Centralised Government and Climate Catastrophe

Can Centralised Governments Save Us from Climate Catastrophe?

Attending a number of climate action events in the past few weeks, I noticed that a key part of the message presented was ‘there are things we simply cannot do as individuals, but our leaders can’ and therefore lobbying politicians is the only effective way of achieving the change necessary to avoid climate catastrophe (specifically, achieving a change to100% renewable energy in less than ten years).  The assumption of the organisers of these events appears to be that Westerners will retain a material standard of living (requiring large centralised power stations and including frequent medium and long distance travel) that is the same as we have today, and that centralised governments are the only entities capable of providing these things.

Firstly I should say that I do not believe that global social equity or the survival of the biosphere can be achieved without people considering the many  resources they are consuming in addition to energy (such as water, minerals, plastics and wood). A fundamental change to materialist culture, and an end to the deliberate use of destructive materials/processes (such as nuclear materials, toxic chemicals, water profiteering and war) must occur amongst humans generally if complex life on Earth is to be saved. Putting these issues aside for a moment, however, I would like to consider the more immediate questions: Do centralised governments have the power to act for the benefit of the biosphere? And therefore, even assuming a technological quick fix to the climate catastrophe is enough to solve the problem, will centralised governments take swift appropriate action to achieve a zero carbon future, if they are lobbied hard enough by the general population? Thirdly, if the answer to these questions is ‘no’, what is the positive alternative for achieving change?

Every time I hear someone use the term ‘our leaders’ I feel depressed. And this is because I hear the powerlessness in that statement – the belief of the speaker that it is someone other than themselves who has to solve the problem and, even worse, the belief that politicians are people who are worth trusting with the speaker’s life and security. Parliamentary democracy is a game which we in the West are taught to play from birth, and we are taught that the only other games on offer are dictatorship and chaos, so of course we must choose to hand over our power to ‘elected representatives who act on our behalf’. We are told that fair and just rules are made for the benefit of all (and if people weren’t forced to be good by the threat of punishment, they would not choose to be so). And this means we give up our belief in our own capacities to make intelligent, caring, life-enhancing decisions, and to take action for ourselves to provide for our own security.

Centralised, enforced government (whether democratic or totalitarian) is, by its nature, corrupt. In my experience, it is a rare politician who has any degree of personal integrity: most politicians are driven by fears which make them seek wealth, social status and elite approval. All democratically elected politicians say what they believe people want them to say in order to be and remain elected. Generally speaking therefore, politicians do not have the courage of their convictions: if they are aware of deeper truths, they will not speak out or take action if they are afraid they will lose their seat as a result. And to the extent that they are supporting the narrow self-interest of social and corporate elites at the expense of the community and the planet, they will simply lie about their true motivations and rely on media propaganda to pacify and confuse the public. While centralised governments have made occasional decisions in the interests of the public and environment, their record overall is appalling, regardless of the political persuasion of the party in government. This is not at all surprising if one understands the basic psychology of most individual politicians, and that the basic institutional aim of the enforced, centralised state is to prevent individuals and local communities from having control over their own resources and security, so that their energies can be siphoned off for the ‘benefit’ of already materially wealthy elites. This analysis is described in detail, with comprehensive evidence, in the works of Noam Chomsky (see Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, The New Press, 2002, for an easily readable summary).

So, I believe that it is unreasonable to expect politicians to have the courage (or even the desire) to act for the benefit of all, rather than for the narrow, destructive interests of the few. Corporate elites have ways of dealing with those politicians who don’t act in their interests (take the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in Australia in 1975 for example) and even good hearted politicians will generally accept failure to achieve real gains while remaining in power so that they can retain what they believe is some useful political effect (though it is hard to imagine what this ‘useful effect’ might be if they have had to give up action on issues genuinely crucial to human survival). The legal system is equally corrupted by fear and self-interest – how many times have activists fought long, energy-draining battles only to lose their case on some technicality or because of a judge’s prejudice; or won a case according to law only to have that law rewritten subsequently by politicians/corporate interests opposed to the decision? Exhorting politicians and judges to be less corrupt or more courageous can only lead to increasing feelings of disempowerment among activists, as the power for change is seen to reside only in the hierarchical power holder, not in the activists themselves or the general population, and it is always the judge or politician, generally acting for corporate interests, who has the final say. In addition, party politics allows for very few referenda, where the population votes directly on specific issues, so even when a clear public majority opinion exists, it is very easy for this to be ignored by major parties, who will not be voted in or out of government on these issues (for example, in 1989 around 70% of Australians did not want US bases in Australia but this made no difference to government policy, and currently over 60% of Australians do not want Australian involvement in the Afghanistan war, with the same result). One further disadvantage of centralised government is its size – once any decision making entity increases beyond a certain size, it ceases to be  relevant and responsive to the needs of local people and environments (ie. the real world), and thus the capacity for sensible decision making is lost. (For example, it is easy to decide to put a nuclear waste dump on land a long way from where you live; if you take responsibility for making decisions regarding your local area alone, you might decide that using a non-polluting source of energy is a much better idea).

I have found it most productive and empowering for myself to simply stop putting energy into a system which is fundamentally dysfunctional, and instead listen as deeply as possible to my own desire for selfhood: that is, my own consciousness of my existence, irrespective of other’s attempts to suppress and control me. This is where true hope for survival and security lies for me. Of course, listening to myself often means feeling my fear, as my conscience drives me to take independent action for which I am threatened and punished by people who believe that security is derived from obedience to a self-destructive system. But in feeling my fear and acting for the truth, I am alive, I am myself and my life is worth living regardless of anyone else’s behaviour. By not betraying myself and giving up my power to others, I create opportunities for inspiring, meeting with and working with others similarly inclined. And, I hope, I show politicians, judges and other supporters of the status quo an emotionally self-reliant and cooperative alternative to their fear-based and highly insecure system of ‘power over’ others, giving them space for self-introspection and change if they have the courage to begin this process.

So, I liken centralised, enforced government to the cage of a budgerigar. The cage offers the budgie security from immediate fear and want, as long as the owner is there to feed it adequately. But the budgie has no freedom to live its own life, or provide for its own security if the owner suddenly disappears or decides that the budgie is expendable. And the budgie has to provide the owner with what the owner wants, regardless of whether this meets its own needs for dignity and selfhood.  Given its limitations, the budgie has little choice but to accept and suffer imprisonment and exploitation. Perhaps the budgie ‘survives’ by deadening itself to the pain and frustration of its existence and pretending that freedom is dangerous and not something it even wants. However, my capacity to listen to my conscience, feel my self-love and face my fear means that I do not have to suffer the same fate. Standing up for myself as an independent agent may lead the government to imprison me physically, but I prefer this to colluding with their imprisonment of my mind and behaviour and their exploitation of my energies for wholly negative ends. If governments were truly moral, life-loving agents they would not have to use force and threats of punishment to achieve their goals. Anyone who threatens me is frightened, and I have no faith that their fear is working in my or their own best interests. Fundamentally, centralised governments (democratic or otherwise) offer security on the basis that they are the biggest bully on the block, and therefore can control the excesses of other bullies, thus keeping ordinary people safe. In reality however, governments are continually doing deals with other bullies (legally and illegally), and collecting public taxes to subsidise the increasing material wealth of these individuals and corporations.

Given the substantial and ongoing evils enacted by centralised governments against their own people, the people of other nations and the Earth, I choose to work directly with other empowered ‘ordinary’ people to achieve change (the political basis of Gandhian nonviolence) and I am happy to live a very simple material life lived in a local area and to forgo any number of centrally funded and controlled services, such as large scale public transport or large solar thermal power stations, which might (theoretically) be provided by a centralised government.

I am a nonviolent anarchist –  I believe that unforced, localised, human scale cooperation, combined with the highest levels of self-reliance and self-love at the individual level are the only way to achieve a just and sustainable world. In line with these principles, I do not vote or pay taxes to the government, and I use only a minimum of centralised government services to make my life practically possible, as I work full time to develop and encourage positive alternatives to the current system.

I respect the efforts of everyone willing to take action to prevent the imminent climate catastrophe, and I recognise that for many people signing a petition to make their views and feelings public can be an important step for them as activists. However, I hope that the analysis in this article may help these people question the value of believing themselves powerless and relying on centralised government to solve the problem. If people support centralised government on the basis that ‘only the government can do such and such’, we need to ask ourselves what price we will pay in terms of energies and empowerment lost while pursuing a strategy which reinforces the power of politicians and judges who, while they remain in these roles, demonstrate that they are not fundamentally on the side of the freedom and dignity of ordinary people or the Earth. And while our own powers as individuals are obviously limited in a physical sense, I do not believe that the power of the individual is anything less than total in a universal sense, where that individual is unafraid to know and act upon the truth. It is perhaps a painful and frightening thing to realise that those who we would like to believe are in control and capable of looking after us, are in fact scared, confused, corrupted (consciously or unconsciously) and untrustworthy. But it feels far safer to me to know this reality and act upon it – better to take responsibility for facing our own weaknesses and making our own mistakes, if this also opens the space for achieving our own victories.

See The Flame Tree Project To Save Life on Earth for a comprehensive strategy, based on individual empowerment and community voluntary cooperation, that addresses all environmental (and other violence related) issues.

Anita McKone

3 October 2011

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