Sustainability Starts with Democracy

Sustainability Starts with Democracy

Without democracy, we’ll not find the answers we need.

One way to think of sustainability, whether in business or more broadly, is as collective human behavior that does not destroy the Earth system. The Brundtland definition of sustainable development reflects this notion: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That we are not living sustainably today ought to be clear. What’s not clear is how we find our way to a sustainable existence. The answer to this question lies in a deep appreciation for the interconnectedness of all life on Earth and how we, as human beings, live-out this interconnectedness.

We know today that for the roughly 200,000 years homo sapiens have lived on Earth, approximately 190,000 of those years were spent in small, egalitarian groups or tribes. It was not until the start of sedentary agriculture that human beings began to organize themselves in largely hierarchical forms. To put these numbers in perspective, if the 200,000 years of modern humanity was a twenty-four-hour period, it’s only the last hour wherein human beings have organized themselves in hierarchical fashion. Considering we stand on the precipice of destroying the Earth system, we ought to ask how could we have lived for so long without threatening the system? In other words, is organizing ourselves around hierarchies taking away from our ability to live sustainably?

To be sure, hierarchical forms are ubiquitous. We see them in schools, businesses, government and even in our social lives. If you’re not using the latest iPhone, then you’re somewhere below those who are. Hierarchical forms, however, do fulfill a function: They make organizing things more efficient. So, in that sense, they’re not all bad. The question becomes efficient at what? After all, the Nazis became very efficient at building and running concentration camps; yet, the overwhelming majority of us would agree that being efficient at genocide is not desirable. It’s likely we’d also agree that rapacious consumption to the point of destroying the Earth system is not desirable either. Yet, this is precisely what we’re doing. In short, we’ve become efficient at destroying the Earth system. Considering this sort of behavior isn’t exactly good for our long-term survival, we must ask ourselves what will it take to change the course we’re on?

The word “egalitarian” means, “relating to or believing in the principle that all people have equal rights.” If preliterate cultures, those that existed more than 10,000 years ago, were egalitarian and managed to live for 190,000 years without threatening the Earth system, then perhaps their longevity had something to do with the way in which they made decisions. There’s reason to conclude that the practical side of living in an egalitarian culture has something to do with democracy. The word democracy comes to us from the Greek and literally means “power of the people”.

The ancient Greeks certainly did not share the same understanding of the Earth system as we do today, but they had managed to arrive at a reasonable understanding of what it takes to organize human behavior in a manner that ensures some level of stability. Aristotle’s thoughts on democracy provided insights for the framers of the US Constitution. And while many will argue that what was designed into the Constitution is not a democracy, but rather a republic, the point behind the effort is clear: organize a form of government that better reflects the power of the people. It’s easy to argue, however, that what we see today is a far cry from representing the power of the people. If the people had power, it’s unlikely we’d stand for the wealth inequality that plagues us, which is at the root of other inequalities, including access to health care, criminal justice, education and so forth. We’d also not stand for the destruction of the very thing on which we rely for our existence.

What’s going-on in the US, and across the globe, is indicative of a failure to organize according to democratic principles. The organization IDEA does an annual ranking of the health of democracies across the globe. In 2021, IDEA ranked the US as “backsliding”. Other studies of democratic health indicate similar results.

Those who came of age during the ‘80’s were told the US was “a shining city upon a hill”, a place that beckoned those who sought freedom, the rule of law and democratic ideals. Who can forget Ronald Reagan’s gee-whiz demeanor as he laid-out his neoliberal vision of the world, a vision that meant government must not be trusted and the market ought to be the arbiter of all things? What Reagan overlooked is that access to democracy in a neoliberal state is reserved for the moneyed classes. That US democracy is objectively considered to be “backsliding” is simply an outgrowth of neoliberalism. But it seems, at least for a significant number of our fellow citizens, a backsliding democracy may be the price paid to somehow ensure the US’s place as “the greatest country on Earth”.

There are many who see nothing wrong with where we’re headed; these are the folks who tend to struggle with pluralities, diversity, inclusion and equity. They see the world as slipping into something that no longer represents a romanticized perception of the past, wherein everyone had their place, white picket fences were the norm and everyone went to church on Sunday. Never mind that not every American shares this perception, and in fact, many of us would never want to go back – and for good reason. That doesn’t matter. What matters is making America great again by any means necessary, including doing away with democracy.

To glimpse where we’re headed, we can look to Hungary under Viktor Orban. A recent New Yorker article describes how a growing segment of American thought leaders is looking to what Orban is doing as defining a play book for taking power in the US. It starts with controlling the media, and thereby manipulating the electorate. In the US, just six corporations control 90% of the media consumed by Americans. This is a grotesque aggregation of power. Other than showing token images that leads us to believe they support DE&I, these corporations are not likely to give time to counter public narratives. This is why we hear very little about the relationship between burning fossil fuels and the extreme weather we’re experiencing. So, in the US, manipulating the electorate, and feeding them corporate perspectives that serve the status quo is a practice that’s been well underway for quite some time. Another part of the Orban playbook is gaining control over the electoral processes, which is just getting started in the US.

If we are to stem the backsliding, and better organize ourselves to deal with a future that looks bleaker by the day, we need to stand in the way of what’s happening to our electoral processes. For Michiganders, that starts right here and with guaranteeing voter rights and voter access.

Promote the Vote 2022 is a Michigan ballot initiative that recently gained enough signatures to be placed on the November ballot. Passing this initiative would be an important step toward halting the backsliding of our democracy.

According to a press release published on Promote the Vote 2022’s website, the initiative will change the Michigan Constitution to: “Allow Michigan voters serving in the military to have their ballot counted if postmarked by Election Day; give voters nine days of early in-person voting; require the state to pay for postage for absentee applications and absentee ballots; provide secure ballot drop boxes and a statewide tracking system for absentee ballots.” We must do everything we can to encourage the passage of Promote the Vote 2022. Tell your friends, write letters to the editor, make social media posts and do whatever you can to get the word out. Passage of Promote the Vote 2022 is a must for Michiganders!

There are no easy answers to living sustainably. But one thing is certain: If we do not find a way to give everyone a say in how we live, we’ll never find the answers we so desperately need.

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