A Utopian Solution

Last week we described the comprehensive response by China to climate challenges across the full spectrum of environmental, financial, political, and social needs. What has been accomplished there is an integrated response enabled by an autocratic government, controlled legislative, administrative, social organization, and communications, and financed by massive National investment to overcome any obstacle to relentless implementation, natural or human. The question remains: can such urgent and transformative action be only achieved by an autocratic leader controlling the planning, population, and purse? Can such an action be achieved by a different form of government, by a democracy as vocal, divided, and diverse as ours is in the United States? In comparison with the Chinese model, do we have a plan and how do we implement it through public and private initiatives subject to ideological debate and meaningful financial commitment?

Democracy is complicated, confused by diversity, conjoined by political will, and challenged by so many interests and points of view. At scale, it is a monster, and that for some 250 years, we have muddled through our distinctive history, dealt with the irrational forces of conflict and civilization, is a miracle worth honoring and maintaining, worth investing our energy and imagination to advance and preserve. But how, today, in a climate where the highest levels of government are caught in an ideological fight over power and profit and the outcomes are in doubt? The national politics are what they are; can democracy work around them?

If we have no faith in the top down solutions, what about bottom up? Where I live the things that matter much to my life day-to-day — education, roads, taxes, local services — are governed by local boards or municipal elected officials who can, for example, allocate revenues to strategic ends: the planning for and supervising of development, or the salaries and classrooms for our teachers and schools, or for certain regulations that shape our response to environmental conditions such as road construction, culverts, erosion, pollution controls, wetlands protection, sanitation, and other problems that are the inevitable focus of government. Regulation, at any level, is primarily a function of abuse, a law put in place to counter or control an outcome that may advantage one interest over another, that may need a standard to which all interests can conform. Local government has various means of enforcement. And then there is the state as collective planner, legislator, investor, and controller of behavior that transcends one community on behalf of all communities within an even larger area of application.

All this is funded by pass-through monies from the federal level. There is never enough; there strategies that don’t always pertain to every interest; there is the reality of making do within the confines of parameters that are controlled by the residents, the voters, who can, and do, make themselves known with ballots, public hearings, and participation on local boards and commissions.

In effect, this level of government is what really matters. The concerns and requirements of the people to live and work together successfully. The capacity to react and resolve where actions and investments directly matter to health and well-being. This is where political will resides, where the support for change can be invented and applied. This is where the democratic process still lives as the foundation for what happens now, and what must happen next. This is itself an ecosystem service, an integration between people and place, what constitutes community, and what must be preserved even if we have to do all the work ourselves. Autocracy does not do well down here. This is where democracy works best, where decisions can be made by neighbors for the betterment of place no matter what the governance levels above do or won’t do. This is where transformative action and societal regeneration begins: individual action, small town government, local making do, shaping the political agenda, supporting innovation and change, allocating funds to the most critical needs, and fomenting change in our own back yard.

If we want our beaches clean, we stop throwing stuff overboard.

If we want clean water to bathe in, we don’t pollute the lakes, rivers, and streams.

If we want clean air to breath, we don’t permit emissions by our factories and cars.

If we want protection from storms and sea level rise, we don’t fill our marshlands.

If we want healthy food to eat, we support our organic farmers and fishers. If we want services to benefit our children, we invest in their schools and their teachers.

If we don’t like our government, we replace it.

If we want change, we make it.

This is democracy, not utopia, and as a tool, it is only as good as the people who wield it.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean.

Dedicated to proposals for change in ocean policy and action worldwide, linking unexpected people with unexpected ideas about the ocean.

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Dedicated to proposals for change in ocean policy and action worldwide, linking unexpected people with unexpected ideas about the ocean.

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