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Governments around the world no longer represent the interests of the people but are now in thrall to a powerful group of energy companies and the ideology of growth fetishism they embody.
Even the most dim-witted observer can see that these corporations are “more interested in commerce than humanity,” as Thoreau wrote, and are run by executives who are, to put it most charitably, misguided and self-interested. This is truer today after the remolding of democratic political systems to give greater influence to lobbyists and insiders. The climate crisis is upon us because democracy has been corrupted: Influence has replaced representation and spin now substitutes for honest communication. The “professionalization” of the major political parties has turned them into finely tuned vote-getting machines. Instead of being the expressions of competing social forces and ideologies, they are driven by polls, focus groups and minute demographic analyses. Political campaigns now occur largely in the mass media: A channel between the people and their leaders that is filled by an army of specialists whose task is to craft messages and cultivate editors. This is possible because the power of social movements has waned, and visionary politics has been swamped by the lure of affluence. For the most part, environmental organizations too have been sucked into the political game of influence-peddling and media management, with their leaders resigned to incrementalism – a strategy now mocked by nature’s power.
The passivity of the public has allowed our political representatives to become more and more dominated by a professional class of power-seeking individuals who stand for little other than self-advancement. Political parties have been hollowed out, with memberships shrinking and remaining members deprived of all influence. In Britain, for example, with the expectation that after years of New Labour the Conservatives will form the next government, lobbying companies are releasing staff close to the Labour Party and hiring Conservatives – with a view to having instant access. The Sunday Times reports that “more than 50 prospective candidates chosen by the main parties are already working as lobbyists and public relations executives and are deeply enmeshed in the world of spin and politics.” PR veterans describe the two career paths, lobbying and politics, as “a natural fit.” The influence of corporate lobbyists is checked only when it becomes too transparent or when the pressure to ease up on regulation jeopardizes the system as a whole, as occurred with the deregulation of finance in the United States before the crisis of 2008. Reclaiming democracy for the citizenry is the only way to temper the effects of climate disruption and ensure that the wealthy and powerful cannot protect their own interests at the expense of the rest of us. To do so requires a new radicalism, a radicalism that refuses to be drawn into short-term electoral trade-offs and that aims to shift the ground of politics itself.
We all value and benefit from a law-abiding society. Yet at times like these we have a higher duty and are no longer bound to submit to the laws that protect those who continue to pollute the atmosphere in a way that threatens to destroy the habitability of the Earth. When just laws are used to protect unjust behavior, our obligation to uphold the laws is diminished. In the usual course of affairs it is right to allow the normal democratic process, however slowly its wheels may turn, to change the laws to reflect the new reality. In 2008 the truth of this was acknowledged in the case of six Greenpeace protesters arrested for causing criminal damage to the Kingsnorth coal-fired power plant in Kent, scaling its smokestack and painting a slogan on it. Persuaded by the defense’s argument that the protesters had a lawful excuse – for in causing damage they were trying to prevent the greater harm being done by the power plant to the climate – the jury of ordinary citizens acquitted the six.
Global warming presents us with a uniquely challenging historical predicament. In the great struggles for universal suffrage, civil liberties and against slavery and unjust wars, victory meant the end of the problem – or at least the beginning of the end of the problem. In the case of climate change victory can come too late. A sudden awakening in a decade by governments and the people to the dangers of climate change will be too late; the global climate system will have shifted course and the future will have been taken out of our hands. In such times we have moral obligations other than obedience to the law. We feel we owe obedience to a higher law even though we have to accept the consequences of disobeying the ones in the statute books. It is for this reason that those who engage in civil disobedience are usually the most law-abiding citizens – those who have most regard for the social interest and the keenest understanding of the democratic process.
With runaway climate change now jeopardizing the stable, prosperous and civilized community that our laws are designed to protect, the time has come for us to ask whether our obligations to our fellow humans and the wider natural world entitle us to break laws that protect those who continue to pollute the atmosphere in a way that threatens our survival.
Despair, Accept, Act. These are the three stages we must pass through. Despair is a natural human response to the new reality we face, and to resist it is to deny the truth. Although the duration and intensity of despair will vary among us, it is unhealthy and unhelpful to stop there. Emerging from despair means accepting the situation and resuming our equanimity; but if we go no further, we risk becoming mired in passivity and fatalism. Only by acting, and acting ethically, can we redeem our humanity.
Clive Hamilton, is the author of Growth Fetish and Scorcher. This article is an excerpt from his latest book: Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change.