How Democracy Fails the Environment

by Lynn McDonald
Toronto Star
23 August 2006

Sovereignty of the people is a much better principle than the “divine right of kings,” and we should be grateful to the men and women who struggled for it, spoke, wrote, went to prison--and some died in the campaign for this great principle of democracy. Its realization in practice means that we--now, with the help of other great principles of the Enlightenment--are able to shape our political, social and economic life, and not merely take orders from above.

Many injustices have been done away with as a result. But from the perspective of the environment, notably with global warming and the end of available fossil fuels, “sovereignty of the people” needs considerable refinement.

What people? The principle in effect means--after some two centuries of development--that all people over 18 have a voice and a vote. But what right do we who are alive now have to use up all the readily available fossil fuels, cause serious climate change, deplete soil, forests, oceans and aquifers and leave toxic wastes for others to clean up? What about the rights of people in the areas affected by our hogging and waste of resources, and future generation in our own country? What right do we have to leave them increased forest fires, smog alerts and respiratory and other “environmental” diseases?

If parents stole from a trust fund set up for their children this would be a criminal offence. They would go to prison and live the rest of their lives in disgrace, because we so greatly value the transmission of private property that we protect it with the threat of criminal sanctions. But there is nothing equivalent for the protection of public property--air, water, land.

In Canada we are so keen to favour this transmission of private property to future generations that we do not even have an estate tax. But our greedy and wasteful lifestyles are going to leave our descendants with sadly depleted natural resources, and greatly reduce their means of livelihood. Altogether it will be a poor heritage, and by the time they gain the right to vote it will be too late.

An oil company that takes out the oil, sells it, makes enough money so that all concerned can live in luxury, then leaves the land and water systems polluted, can do so with impunity. Its executives indeed are featured in business magazines, given the Order of Canada and praised as pillars of the community. They even call what they do “production,” as if they had made the oil and gas in the first place! (disguising the fact that fossil fuels cannot be produced, except in geological time, and should accordingly be treated differently from other resources).

Instead of dealing with this, the great political and constitutional issue of our day, we debate federal versus provincial rights over resources. And our policies encourage even flagrantly wasteful use, such as cheap deals to sell ever more flights, use up more fossil fuels and cause more global warming.

Sovereignty of the people, while a better principle than the “divine right of kings,” has obvious limits. It is certainly bad theology for anyone from the Hebrew-Christian tradition, which teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s,” that as people we have the right to use the land, but we do not own it. We are stewards rather, accountable to the Creator for that use. Would that our fundamentalist friends would take on the biblical perspective of land use and stewardship for a campaign.

The president of the Royal Society in Britain recently recommended the undertaking of a massive campaign to develop green energy to replace reliance on fossil fuels. In scope he said it needs to be like the Americans’ Apollo program. Yes, that is the right scale and the space program a fine example.

I suggest that we need a similar massive rethinking of our political, economic and social systems. We have had these warnings before, and we do not lack for intelligent, well-researched proposals for reform, from environmental organizations, distinguished scientists, the United Nations and world conferences.

That we are not acting on them (e.g., Kyoto) tells us that our current political system is not up to the task. The time frame in “sovereignty of the people” is too short. Governments are held accountable only in the here and now, a paltry four years, while the damage we do is long term.

We need creative solutions not just for the technical fixes needed, as in green energy, but the political, social and economic retooling we need to make it happen.

Lynn McDonald is university professor emerita at the University of Guelph and a former MP