Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Ernest Partridge


A friend from abroad writes that democracy is inadequate to the task of protecting the global environment. What is required, says my correspondent, is an authoritarian regime of "ecologist kings." Here is my reply:

While I sympathize with your critique of "democracy," I keep asking myself, "so what is better?" And I am reminded of that oft-quoted remark of Winston Churchill: "democracy is the worst form of government -- except for all the others." Then there is another quotation, of forgotten source, "the remedy for the faults of democracy is better democracy." And finally, your solution, reminiscent of Plato, to put the governance of the planet in the hands of a committee of "ecologist-kings," raises that oldest of political dilemmas, "quis custodiet ipsos custodiens," -- "in whose custody shall be the custodians?" Even Plato foresaw the downfall of the rule of the Philosopher-Kings.

The best available remedies (if less than optimal) of the shortcomings of democracy, it seems to me, are familiar: first, confine the excesses of democracy, not by the edicts of an elite, but through the rule of law, based upon general principles acceptable to and accepted by the majority -- e.g., through a Constitution and a Bill of Rights which enunciate the political/ethical ideals of the polity.  Second, establish and secure institutions that will ensure an access to information and a level of general education essential to sound democratic government. In the US, the first condition was admirably established in the founding documents -- the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.  The second condition has been substantially corrupted by private interests, and by the greed both of corporations and of individuals, that is endemic in our consumer society.

The founding fathers of the American democracy recognized full well, that the particular folkways and passions of regional majorities can result in a tyranny of the majority. So they enunciated in calm reflection, and the democratic legislatures subsequently validated, some general principles, a Bill of Rights that would have precedent, even over the sentiments of momentary and local majorities. These Amendments proclaimed that the "Kantian" rights and dignity of the person, are inviolable even in the face of majoritarian clamor. Are these Kantian principles, and the manifesto documents that enunciate them, "anti-democratic"? Arguably so, in the context of particular places and moments. But they are fundamentally democratic: first, in the sense that they codify the basic presupposition of democracy -- namely, the equal dignity and rights of the individual; and second, that they enunciate general principles that are democratically adopted and ratified.

Accordingly, it just may be the case that democracy remains more the solution than the obstacle to ecological renewal and sustainability.

If I am wrong, then show me the evidence from history or from contemporary political experience, that there is a better political response to the environmental crisis than that of a representative democracy, with an informed and educated citizenry with open access to ideas and free expression, under the rule of law based upon such principles of justice as you have enumerated and defended. Certainly not any military regime of my acquaintance, nor of any pre-communist socialistic regime, such as the Soviet Union (that most ecologically devastated of lands!). Where did "the environmental movement" originate, and where does the "green movement" now flourish? In the western democracies! Where are the most enlightened (if imperfect) environmental policies to be found today? In such "social democracies" as Scandinavia! And what nourishes and sustains such movements, but an open access by the public to information concerning the condition of our planet?

If that "green movement" has turned brown at the edges here in North America, it is due, not to a failure of democracy-in-action, but rather to the betrayal and erosion of democracy due to the corporate and economic forces. Corporate "moneyoracy" has subverted democracy by flooding the media with mindless "entertainment," by strangling access to responsible dissent, and by starving relevant citizenship education. To attack democracy seems, in a strange way, to be "piling on" the victim, in an unholy alliance with the culprits, "international corporatism."

But aren't multi-national corporations to blame for much of the "disintegration" of the global environment? Arguably so. But what does all this have to do with democracy? "Mega-corporatism" is not "democracy unconstrained and amok," it is "democracy betrayed," whereby the "legal-fictitious" corporate persons supplant the actual "Kantian persons" (i.e., moral agents) in the governance of the lives of those actual persons. But the remedy for such abuse and betrayal is to revitalize democracy, not to replace it with -- we know not what! (Most likely: unconstrained global corporatism).

So isn't it past time for an "Environmental Bill of Rights," which will codify, under rule of law, constraints upon our "uses" of the Earth? "No way that it would be adopted," I hear you say. So would you impose it by authoritarian fiat? Are you willing to accept the moral cost of such a regime? What rights of the citizens (Kantian "agents" all) might have to be sacrificed in defense of this regime? What authority is to select, or if necessary confine or even depose, these "ecologist-kings"?

I have another proposal. Restore democracy! First, end the tyranny of corporatism. Put corporate activity, national and international, under the rule of law. Abolish "one dollar, one vote" (cf. the US campaign laws and the infamous Buckley Decision) and restore "one person, one vote." Restore the flow of ideas and revitalize education. Even the scientifically ill-informed and media-saturated US public supports environmental regulation and reform, as Newt's Congress was to learn. Get the ecological/scientific word out to the public, and we will move ever closer to a ratification of that environmental Bill of Rights, not imposed from without, but adopted from within the body politic.

As for the international anarchy of "multinational corporatism," what other remedy is there but the extension of the rule of law -- a law of nations? Anti-democratic? Not necessarily, and for reasons detailed above. Surely the alternative to international law in such cases can not be described as "democracy" -- rather, it is an anarchic "state of nature" among amoral "profit maximizers," accountable only to the stockholders. It is no mere coincidence that political surrogates of corporate power such as Reagan in the US, Thatcher in the UK, and Mulroney in Canada, have attacked "The Government" as the "The Enemy," whereas representative government is in fact the best, and often the only, defense against corporate "liberty" to "externalize" costs into the air, the streams, and eventually the lungs and cells and genome of the rest of us.

How strange it is that these "conservatives" have managed to persuade so many citizens that their government is some sort of occupying foreign power, rather than their protector from the "freedom" of private interests to exploit and pollute. And how have they accomplished this? By manipulation and control of the public media, which is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. ("Freedom of the Press is the right of every citizen who can afford to publish a newspaper." A. J. Liebling).

So I suggest that your account should devote more attention to the problem of mass culture, the media, and the condition of public education. The media, owned and controlled by mega-corporations, have shaped the public mind, while the remedy, critical liberal education put to use in vigorous public debate -- all this has been starved from lack of nourishment. And, as Jefferson and so many others observed, "that public which desires to be both ignorant and free, desires what never was and never can be."

Or are you willing (and will it suffice) that only your "ecologist-kings" are to be ecologically informed and critically intelligent?

If so, then when it comes time to set up your "Republic," please include me out.

Copyright, 1996, by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .