8 January 2019 • Helen Kopnina
Democracy and environment: from ‘yellow vests’ to ‘extinction rebellion’
Optimists see democracy as a panacea for ecological evils, a vehicle for positive change. Pessimists are not so sure. Can democratic governments solve environmental problems, ranging form climate change to biodiversity loss? Will citizens all agree on what the “good” is? Will they elect governments that will be able to stop climate change and halt biodiversity loss?
Let’s look at recent events. From November 2018, in France, the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests), the protestors wearing the yellow vests were blocking the roads. From October 2018 in England, Extinction Rebellion members were also blocking the roads. These road blockers have very different messages.
Gilets Jaunes movement started with the decision of the French President Macron to introduce a tax on fossil fuel. Initially, the protest was associated with a group of lower middle-class car owners protesting against what they felt would push their budgets over the edge. A few charters have been put out by Gilets Jaunes, eliding with social justice questions about who pays “sustainability bills”. There is a deeper mistrust and dissatisfaction with the government, with some contradictory demands. While they are diverse, when interviewed, many protestors gave their identity as “drivers” who demand the government to take the hands off their cars.
Extinction Rebellion, on the other hand, is engaged in civil disobedience intended to force action by the British government on climate as well biodiversity loss and extinction of species. Extinction Rebellion attempts to make action on climate change the forefront of the political agenda. Using the strategy of non-violent direct action, Extinction Rebellion demands that both the government and the public take responsibility for the expansion of industry and agriculture that harms the environment.
Like with the yellow vests, Extinction Rebellion’s “membership” shifts, they have no formal leaders, yet the movement members is spreading beyond the UK to the US, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and even Australia. Both movements have few concrete goals and genuinely practicable policies for attaining them. However, the ‘vests’ outnumber the ‘rebellion’ by thousands in all countries. What makes both groups angry is the fact that industrial groups (industrial lobbies, oil, transport, mining etc.) remain hidden but influential. The difference is that the ‘rebellion’ group recognizes that these corporate giants are fed by consumer demands and the ‘vests’ are angry that they grab most of the profits.
Some have argued that any politician wanting to start subtracting carbon costs from the national economy is still influenced by lobbies and funded by industries. What is perhaps most disturbing is not just the fact that democracies in real life are influenced by powerful industrial lobbies, but that even the most environmentally-conscious politician (if (s)he ever gets elected in the first place) may fail to push through reforms if they mean compromise to consumerist life-style.
Individual lifestyle change is part of the story but, on its own, it is too small to make a meaningful difference in sufficient time. Also, population growth and industrialization, which are the root cause of climate change, water depletion, soil erosion, habitat destruction and species extinctions, requires transnational multi-level governance that draws legitimacy from global ecologically informed and caring citizens.
We have just considered two European cities, not the world. It is unlikely that we can all agree on what the “good” is. For some, it is having a personal freedom to drive a car, for others it is a commitment to future generations of humans and nonhumans. For some (perhaps a majority?) the choice of “good” might be determined not as much by the images of melting ice but of bread and circus.
Underprivileged classes have a right to demand fair treatment. But, for even less privileged nonhumans, plants, animals and others, no vote determining the future of this planet will be held. Even if these billions of beings could speak our language, it is not likely that 7.5 billion people will ever consider their vote.
Having said that, the saying attributed to Churchill goes “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried before”. Maybe we should try again – and keep on trying.
Helen Kopnina is currently employed at The Hague University of Applied Science, coordinating Sustainable Business program and conducting research within three main areas: sustainability, environmental education and biological conservation.