How To Save Democracy
Last Updated on January 24, 2021
For the People, By the People
We are in the midst of a manmade climate crisis. Alarmingly, we are literally warming the planet and risking our environmental stability. It comes as a direct result of powering our modern civilization with fossil fuels. In addition to this now perilous practice, we are also dramatically clearing away our forests, while growing food through industrial methods that deplete our soil’s very ability to absorb carbon.
The consequences of these actions are terrifying! Humans are endangering all life on earth, as we risk the planet’s very habitability. Thankfully, we can still do something about it! We can recognize and respond to this emergency by saving democracy, and ultimately ourselves.
As was so eloquently expressed by US President Abraham Lincoln in his famed Gettysburg Address, a government is made up by its people in order to serve the interests of its people. This is the very basis of democracy. The government’s responsibility is to serve its people. It really doesn’t get any clearer than that.
Masters of Our Destiny
One means in which the government serves its population is through the creation and application of laws. Indeed, our legal systems are fundamental to governance. In a democracy, these laws represent the rules and regulations by which people chose to be governed. Such laws of the land, are therefore written and passed with the intended purpose of protecting and benefiting society. They are instruments of the public will. Basically, they exist because people want them.
It is people that ultimately decide the choice of government and legal system. It’s therefore
It’s An Adaptive System
It might not always work out that way, but there are fail-safes in the design. Public pressure keeps the system in check. While there is room for flexibility, the core mandate must be respected. The majority of people need to believe that their government has their best interest at heart.
That belief needs to remain constant. Of course, it’s natural for things to change. Governance systems can adapt accordingly. With the passing time, new needs arise, which result in new laws, government organizations, etc. No surprise there. There is plenty of room for adaptation.
Indeed, as perspectives change, and we learn as a society, new laws need to be introduced and applied. It’s not a an especially radical idea. Our rules are meant to adapt to better reflect our social evolution. We need them to. Governance therefore is by no means static. It changes with us.
Democracy Is A Living Thing
Democracy allows for our governance system to adapt and change. It is after all a social choice. We can elect to choose something else. As a result, things can and do change (see Unravelling the Narrative). Even if it ends up being hard fought in the majority of cases.
The people that make up a society are the ones can provoke its transformation. It is people that make it happen. Powerful hopes, fears, and frustrations can motivate and mobilize a society. They can propel individuals to champion a cause, organize, and take collective action.
It’s an amazing feat! The belief of a better future can inspire and mobilize communities, ultimately helping them to form organizations that support and their ambitions.
As people come together to march in protest and call for change, pressure and awareness grow (as well as the risk of potential retribution). The combination of dissent, social activism and public conscious eventual overcome a critical point at which those in government respond to the demand for change, or lose their place to those that will.
A Work In Progress…
So governments need to obey public will, or suffer the consequences. Or rather, that’s how democracy should work! However, if you’ve been following international developments, you’d certainly be forgiven a healthy dose of the cynicism. Still, despite all the recent letdowns, there are plenty of historical examples that support the effectiveness of social movements. People can effect change. It requires collective action.
Of course, in an ideal world governments would simply represent the genuine interests of their people to begin with (that’s what we’re aiming for). If that were true, then civil unrest would become relatively obscure.
I’m sure we can all agree, that just isn’t the case. Time and again, we are witnessing huge numbers of people from around the world rise to challenge their governments. Regardless of whether or not their respective governance system is a democracy. If the representative mandate doesn’t hold true, anger ensues.
The Call For Civil Action
In a democracy at least, there should exist a series of checks and balances within the system to work out or eject what isn’t working. Barring that, people will lose confidence in their elected leaders. If governments continue to ignore public will, then people will rise up against those in power and demand change. It’s the ultimate fail-safe. Despite even with the use of heavily armored riot police, soldiers, tears gas, guns, rubber bullets etc. Public will is a powerful thing.
With global leaders and governments now failing to enact meaningful climate action, they are once again tempting public will. As inequality and environmental destruction rage across the globe, those currently profiting from it can seemingly ignore public discontent.
Vive la Révolution?
Under normal circumstances this is where that ultimate fail-safe should kick in. With people literally kicking down the doors of government. However, this no longer seems to be the case. This isn’t because society has lost its ability to effect change on government, far from it. There are countless examples of passionate individuals and organizations still successfully achieving change (I love sharing those stories). Such stories continue to validate the power of collective action. But for the vast majority of citizens, the status quo has become too firmly rooted.
Changing social policy can appear insurmountable (see Proven in Action). It then comes as no surprise that the average person has become potentially jaded. It’s only natural to feel pretty dismayed by the seemingly limited capacity to make any significant impact on matters of government. After all, what can one person do?
At least, that’s just part of the thought process. There is plenty of other reasons why many now share this feeling of disillusionment. It may also result from the belief that your voice isn’t being heard. Or that the world has gotten too big, and they can no longer effect any extensive change. This jaded feeling can also stem from a conviction that special interests have become too strong. That big money has too much influence and therefore the government system is too corrupt and entrenched to change. Unfortunately, all these reasons can feel potentially true.
Apathy For All
But the reality remains otherwise. People still hold the power. We’ve just lost sight of it. Indeed, another cause of political indifference may be that people have simply become too busy and misinformed of their power. The sheer of content flooding all our various mediums has inundated us. There is just so much information, across so many platforms, that it’s difficult to keep up and cut through it all.
No doubt, the internet is an amazing source of knowledge! But it’s also loaded with copious amounts of misinformation and falsehoods. It has become a genuine skill to be able to navigate through it all. As a result, it’s totally understandable that it can all seem potentially overwhelming.
Foxes in the Henhouse
Meanwhile, those that were elected to represent society carry on with their daily affairs. In the best of cases, they sincerely have society’s long term interests and well-being at heart. If that’s the case, they may very well pursue their mandate ethically and persistently.
In the worst instances, they are influenced by the pressures and corruptions that surround them. They succumb to self-interest, greed, and delusion (see Pulling the Strings). This moral polarity appears to be an awfully wicked balance to submit to. Luckily, there is still hope for democracy! But it requires education and participation.
Freedom Through Education
Indeed, the solution to many of the social and environmental challenges we currently face is an educated and informed population. One that chooses to act morally in the face of reason and understanding. A high order to be sure, but as a species we do possess the right tools (empathy and intelligence) for it. In fact, science, reason, and cooperation are the essential elements for solving pretty much all the innumerable problems that we face.
Unfortunately, we’ve also managed to create for ourselves plenty of obstacles that work to impede our capacity to solve them. As a result, the critical components to overcoming so many of these complex issues reside in our ability to decipher relevant information, combined with the strength and will for continuous improvement.
Education as a Pillar of Democracy
To achieve this we need quality education. To that effect, education is not exclusively limited to time spent in school. Rather, it can be defined as the culmination of all our collective experiences. This includes learning from our own actions and errors, as well as that of our elders (I’m personally a big fan of studying history). We know that learning comes in many forms. From online forums to hikes through nature, there is plenty of opportunity to discover! However, a fundamental aspect of any formal education must include the need to grow and develop our own critical thinking.
The quest for knowledge is paramount, but so too must be the commitment to determine what is truthful and relevant. It is harmful to both ourselves and others to have our minds filled with falsehoods and prejudicial nonsense (a.k.a. unsubstantiated conspiracies, fake news, corporate marketing, etc). Such fraudulent information is dangerous and can have a devastating effect on the social fabric.
The Need for Critical Thinking
We must therefore train ourselves on how to evaluate that which is presented to us (see The Illusion of Choice). Questioning is key! And as we integrate this practice, we must continue to teach others to do the same.
Although we should all have learned this during childhood, it’s never too late to adopt the habit of analysis and investigation. It should come naturally. Critical thinking is essential for pretty much everything we do, but it is especially needed for addressing the climate emergency. We need to be able to question what is presented before us. It’s vital that we don’t simply ingest what is easy, but cultivate instead the effort and willingness to find the truth.
The pursuit of facts will in turn, bring up the questions of purpose and relevance. You may be asking, “What then? What are we to do with this information once we have discovered that it is genuine?” Well, in this humble writer’s opinion, insight and valuable information should be shared with others for the purpose of bettering society.
Navigating the Maze
Therein lies yet another challenge. The sheer volume of information shared daily is staggering! From the moment we turn on our screens in the morning, we are bombarded with information. This doesn’t lessen throughout the day (or night). And future seems set on feeding us even more! As a result, it is so very important that our societies learn what to do with it all.
We must therefore learn how to filter what comes at us. We need to effectively learn how to cultivate this information and differentiate reason from nonsense. The ultimate goal of course is to try and make the best choices from what we discover.
If managed correctly, this vast quantity of information and growing self-perception can best guide our decisions. The potential is there. Our information age, wisely leveraged, can definitely help guide us towards a progressive evolution. We have the tools and the capacity. A more balanced human civilization is totally possible!
Better Than Yesterday
It’s been said before, but when it comes to government, we don’t need perfection. What we need is a commitment towards betterment. Leaders that will strive to make each new year better than the one before, for a greater number of people. This has become a de facto motto for sustainability. We need to be on the path to improvement.
It’s certainly a challenging task. Moreso given that the enormity of the present crisis. We must confront a warming planet, dwindling resources, and degree of environmental destruction that is both frightening and immense. It’s only natural for any sane individual to be daunted by the task. But what choice do we have? As inhabitants of this unique and spectacular planet, we have a duty to protect it as well as each other.
I’m frequently asked how we can hope to achieve this, given all our flaws and the current state of the world. My response is often to offer concrete examples of how we are improving. We have done it before, and indeed we are still able to make sustainable advancements. I try to encourage others to join in the movement, and highlight the practice Kaizen. It’s a Japanese term that represents improving upon yesterday. Let yourself be inspired by others, and learn from them. Ultimately, education and empathy will help us surmount these complex problems.
Hug It Out & Develop Empathy
Empathy and emotional intelligence are integral to resolving our planetary crisis. As well as helping us curb global warming and rapid environmental destruction, these human sentiments are also essential for supporting the institutions of democracy.
Undoubtedly, we require facts and science to govern, but we are also in need compassion and kindness. We need to develop a shared understanding of our roles and responsibilities towards each other, and those that we this amazing planet with. Along with teaching science, and electing leaders that respect said science, we need to also encourage and develop in our youth a sense of hope and optimism.
Society, particularly its youth, need to know that promising ideas can be manifested into reality. They need to believe that the institutions that we create and develop can work! Our organizations should therefore help to foster and encourage the intrinsic hope that motivates exploration and innovation. It might sound like a lot to ask for, but we are certainly capable of it.
The key to saving our democracy, and the environment at large, is therefore education. More specifically, a holistic education, that combines the growth and development of a critical approach necessary for tackling the world objectively. This needs to be combined with a culture of empathy and compassion that is to be our guide for future decisions.
It is absolutely twofold. We can totally search for truth and hone our reason and logic, while still being mindful of others. We can harness our critical thinking, while still nurturing the spark of hope and creativity that ignites our deepest motivations. All the more so when we apply our knowledge in the service of others and the environment.
Bring Back Civics Studies
One way of achieving this is through a better understanding of our individual role in society. Civics courses help. Civics, “the study of the rights and duties of citizenship,” clearly should be reintegrated into our schools and raised among the social conscience.
Governments, as well as social leaders (from celebrities to corporate executives), have a responsibility to encourage citizen engagement. Those in limelight set the example to others. Leaders in particular need to be held accountable for their actions, or lack thereof. As public servants, politicians need to adhere to a higher standards. Indeed their role is exclusively designed to be in service to the public. Some reminders seem necessary at this point.
Thankfully, public discourse is gravitating once again towards the nature of government. People are questioning the roles government plays in representing all the people that make up a society (this includes the disenfranchised). Furthermore, democratic institutions exist to serve and protect all aspects of a society. This includes the water, soil, and air, as well as all the other life forms that share the planet with us.
If our social empathy is not yet developed enough to warrant compassion for the birds, squirrels, elephants, and polar bears (etc), then simply the motivation for self-preservation should compel us to watch over the environment and learn to live with it.
Contemplating the Natural Course
Historically, this was the case. Humans learnt to live off the land, using what was available, without exhausting what nature had to offer. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution (early 19th Century), that science was used as a means of justifying our dominance over the natural world.
Of course, scientific progress itself is not at fault for our present ecological erosion. This was entirely our doing. Scientific achievement is not at odds with the world. Rather, it is how scientific advancement was used, manipulated, and taught, that contributed to the rampant hubris and environmental decay that we see today.
There’s Still Time
It is not too late to change course! Society can certainly reclaim the priorities of the education system, and rehabilitate the humanities. We can teach compassion, empathy, and understanding. Indeed, we are born with these sentiments (even babies demonstrate empathy/ do things to make others happy). Unfortunately, many of us potentially train it away during our upbringing and education. Modern concepts of individualism and capitalism have convoluted our understanding of social responsibility and democracy.
This is why the conventional education system (designed during the Industrial Revolution), itself won’t cut it. Instead, we’re going to need more by way of a holistic education when discussing the redemption of our democracies. Education is the key, but it must encompass the nurturing of empathy and compassion. We can (and must) align our education systems with our humanity.
Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel best explained this by pointing out that the Germans, during the time of the Holocaust, were some of the best and most educated in the world. Despite their education however, they were still able to carry out mass atrocities and genocide.
This proves that the state, as well as science and education, can be used in the service of evil, while the population at large is either blind to its own malice or has rationalized it away. Why it is so fundamentally important to develop and maintain a critical awareness. It will encourage others to question their own actions and motivations objectively, while allowing for compassion and empathy to flourish. Teaching and training such compassion will undoubtedly contribute towards a healthy democracy.
Aim For Better
This responsibility for educating ourselves and our children need not be left to the state. Public education can certainly be a force for good, but parents and guardians also need to actively participate. Each of us has a responsibility to encourage, guide, and teach what we can. We need to share our stories with each others, and support our friends and neighbors.
Through the application of critical thinking and mindfulness, we can absolutely enrich ourselves. It will broaden our understanding of our connections with the earth and help us to acknowledge our shared humanity. As we face this crisis, we can still gain inspiration and motivation from one another. We must then convert this to civic action and environmental leadership. Together, we can still save democracy and ultimately ourselves.