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Transcript: Saving Democracy to Save the Planet
This week's interview with David Orr, available to everyone
[00:00:00] David: John Stuart mentions the steady-state economy in a book written in 1848. In 1971 Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen wrote The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (Harvard, 1971) that grounded the discipline of economics in physics. In his view, economic growth speeds physical disorder. Think of the economy as a pipeline connecting wells, mines, farms, and forests to the economy and eventually to dumps, waste, and pollution. What goes in one end, sooner or later, comes out the other. The volume and velocity of throughput is roughly what we call Gross National Product. It’s a one-way street from ordered matter to disorder or what physicists call entropy. Herman Daly, a student of Georgescu-Roegen, rendered this comprehensible to a large audience in a series of lucid books and articles.
Environmental economics, a more conservative version of the ecological economics of Georgescu-Roegen and Daly, holds that marginal adjustments of prices and regulations is enough to calibrate the economic with earth systems. There is a wide chasm between these two views of economics. Kate Raworth’s recent book Doughnut Economics, is a recent and valuable addition to the earlier work of Daly.
[00:03:25] Rachel: Well, I was trying to think about, you know, God, what, what should we speak about, um, given everything that you've written about and, um, something that drew my eye in, in reading, uh, some of your pieces, especially on resilience.org, it was about, um, the process of democracy and the kind of requisite evolutions that state who'd needs to go through in order to best combat the crisis that we find ourselves in, and I've not really had anybody on the show speak about that.
[00:03:57] David: Well, I'll be, I'll be happy to. I did my graduate work in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1970s. I also took classes in other departments including one by Ian McHarg, the father of ecological land design. Later, living in Atlanta, I worked as an unpaid consultant to Governor Jimmy Carter. That experience caused me to see environmental policy through the lens of politics and the importance of Mayors, legislatures, governors, regulatory agencies, presidents, and courts. The environment is the “what” in “who gets what, when, and how,” the standard definition of politics.
After teaching for nine years in Atlanta and North Carolina, I co-founded a non-profit organization in the Arkansas Ozarks. Our goal was to create an educational center and model for sustainability in one of the poorest regions in the U.S. We operated a farm, sawmill, and construction company, and built facilities to accommodate several thousand students and conference guests year. Among other events we hosted the first conference for bankers and climate scientists with then governor Bill Clinton in 1988 and one of the first conferences on sustainability for major foundations.
In those years most of us believed that if we just get the science right it would all work out because people are basically rational and seeing the truth will change their behavior. But it is not that simple. Humans are not consistently rational as David Hume once noted and politics matter a great deal.
More recently, I turned my attention to issues of repairing American democracy and helping to organize the State of American Democracy Project. The problem was/is not just Donald Trump. He was a symptom of lots of other things. Our book, Democracy Unchained (New Press, 2020) summarized many of the issues. After 11 online events with 98 participants, we’ve turned to help organize a widser effort through universities and public organizations.
Our assumptions are that climate change is a mortal threat but fixing the climate, whatever that comes to mean, will require fixing democracy and how we do the public business. In turn, that means a more democratic and competent democracy. Our partners include Arizona State University and a dozen others.
Our goal is to create what the Irish might call a fierce commotion and build a large movement of people who understand how the Earth works as a physical system, the fundamentals of democracy and how these two are related. The time is very short to preserve a habitable planet and the hard-won gains of democracy. The power of schools, colleges, and universities to build a constituency for the future is huge, but there is no quick fix. We’ve raised the temperature of Earth by 1.1C with probably another .5C baked in. The results will change a great deal that we take for granted. Among the more complicate issues that require rethinking, I’d include the U.S. Constitution and law more generally.
[00:16:27] Rachel: But we’re running out of time and education is a very slow process. What are the short term things that also need to happen democratically or politically or in education in the next decade to work with the longer strategies that are going to create ultimately a better human society. But I mean, right now there's also the crisis that we need to deal with aSAP.
[00:17:27] David: That's THE question for which there is no one answer and certainly no easy answer. The immediate goal is to rapidly lower emission of heat-trapping gases and also take steps to adapt infrastructure, agriculture, transportation, banking and so forth to the hard realities of a hotter and more capricious climate. All of this will require that citizens understand the science of climate change as well as ways to advance democracy as we transition to a future better than what is ion prospect. It is all hands on deck time, as they say, but that means all of us pitch in to lower our consumption of fossil fuels but in ways that protect our inalienable right to choose how we are governed, by whom and to what purpose.
[00:21:01] Rachel: Do you think that there's a tendency to slip back into authoritarianism because people don't quite know how to confront the severity of the crisis because it is so complex it is so frightening? There's this element of like, you know, I'm sure Freud wrote something about, you know, climbing back into the womb or whatever it is.
[00:21:24] David: Yeah.
[00:21:24] Rachel: You know?
[00:21:25] David: Well, he's a great question. I think that we have to, we have to reckon with, uh, this darker side of the human personality and the persistence of the tragic in human affairs and the ongoing battle between our frontal lobe with the ancient reptilian brainstem, i.e. the origin of fear, hatred, greed, and tribalism. Sustainability and justice, on the other hand, require hard thinking because they are complicated, complex, and ironic perennial issues.
The role of education is to encourage us to think more profoundly and deeply. A great many things, however, work against formal education not the least of which are television and advertising. Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, came to the U.S. and started the first major advertising firm armed with his Uncle’s ideas about human psychology. What he did was really quite ingenious. He understood that to sell something you you don't appeal to the frontal lobe but to the Id and to darker motivations. He sold cigarettes, cars, and more by appealing to our worst instincts. A century later, we are to varying degrees, childlike dependable consumers, not citizens. Television, movies, and now the internet have followed in train exploiting our vulnerability to sight and artful advertising. We tend to believe what we see no matter how illusory and fabricated.
A notable contrast is the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 fought over a seat in the U.S. Senate. Douglas eventually won the seat, but Lincoln won the presidency two year later. The transcripts of the debates are telling. Two very smart people debated the big issues of the day centered around slavery and issues of tariffs. The audience stood for hours without seats and air-conditioning and cheered or jeered as they chose . . . but they listened to long and eloquent arguments. Later some gave their lives for the ideas they heard. They were citizens, not just consumers.
[00:29:11] Rachel: Yeah, it harks back to ancient Greece when all the public debates were made in, in the market, it was, you know, there was no ivory tower of education. Okay. Not everybody was chosen to go and be educated, but they would have these debates in public. But then that leads me on to ask, um, because of — well, a huge part of the problem is we labeled, um, in the west, our institutions as democratic and our system is democratic. And yet, unless, um, unless you're in the kind of a position and have a level of education, which enables you to keep a very close eye on every debate that's happening in government, democracy kind of falls by the wayside, the minute that you cast your vote.
But bringing that idea back to education and advertisement, I mean, as long as education, especially higher education is commodified, especially in the United States, can it be democratic in this way? Because the forums that you're talking about, whilst I think they're fantastic and technology would enable to, as you say, have millions of visitors and viewers around the world, there is still this barrier, um, of capital and access. Um, and also, I mean, class hugely, you know, don't, we have to kind of take that apart.
[00:30:29] David: Yeah, that's a great question. So if you call the Greek experience as, say, democracy 1.0 and the U.S. Constitution democracy 2.0 what we propose might be called democracy 3.0—democracy calibrated to fit in a planet with a biosphere and extend rights to future generations and other species.
In terms of education that means people have to know something, they cannot be illiterate. They cannot be ignoramuses. They have to know how the earth works physically. They have to be dedicated to the proposition that a competent, well-run democracy can work and it can protect human rights. That requires, among other things, taking money out of politics, protecting everyone’s right to vote, and doing the public business as a public Trust.
A true democracy has certain features like front porches, village squares, corner pubs—places where people meet face-to-face ands live as neighbors. Cities should evolve more like Copenhagen than Los Angeles to be walkable, bikeable, with greenways, trails, and community owned solar utilities. Vital neighborhoods, as John Dewey once said, are the places in which we learn the arts of democracy. Parks and natural spaces are where children learn to love the natural world and perhaps even become ecologically competent.
[00:36:46] Rachel: I was interviewing Jason Hickle last week on de-growth, um, scholarship. And, um, he presented different models that show that, you know, we can stay within planetary boundaries and we can support 10 billion people. And we can also lift 60% of people out of poverty around the world by implementing a series of policies simultaneously.
And that's the key thing is the simultaneous part, because if you only, um, you know, if you only think about climate change or that tackling the, the bullshit problem of the free market, then you get nonsense like the green economy, which has just the continued commodification of nature. Or if you, um, don't think about the materials problem, then you get everybody trying to dramatically shift towards renewables as quickly as possible without understanding that building renewables also takes fossil fuels.
Like, we need to decrease consumption. And the thing is we are in this, um, situation now where it's gotten so bad, we do need to be able to implement multiple things. It's the simultaneous part that can only lead to actually achieving a vision where we come through this without half of the world being killed off essentially, and huge losses in biodiversity that we're already seeing every day in what you're saying as well.
I mean, how do we press go on all those buttons at the same time, given the situation that we are currently in and given the timeframe, because if we had two generations worth of time, if we could educate everybody on how to be a better citizen and also reprogram them to understand that, you know, losing your free market or not allowing Fox news on television, it's not the loss of any notion of freedom. It's actually the construction of, of, of better civilization. But we just, we just, we don't have that time. How, what, what kind of things do we need to prioritize?
[00:38:42] David: Great questions. But how many people want to breathe dirty air, drink foul water, or suffer through killer storms? Nobody! The point is that we are a very large majority. The problem, however, is that of a diffuse majority versus a small dedicated, ruthless, and well-funded minority.
That's one issue. The second issue is we need a strategy. You and I are Scotch and our our ancestors charged well, defended stonewalls, wearing funny little skirts and got their butts kicked. Frontal assaults don’t often work. We need more indirect approaches and smarter strategies that are more like Akido and trim-tab changes, and patience . . . lots of patience.
[00:41:03] Rachel: Every time.
[00:41:07] David: And Jason's point about having a vision of a world that actually works is great. That, however, requires us to think long-term. One model is that of the Mt. Pelerin Society formed in Switzerland in 1947 to promote free market ideology for whatever ailed us. Frederich Hayek and Milton Friedman were prominent member of the Society and the neoliberal movement that eventually took over economics departments, law schools, and governments. Their acolytes included Ronald Reagan who once said the, the scariest words in the English language, or I'm here from the government, I'm here to help you or something to that effect. Maggie Thatcher, similarly asserted that there is no such thing as society. We're all just fragments, individual atoms without social bonds. That's the world of Edward Bernays. If we're atomized, then consumption, plays a very large psychological role in our lives that community activities no longer play. Life is reduced to a zero-sum game with winners v. losers. The economist Karl Polanyi, had a different view. The Great Transformation published in 1944, was a powerful dissent from neoliberalism and market idolatry. But his message was not heard and now we live with the consequences of corporate domination and the corruption of dark money on public policy
[00:47:14] Rachel: Yeah. There seems to be a kind of, um, entitlement in a modern Western citizenship, which is, um, like an inalienable right to, to exist. And therefore, you know, if you do something bad, then you know, you can do jail time or whatever, or get fined depending on which class you exist, but nothing is taught about how to be an active citizen.
It seems to be an extremely passive thing that we're just every four or five years, people go on the television and they yell things at each other. Um, and you have to make a choice from people that you don't feel represent you. Um, and it seems to me that there needs to be teachings in the inactive participation.
And it makes me think of ecological systems. And when, um, ecological systems are systems within systems, within systems of, um, biodiversity and organisms coexisting together in order to make a greater whole, we seem to have lost that in that fragmentation of society. And that to me is what, when you want to teach civics, it's not just about critical thinking. It's also about action and earning your right to be a citizen.
[00:48:25] David: That's a really good point. I think that we have partially disintegrated as a society and there are lots of reasons for that. I grew up in a little town in Pennsylvania that had weekly rail service, two hardware stores, two grocery stores, two car dealerships, a drugstore, appliance store, repair shops, three restaurants, movie theater . . . all in a town of 2200.
Most of it is gone. In its place we built a society designed to be “efficient” in a certain sense, but bereft of stability, civility, neighborliness, and resilience and so not very efficient at all. We can’t escape irony and paradox
[00:49:28] Rachel: Yeah.
[00:49:29] David: There is no quick fix to our problems. It took a hundred and fifty years to dig the hole and it will take a while to climb back out and find our way to a more decent and improvable society. But I do not think it’s too late. Our challenge is to summon the imagination and the capacity to see possibilities ahead. We have not exhausted our potential.
[00:53:00] Rachel: Yeah.
[00:53:01] David: The essence of democracy is to have faith in ourselves and what we, the people can be. That is a shift in pronouns from I, me, mine to we, ours, and us . . . including future generations and other species.
[00:53:07] Rachel: Yeah. I mean, engaging our prefrontal cortex is, is a must. Um, and yet there's also a sense of, again, for imagination, it requires the use of the totality of the brain that I don't think we often do use because in how we systemize things as well, whether it's an industry, whether it's in career, whether it's an education, it's almost breaking things down into smaller and smaller pieces.
But the thing that I'm really, really sort of obsessed with thinking about at the moment is the role of creativity in all of this because of the crisis of imagination that we face. Um, and when thinking about ecology or politics or whatever, like ultimately the, the, the — we seem to be in a position where it's on, but well, things are either going to stay the same i.e. get worse and we're going to slip into a very dangerous form of society, which we'll see billions around the world lose access to food, water security, um. Or there's this technical optimist vision. There's, um, the more realistic vision. But ultimately it seems to me that without also —and I'm now tangenting — without making space and education specifically for like, for art, for music, for literature, for nurturing that creativity, which is, I mean, creativity is also the source of, of collaboration and of the, most of the great progress that's been made, um, by human society.
You know, somebody has an idea and then 10 other people know how to implement it, essentially. To me, it goes beyond just politics and ecology as well. And seeing it as part of that bigger picture, like the capacity that we have for imagination is incredible. And if we don't start a utilizing it when in positions of power to do so and be teaching that as well and nurturing that in young people alongside the more rational processes, then it, cause we need the answer is, you know, it's behind the veil still.
[00:55:08] David: Absolutely! And one illustration. I served on a foundation board in San Francisco. We were asked to fund a school garden in what was a parking lot. We agreed to the proposal and the sixth and seventh graders went to work removing asphalt and planting a garden. In the process they learned a lot about tools, plants, soils, better nutrition, and even about marketing produce to local restaurants. On completion, I asked one of the organizers (now an 8th grader) what they had learned he replied: “I learned that asphalt isn’t forever!” Spot on!!
[00:57:23] Rachel: Well, yeah, and to me really, really highlights the difference between like prefrontal cortex thinking and critical thinking, you know, because your prefrontal cortex isn't even finished developing until you're 25. So for everybody that we want to teach critical thinking to, I mean, ultimately like we all need to be in higher education until we're 25 to get like the biggest impact, um, or really be in education forever.
But that's a whole other tangent, but like the creativity, the fundamental potentiality that is revealed in children when they perceive the world through their own individuality or through their own experiences, which are so particular and limited, like the fountain of possibility that comes from the way that they put words together, they put images together that they understand the things that are happening around them.
And then gradually that kind of, you know, we get socialized again, institutionalized. Sometimes that's really important if, you know, if we are nations that want to co-exist, there has to be some socialization, but to lose that very thing and then think that we can purely replace it with a sort of rational thought process and for everything to still work out fine. I mean, that's where your bog standard economics came from and it's doing nothing to help in this situation. So everybody has, I mean, you hear stories, especially like Scotland's such an interesting country, I find, cause it's like, it's, it's so fundamentally working class and you hear stories of how young kids in poor neighborhoods essentially come up with these like extreme creative, um, solutions, whether it's, you know, they want to get beer on a Saturday night or whether it's, they want to make a little bit of extra money.
The capacity that we all have to problem solve is how humanity has gotten to this stage. And so to think that we can't think our way out of it, it just means that we're not investing in the right parts of humanity. Surely.
[00:59:14] David: Someone, I don’t recall who, once described asking first graders if they could sing . . . every hand went up. But a class of high schoolers asked the same question, very few hands went up! What had happened to them in the intervening 10 years or so
[01:03:52] Rachel: Yeah. David, I can speak to you all day. I am so enjoying this.
[01:03:59] David: Thanks for the opportunity to talk.
[01:04:02] Rachel: Oh, my God. Thank you for, for coming and playing a critical it's such been such a pleasure speaking with you.
[01:04:06] David: Well, same here.
[01:05:02] Rachel: Great. Thank you, thank you David. Thank you.