democracy politics

Systematic disadvantage of ecological interests

Lisa Ellis

For policies such as preserving fragile habitats, democratic policy flux means there’s only really one medium term policy outcome and that’s extinction…
We need to adjust our structures so that there’s fluctuation within a sustainable range.

Lisa Ellis is an Associate Professor in University of Otago’s Department of Philosophy.

Talking points:

(on difficulty of senior management dealing with sustainability issues)

You need someone with access to reality bringing those messages up

We shouldn’t expect enlightenment at the top to save us

One thing that climate deniers have on their side is a really simple, easy to communicate message – that these elite people who are nothing like you, want you to make sacrifices for no good reason – it’s a very simple message, wrong, but easy to understand.

As we make our baby steps towards an appreciation of complex reality, which is chaotic with feedback loops, where even the best modellers are modest about the probabilistic nature of their predictions, it’s very difficult to mobilise the majority in any democracy behind a probabilistic slogan.

“If we all make this change then probably most of us will be better off, but we’re not sure” – nobody is going to go out and vote on that

The message hasn’t gotten through or people wouldn’t be hoping for a Promethean solution… a silver bullet technological solution for anything that nature throws at us (which assumes a divide between humanity and nature).

The timeframes are difficult for us…but if you have access to family photos of really good fishing expeditions, you might notice that the futher you go back in time, the larger and more delicious the fish your family caught were – the prize winning fish are shrinking.

(see for example)

You don’t have to go so many generations forward to get at the structure of contemporary environmental conflict – the majority sustainer, minority extractor

The future generations problem is a flaw in our current political structure

The structure of environmental conflict is straight democratic, we have political structures that disproportionately represent a tiny minority interest – those with interests in the extraction of resources

We systematically disadvantage ecological interests vis a vis extraction interests.

If you are trying to keep your seat at the table but your opponent is continually willing to break off negotiation because the default position is continued extraction not conservation, then you are going to be led willy-nilly to make continued sacrifices in order to keep the negotiations going…So you find yourself mystified, “Why are representatives bargaining away ecological interests?”, they’re doing it not because they are stupid, but because they are structurally disadvantaged.

There are really tough conundra, but we don’t have an alternative to democracy. It is based on a set of easy to understand ethical principles – opposition to injustice…

The very flux that democratic changes of government introduce into the policy making world (and of course if you have a democracy you must have changes in power, otherwise it’s not a democracy) but if you have changes in power then your policy changes, well if you policy was conservation and every move for conservation is temporary, but every move for extraction is permanent, then you have a real problem with unifying democracy and conservation policy, because you’ll necessarily have changes in policy, that’s what democracies do, that means sometimes the extractors are in power and sometimes the sustainers are – well everytime the extractors are in power they can make permanent changes, every time the sustainers are in power they can only make temporary changes, so…for some sorts of policies such as preserving fragile habitats, democratic policy flux means there’s only really one medium term policy outcome and that’s extinction.

We need to adjust our structures so that there’s fluctuation within a sustainable range. (eg Portland’s approach to development).

How is it that this lie that opposes all our interests has become the dominant ideology to which we all submit? Simple message, powerful interests. But these messages not impossible to counter. Unfair ideologies tend to fall when message gets through of the logical of equal justice.

All science is normative

The world is giving us messages that are harder and harder to ignore.

Shane’s number of the week: 40. 40% of bumblebee foraging trips were successful in a pesticide environment compared with 63% in a control environment (Feltham in Nature).
Sam’s joined-up-thinking: Sam is currently studying the relationship between the sophistication of ethical views and position on an anthropological/ecological worldview continuum.