stop thinking of climate change as an "environmental" problem. We can only live on this planet if we organize ourselves to be open to the signals it sends to us. A government that can listen to scientists, to farmers, to Alaskan natives and coastal fishermen, would be a government much better poised to receive the signals of the planet in time to respond to them.