Green Agenda | Towards Ecological Democracy

Towards Ecological Democracy – Part 2

This is part two of Tim Hollo’s essay, Towards Ecological Democracy. To read part one, go here.

Be part of the conversation! We’d love to hear your thoughts on Tim’s ideas. We’re looking for comments and responses covering any parts of Tim’s essay. Your response can be long or short, critical or positive. If you’d like to respond, get in contact here. 

“Connecting everything”: implementing ecological democracy

If that’s the conceptualisation of the new politics, what might it mean in practice, and how can we make it happen?

Taking our lead from the philosophy of the commons, as articulated by Elinor Ostrom, David Bollier and others, the key guiding principles for ecological democracy might be summarised as:

  • Fully enfranchise ourselves – embed participatory, deliberative, democratic processes at every level from local to global, connecting people with politics and governance;
  • Institutionalise stewardship – ensure that our democratic and institutional processes are built on the understanding that we are stewards for each other, for all other beings, and for future generations;
  • De-institutionalise selfishness – stop rewarding self-interested and free-riding behaviour, and start rewarding cooperation and co-creation;
  • Embrace complexity and interconnection – replace linear, simplistic political solutions to individual problems with systemic approaches that recognise a plurality of issues, causes and solutions; and
  • Reclaim the commons – stop enclosing commons and begin to reclaim public space (both real and virtual) which has been enclosed.

This radical political vision has to be driven from the ground up, but it must be supported by government, rather than undermined. It can be implemented through existing institutional democratic processes as well as through community building, using taxation and regulation as well as protest and advocacy, by rebalancing rights and by shifting cultural norms. And it can be enabled by prefigurative politics – demonstrating leadership towards the new politics, showing what it can be, and building around that.

Gramsci conceptualises this project, working both to shift socio-political culture and embed the new culture in political institutions and social structures, in his theory of “articulation”. Without digging too deep into theory, it recognises that hegemonic power is held both through controlling culture and controlling institutions, and that these aspects buttress and protect each other. Concepts like “politics is the art of the possible” and “there is no alternative” help to ensure that institutional power cannot be challenged. However, when cultural hegemony faces a crisis of legitimacy, when “what is possible” is changing, the institutions are also weakened, because they maintain power primarily thanks to their cultural hegemony.

A Gramscian approach, then, would see us model new behavioural norms, re-prioritise values, build new locuses of power based around these, infiltrate existing locuses of power and change the norms within them.

What does this look like? How does it translate into policy and how we do politics? How do we build a politics of full franchise, institutionalised stewardship, de-institutionalised selfishness, interconnection, and reclaimed commons? It’s well beyond the scope of this essay to provide a full manifesto, but what follows is a selection of points of strategic intervention, articulating specific reforms which, in their design and conceptualisation, seek to address environmental, social, economic and democratic issues together, instead of in disconnected silos.

Participatory politics

Let’s look first at participatory processes, which are vital to addressing disconnection from each other and from democracy, central to commons frameworks, and one of the Greens’ four pillars. Getting as many people as possible involved, at various levels, in determining the direction we take follows all of the principles set out above. By definition, participatory democracy is a massively enfranchising project. It institutionalises stewardship by encouraging us to work with each other for better long-term outcomes. With well-designed and run processes, it can de-prioritise selfishness by requiring us to work together in a cooperative manner. It assists us in embracing complexity and multiplicity of views. It is an inherently commoning approach.

There are some important steps towards this already being undertaken. The citizens’ jury model empowers a selection of citizens to make recommendations to government about major issues from nuclear waste to regulation of cycling, for example, in South Australia and the ACT. The secret to their success is government’s commitment to respecting the outcome.

The diametric opposite was the Abbott/Turnbull equal marriage postal poll – disingenuously proposed, with a clear desire to disenfranchise younger people, and an open contempt for the result in advance. What was remarkable, what saved the idea and bodes very well for future participatory democratic interventions, was that citizens seized it with both hands, enrolling to vote, and then voting in huge numbers, making it politically impossible for MPs to ignore.

It’s important that we do not treat participatory processes as an add-on to representative models or, worse, as a distraction from a politics, which increasingly sees representative democracy as an annoyance to be worked around. We need to build a range of deeper participatory processes and embed them in institutions wherever possible, in order to reclaim democracy for people and the planet. Understanding Ostrom’s nested, polycentric model, there will always be a need for representative politics as the resources and communities being managed get larger; but these should be viewed as deriving their authority from the truly participatory base – as democracy ultimately derives its authority from the people – rather than the other way around. Deeper participatory models include, but are certainly not limited to, proactive local planning, participatory budgeting, and institutionalised citizens’ assemblies. These models can create new locuses of power, as well as help infiltrate and change existing institutions.

Planning is a particularly powerful place for participation. Communities care very deeply about the streets and suburbs they live in, and are more willing to get actively involved when they feel their back yard may be under threat. This willingness can be harnessed not only to reclaim planning from private interests, but also to build positive experiences of participatory democracy, and to embed them into political practice. In order for this to work, of course, the views of the community must be treated with respect. Ideally, local planning should be done proactively by the community, worked out together through deliberative processes, instead of only giving the community the opportunity to respond to proposals from private developers, facilitated by governments.

As well as creating new spaces for politics, it’s also vital to broaden our conception of the bounds of the political. One obvious element is through the growth of citizen-run sharing and repairing spaces. From local “buy nothing groups” to repair cafes, from community gardens to swap-meets in the park, these practices of the commons, fundamentally non-capitalist practices, have always existed. But they are experiencing a new boom as people search for connection to each other and alternatives to the increasingly obviously destructive nature of consumerism. Of course, there are those who seek to turn these practices into corporate capitalist versions, like Uber and AirBnB. But there are also many creating them as explicitly democratic practices, deliberately presenting them as outside the mainstream economy and politics, and seeking to replace them. Similarly, the growth of cooperatives, while sometimes done in ways which exclude and privatise, is usually about citizens grabbing back some level of democratic control over their workplaces.      

By beginning to build these forms ourselves, and by working with sympathetic representatives already in parliaments, we can demand of governments that they support these modes of participation. They can give institutional support, for example, by underwriting public liability insurance, providing physical spaces to operate from, or even giving tax breaks, such as the Swedish Greens recently implemented for repair cafes. Governments can regulate to encourage and support the development of community-and worker-owned cooperatives, from childcare to fruit packing, from food, health and housing coops all the way through to large scale energy cooperatives. This might involve special grants programs, properly resourced advice services, or supportive tax policies to encourage the establishment of coops and the conversion of existing businesses to coops. All of these proposals exist in various forms around the world, from Norway to South Korea to Brazil.

Taking these ideas to a whole new level, bringing coops into the political sphere, is the recently elected government of Barcelona. In the wake of the GFC, with Spain in dire straits and government (and EU institutions) driving austerity, a tremendous coop-based people’s movement arose across the country; the Indignados, the movement of the squares. They started, and reinvigorated existing food sharing coops, childcare, healthcare and housing coops, squatters groups and more, as ways of managing their lives in a collapsing economy. In Barcelona, they powerfully organised into a political movement called Barcelona en Comu – Barcelona in Common – with a direct line between building the coops, organising them together with both practical projects and theoretical thinking, and creating a political project which won minority government in late 2016. Now, of course, they are struggling with how to create institutional change, particularly with national and global powers arraigned against them. But they have successfully taken back control of water supply, legitimated squats, are working to make energy a public right rather than a commodity, and much more.

A similar, albeit somewhat less ambitious, project is London’s Participatory City. This group is working with local government to provide institutional support to communities to develop their own commons, from cooking coops to knitting groups, from pop up shops to creative cafes. They are doing this partly because of what each project brings, but largely because of the overarching benefits across the community. The projects all spring from the community, while the Participatory City provides professional advice and support, physical space, active encouragement, and, where appropriate, microfinance. They have already found that these projects reduce a vast range of social ills from homelessness to drug addiction to family violence. They see it as a different mode of politics: not public, not private, not paternalistic, but participatory.

A vital part of the equation here is to ensure that local community activities are linked to the systemic, political goal. Participating in a local Buy Nothing Group, for example, is a non-capitalist act which supports the local community and reduces environmental pressures. But it only becomes a truly transformative act when explicitly and directly connected to the greater whole. This is what Barcelona en Comu does so effectively, using their local platform to explicitly link their community-building activities to the global fights against fascism, corporatocracy and climate change.

Closely related to these models of participatory, community planning are various campaigns to reclaim public space from government-facilitated corporate takeover. The increasing omnipresence of advertising in public space is one of the starkest examples of governments handing over commons to private interests to profit from. Campaigns against it are vital as part of de-institutionalising selfishness as well as reclaiming the commons. Cities such as Sao Paolo and Grenoble have already banned billboards, and a recent community campaign in Canberra has held off a weakening of the city’s long-standing ban. Civil disobedience ‘subvertising’ campaigns like Melbourne’s Tram Clean, as well as less confrontational stunts like crowdsourcing funds to buy all advertising space in a London Underground station and replace them with pictures of cats,1 are driving community support and government regulation across Europe.

Beyond advertising, there is increasing awareness of and concern about brutal, exclusionary design in public places, such as spiked or sloping benches to prevent their use by homeless people. Communities are mobilising to fight back against this tendency. In Melbourne, a huge grassroots campaign is building against the Victorian Government’s approval of an Apple store in the middle of Federation Square, turning a public area into another space for private profit. Other forms of reclaiming public space commons going on include the fun “parking” parties, turning parking lots into guerilla parks, to the more pointed Occupy campaigns. In a very real sense, occupying a politician’s office is a form of reclaiming the commons.

Perhaps most complex of all is the emerging area of commons vs public space in the online world. The way we treat Facebook as a public arena, and increasingly conduct our political and private lives there, is starkly at odds with the fact that it is a private company operated with no democratic input from its users, for the profits of its shareholders. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. The campaigns to defend net neutrality and to stop and roll back surveillance of entire populations for both government and corporate purposes are, in essence, campaigns to defend and reclaim the commons. More systemically, the growing calls to socialise or democratise control of massive, currently private, companies such as Google and Facebook, are clearly a commons-based approach. They are starkly more appropriate than the social democratic calls to “nationalise” the companies – a call which is clearly impractical, in the global arena. This is an area which needs far deeper exploration and engagement.

What all these ideas have in common is that they are about both influencing culture away from selfish individualism and towards cooperative connection. Some of them work by creating new spaces for politics and others by infiltrating and taking over existing spaces. They may seem small and marginal, but every one of them contributes perceptibly to articulating and entrenching a new common sense in politics. They make democratising national and international political spheres more possible. They fight back against the siren call of the extreme right by making inclusive politics real. And they make action to protect the natural world we are part of visible and tangible.

Rebalancing rights

A quite different approach from practically building participatory politics is the question of rebalancing rights between corporations, people and nature. As discussed in the opening sections, our politics has skewed drastically to put corporations at the centre, outweighing the rights of people, delegitimising civil society, and ignoring nature altogether. Redressing this imbalance is key to each of the principles set out at the beginning of this section: full franchise, institutionalised stewardship, de-institutionalised selfishness, interconnection, and reclaimed commons.

Addressing this is a framing exercise, in no small part, ensuring that in all our work we present the economy as a tool we humans invented to help us understand and manage our society and environment, instead of as the central goal of everything we do. There are, however, also practical and regulatory approaches we can take to embed these ideas in our politics. And, following the advice of the Common Cause framework2, we can ensure that the two aspects dovetail, and the practical changes we work towards buttress and support the frames we seek to activate, rather than the other way around.

The Greens already put the most obvious and high profile aspects of this front and centre: defending civil society from ongoing attacks, and ideally increasing support to charities and NGOs rather than undermining them; political donations reform to prevent corporations from buying political access; and lobbyist reform, to close the revolving door between corporations and the politicians and staffers whose job it is to regulate them. As well as defensive action, proactive support for embedding human and civil rights frameworks into our democracy is vital. The fact that Australia still has no national Bill of Rights is a travesty that needs to be rectified. Such a document can and should be developed through a deliberative democratic process.

We must also actively embrace and promote alternatives to GDP, such as Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, in order to deprioritise the simplistic growth model and remove it from the centre of our politics.3 In an ecological politics, measures of political progress can and must engage with complexity and multiplicity, rather than being boiled down to one number. And the multiplicity should reflect various aspects of our stewardship such as equality, vibrant democracy, and a healthy natural world. This measurement can be implemented at local, regional and national levels, and it can form the basis of alternative “budgets” presented to prefigure a different way of governing.

Two other aspects of economic orthodoxy need to be challenged and replaced in an ecological democracy. Firstly, there’s the nonsense of the prisoners’ dilemma that is so all pervasive in politics and policy. The prisoners’ dilemma posits two prisoners in separate cells, asked to either defend the other or betray them, but given no opportunity to consult with them. This is a test from within capitalism, designed to ensure there can be no alternative. In supposedly testing human behaviour, it assumes both selfishness and the inability to communicate. It is designed to reject and annihilate the entire concept and capacity to cooperate. We have to ditch the idea and move on, or radically redefine it to show the inherent destructiveness of hyper-individualist capitalist behaviour.

Secondly, there’s the nonsense of the discount rate. Economists say that we humans value things today more highly than we value things in the future. That may be true. But then, instead of designing approaches which counteract that deeply problematic prejudice, they created the concept of the discount rate, through which they plug into models of the economy a deliberate reduction in importance of the future. An ecological democratic politics must reverse this – if anything, implementing a systemic interest rate, to structurally require us to take the future into account instead of discounting it.

While all of the preceding ideas will go some way to rebalancing our system, shifting corporations and the unalloyed profit motive from the centre of our politics, none yet get to the very heart of the matter. In order to do so, we need to confront the very structural definition of corporations – we need to challenge the notion that their sole legal responsibility should be to maximise profit for shareholders. This is a fundamentally destructive model. It rewards selfishness, punishes sharing, and dismisses any stewardship responsibilities. The existence of this model in our polity at all effectively guarantees that such entities will come, over time, to dominate everything else and destroy everything in their path. That is, in essence, what they are designed to do. Perhaps worse, their existence begins to have cultural impacts on the rest of society. If corporations are legal persons and their only obligation is to seek profit, surely the logical conclusion is that the only obligation of any person is to seek profit. This embeds what is, frankly, sociopathic behaviour, completely at odds with ecological democratic principles, into our society. It is not sufficient to attempt to hold back this tendency through regulation. The legal definition and structures of corporations must be radically altered; they must be stripped of personhood unless they behave more fully as humans, with stewardship responsibilities. What those responsibilities should include is a matter for participatory, deliberative democratic processes to determine.

The obvious flip side of this, in the context of rebalancing rights, is to grant legal rights to nature. Why should BHP Billiton have legal rights but the Great Barrier Reef should not? In an ecological democracy, the concept that the natural world has rights should be embedded at each level, from the local to the global. Examples of how this can be done are emerging rapidly around the world, from New Zealand and India declaring certain river systems to be legal persons4 to Bolivia enshrining the rights of Mother Earth in its constitution.5 There is even a Draft Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth that was presented and discussed at the Cochabamba World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in 2010.6 Introducing and implementing such laws at various levels, including the global level, should be a priority.

Image: basicincome-europe.org

Next to limiting the rights of corporations and recognising rights for nature goes the vital commons principle of universalism. It is government’s job to enable and nurture everyone in our society, with those who have more resources contributing more so that all can share the benefits. Supporting and buttressing universal health and education are central aspects of an ecological democracy. And we should look to take this approach further with Universal Basic Income. Just as we agree that nobody should do without health care, and nobody should be denied education, nobody should be left in poverty. But, deeper than that, UBI is an inherently democratising project, reconceiving the relationship between the citizen and the state. It recognises that there is a multitude of different ways people participate and contribute, not just through paid labour. It rebalances power between employers and employees, gives people the basic resources they need to take the steps they might want to take in life. It is an enabling policy for the great majority, while, through the implied and necessary tax increases on the rich, limiting and devaluing free-loading and greed. UBI is, in this conception, a central element of the effort to rebalance our politics, and core to an ecological democracy.

Issues-based examples

There are several enormous cross-cutting issues which deserve to be briefly traversed in the context of implementing ecological democracy, looking at how an approach which fully enfranchises us, institutionalises stewardship and de-institutionalises selfishness, embraces complexity and interconnection, and reclaims the commons would tackle them.

The first is climate change. Tackling climate change effectively requires a politics which is able to draw together local and global scale action, driving corporate power from governance and supporting community action, embedded in an understanding of ecological limits. The commons provides both a map of the various solutions and a model for resilience in the face of the difficulties we have already made certain.

What does this mean in practice? It means climate change policy cannot and must not be boiled down to an “efficient” carbon price. Climate change policy is everything from supporting locally grown food and community transport initiatives to encouraging renewable energy cooperatives. It covers removing the ability of corporations to block action by reforming political donations and lobbying regulation, just as it does officially granting the Great Barrier Reef the legal right to exist. It runs the gamut from giving indigenous communities the right to say no to coal mining on their land to enabling citizens to decide how their suburbs are developed for their own use rather than for developer profits. Climate change policy is structurally replacing the discount rate with an interest rate in economic models to ensure we properly value our responsibility to future generations. Climate change policy requires democratic participation at the hyperlocal level and at the global level, and every level in between, not just because local communities understand how to implement solutions for themselves, but also because this democratic engagement is vital to holding back the exclusionary impulses that climate disasters are likely to exacerbate.

The second is peace. An ecological democratic approach to peace requires a deep appreciation for complexity and interconnectivity. For example, war both damages the environment and is driven by a damaged environment. War, and damaged environments, drive people to flee as refugees, which in turn destabilises regions and often damages further local environments. Private companies making profits by selling arms, mercenaries and propaganda machines supply multiple sides of conflicts at the same time. At the heart of an ecological approach is the recognition that democracy and a healthy environment are prerequisites for peace. Practical steps must include such basics as banning all weapons of mass destruction and banning any donations to politicians or parties from weapons manufacturers or defence contractors. We must also begin to grapple properly with the path towards global democracy, challenge the idea of borders which allow free movement of capital but not of people, and, at the deepest level, question the future of the nation state. Models of regional governance have changed dramatically over human history. Surely we can do better than the post-imperial model we have today, and develop commons-based polycentric governance from the local level through to the global.

Protecting Country: First Nations People And Climate JusticeThe third and final is the gaping wound at the centre of our politics – the ongoing genocide of Indigenous people. It is inconceivable that we build an ecological democracy which does not put conciliation with Aboriginal people at its heart. Full enfranchisement must, first and foremost, institutionalise the principle of “nothing about us without us”, ensuring that any policy which affects Aboriginal people is led by them. Instead of seeking ways to “recognise” Indigenous Australians in the Constitution, we should humbly ask First Nations people to lead us in a conversation about the country we want to be, rewriting the Constitution from the ground up through an Indigenous-led participatory process. Importantly, embedded in a 65,000 year history of commons-based governance, we can look forward to being led to understand this perspective through such a process. Of course, it is not for us to predetermine this – it is for us to open the door, open our hearts and our ears and our minds to Aboriginal people both within and outside the green political movement, and only then work together on the path forward from here.

Many of these ideas may seem utopian. But that’s the point. If we are to build a new political common sense, and if we are to begin to embed that in new and existing institutions, we need to present a bold vision of a world that can be.

Towards ecological democracy

The Greens urgently need a shared conception of ecological democracy. We need it in order to guide ourselves, as well as to present to the world as a new political common sense in this time of extraordinary change and instability.

A commons-based ecological democracy will help us embrace and respect internal diversity and pluralism, as well as external. It will help us re-learn our agonistic, consensus-based approach, not allowing ourselves to fall into antagonistic patterns of behaviour. Getting clearer on the overarching ideal of who we are, cutting through the Gordian knot of whether to prioritise environmental or left-wing politics by recognising that they must be seen as the same thing, will be central to this, and is a key reason for writing this essay.

Ecological democracy also provides a way of appreciating that community building, community organising and campaigning for parliamentary representation are all interrelated aspects of the same process. By working in and with communities through commoning projects, supporting those projects institutionally, building them into models for participatory democracy, and following through in parliaments, we cover the bases of Gramscian articulation – we shift both the culture and institutions of politics.

This is good politics as well as the right thing to do. Building cohesive communities is among the best ways to make people feel safe, and we know that feeling safe makes people less likely to vote conservative7, while competitive individualism makes people stressed and more likely to turn to the right.8

To encapsulate the vision of commons-based ecological politics:

We all have hopes and dreams. For most of us, they’re not about greed, wanting something other people have, wanting to have it at their expense. They’re about wanting to be who we can be, to live the best life we can, and to pass that on to those who come after us. And they’re about doing that not on our own, but in and with our communities.

The job of government isn’t to get out of the way, it’s not to tell us what to do, and it’s certainly not to pull the rug out from under us, and leave us on our own to do it. The job of government is to create a nurturing environment to enable us to work with each other to create the better world we know is possible.

Government’s job is to provide us with support, with tools, with accessible health care and education and housing, with clean air and water and a healthy environment, with a basic income, with clear, mutually developed rules to prevent free-riders and counter selfish impulses which we all have, and with the opportunity to participate as fully as we choose to in building our own common destiny.

Government, fundamentally, is us; and we are government. Just as we are nature and nature is us.

Everything is connected.

Be part of the conversation! We’d love to hear your thoughts on Tim’s ideas. We’re looking for comments and responses covering any parts of Tim’s essay. Your response can be long or short, critical or positive. If you’d like to respond, get in contact here. 

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Simon Copland, Felicity Gray, Mark Chenery, Christine Milne and Lorana Bartels for their critiques, comments, and support in the development of this essay.

Further reading

David Bollier, Think Like A Commoner, New Society Publishers, 2014

Murray Bookchin, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, Verso Books, 2015

Common Cause: www.valuesandframes.org.

JK Gibson-Graham et al, Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities, University of Minnesota Press, 2013

Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu: Black Seeds: agriculture or accident?, Magabala Books, 2014

Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, 1990

Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: the ecological crisis of reason, Routledge, 2002

Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics : Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, Cornerstone, 2017

References 

  1. The excellent CATS campaign is explained here: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/sep/13/cats-invade-london-tube-adverts-billboard-takeovers-commuters
  2. Common Cause is a values-based framework for campaigning and communication, developed through substantial research and practice. The Green Institute facilitates trainings in Common Cause, and more information can be found at www.valuesandframes.org.
  3. Raworth’s presentation to the Green Institute’s conference last year can be found at https://www.greeninstitute.org.au/doughnut-economics/.
  4. Erin O’Donnell and Julia Talbot-Jones, “Three Rivers Are Now Legally People – But That’s Just The Start Of Looking After Them”, The Conversation, March 24, 2017, http://theconversation.com/three-rivers-are-now-legally-people-but-thats-just-the-start-of-looking-after-them-74983.
  5. John Vidal, “Bolivia enshrines natural world’s rights with equal status for Mother Earth”, The Guardian, 11 April, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/apr/10/bolivia-enshrines-natural-worlds-rights.
  6. Draft Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth: https://www.iucn.org/content/draft-universal-declaration-rights-mother-earth.
  7. John Bargh, “At Yale, we conducted an experiment to turn conservatives into liberals. The results say a lot about our political divisions”, Washington Post, November 22, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/news/inspired-life/wp/2017/11/22/at-yale-we-conducted-an-experiment-to-turn-conservatives-into-liberals-the-results-say-a-lot-about-our-political-divisions/?utm_term=.96774e59092e&__twitter_impression=true  
  8. Jonathan Smucker, Hegemony How To: A Roadmap for Radicals, AK Press, 2017, p 212.