two reflections by David Orr and a book recommendation
Hypotheses & Conjectures
1. Because of the long residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere and the massive amount of latent heat now stored in the oceans—matters of physics and chemistry—human-caused climate change is not a short-term crisis, but a “long emergency” measured in the time required to re-stabilize the climate system and restore Earth’s energy balance between incoming and outgoing radiation. It is an “everything issue” and so,
2. The effects of higher temperatures will adversely affect all sectors of every country.
3. Democracy will not survive for long in a hotter and more capricious climate causing economic, political, social chaos and cascading systemic failures worldwide. On the other hand,
4. We are not likely to stabilize the climate without first reforming and improving the institutions of democracy as well as democratically elected governments at all levels.
5. The inalienable right of people to choose how, by whom, and to what purposes they are governed is worth preserving, improving, and passing on to our progeny.
6. Improving democracy requires rigorously protecting the right to vote as well as more fundamental reforms to broaden representation and acknowledging the right of future generations to a habitable Earth. Further, a robust democracy requires widening the public dialogue to include issues now regarded as off limits.1
7. Improving government at all levels requires calibrating law, regulation, policy and administration to the scale, velocity, complexity, and longevity of changes underway with how the Earth works as a physical system under stress.
8. We cannot improve democratically elected governments without an accurately informed, scientifically literate, and engaged citizenry.
9. A destabilizing climate and the worldwide assault on democracy are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.
10. Climate change and its many collateral effects could become a form of intergenerational remote tyranny by which the present generation impoverishes its descendants rendering their lives less prosperous, secure, and happy.
David W. Orr, Professor of Practice, Arizona State University
The Question of Governance
David W. Orr*
Published on Commondreams.org (9-18-2021)
The sixth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms yet again that we are rapidly destabilizing the climate and making the earth a more dangerous and biologically impoverished planet. No surprise; we’ve known this since the 1970s. The primary cause of the worsening situation, however, is not the combustion of fossil fuels, but the massive political dereliction that has allowed the bonfire to go on after we knew that it posed a potentially lethal threat to humankind. We have no precedent for malfeasance at this scale therefore we have no law, no accountability—and so far—no remedy. No one is in jail for complicity in ecocide. The burning part is just a symptom of a half-century long political failure attributable in large part to the power of unprincipled and unaccountable money to override the public interest, including that in our own survival. As a result, the worst “worst case” scenarios are beginning to play out before our eyes. Commensurate to the scale of the problem, our leaders did not lead, public institutions did not act, media did not inform, social media pedaled lies, and conservative Courts protected power and wealth, ironically contributing to the most radical outcomes. All along our questions have been “too puny for our circumstances;” our ideas inadequate to the systemic challenges posed by a de-stabilizing climate and deteriorating ecosystems. Let’s start with government and the broader subject of governance and political culture.
Governing is a perennial human problem. As difficult as it has always been, however, it is about to become much harder in the transition from the Holocene to a different and more hostile planet. From the first tribal councils to the present, rulers everywhere could safely assume that—whatever the weather—the climate was a constant even if they knew nothing about how the planet functioned or even that they lived on a planet. That assumption no longer holds. Climate stability is declining, forcing weather patterns everywhere into chaos. Without rapid and coordinated global action to stabilize the climate below some all-too-near threshold the human experiment is in jeopardy. The change from the stable climate of the past 12,000 years to a less predictable and more capricious climate, will require significant changes in government and governing. The reasons are becoming clearer. First, the rate of planetary change is accelerating much faster than once predicted. The biogeochemical cycles of earth, particularly the carbon cycle, now set both the speed and the agenda for what governments will have to do to avoid calamity, preserve civilization, and adapt to hotter, drier, stormier conditions, rising seas, stressed ecosystems, and their social, political, and economic collateral effects.
Second, a destabilizing climate is “an everything issue” affecting the full range of what governments at every level have been expected to do and more. Things long taken for granted, however, are now in jeopardy. Full shelves at the supermarket, electricity at the flip of a switch, clean water at the tap, economic growth, dependable supply chains, ecosystem services like pollination, relative safety in the streets, medical care, and someone to answer 911 calls. Accustomed to incremental solutions to smaller problems, governments will increasingly face cascading and interlinked large-scale problems. Success—whatever that may mean—will require designing systemic solutions, at all levels of government, that solve multiple problems without causing new ones. Security, for one, has meant spending trillions on weapons to fend off external threats, sometimes conjured by our own behavior as “blowback.” Climate change, however, will jeopardize the security of everyone closer to home as larger, more destructive storms, longer droughts, larger fires, declining farm productivity, pandemics in changing ecologies, societal breakdown, and so forth. The occurrence of multiple crises could stress our response capacity to the breaking point.
Third, because of the long residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere and the massive amount of latent heat now stored in the oceans—matters of physics and chemistry—this is not a short-term crisis, but a “long-emergency” measured in the time required to re-stabilize the climate system and restore Earth’s energy balance. Geoengineering the atmosphere would be, at best, a planetary version of Russian roulette. The upshot is that we must now become students of longevity: how to build institutions that are durable under prolonged stress and have the capacity for self-repair. The examples are few: Chinese Civilization, the Catholic Church, Oxford University, the U.S. Constitution, and ecosystems.
Fourth, as the chaos caused by a destabilizing climate grows, so too the tendency for violence. Fleeing uninhabitable homelands, a rising tide of climate refugees will stress international agencies and the stability of nations that may or may not be welcoming. The potential for international conflict will grow over the control of water and arable lands. Violence, insurrection, guerilla warfare, random killings are likely to increase. Despair will mount as well. The combination of violence and hopelessness will feed the appeal of authoritarian/Fascist governments promising quick and improbable solutions to problems solvable only with systemic changes. Fifth, in a more chaotic climate the tools and machinery of governance, designed for simpler times and different conditions will not work as they once did. The use of subsidies, taxes, regulation, fiscal tools as well as public administration and agencies will have to be adapted to changing circumstances. In other words, the metrics by which government performance have been measured must now include the effects of public policies on climate stability and ecological resilience, including the damage we inflict on future generations. A significant fraction of the costs and burdens on central governments can be reduced by designing more robust, self-reliant, walkable and bikeable cities with community owned solar energy systems, local farming/food networks, and post-car transportation systems; cities becoming more like, say, Copenhagen than Los Angeles.
Sixth, in a destabilizing climate many of the presumed beliefs and attitudes from the industrial era, including the imperative of economic growth and extreme individualism, are not well suited for conditions of climate chaos. For example, because we did not pay the full (external) costs of growth powered by fossil fuels, we were never as rich as we presumed ourselves to be. Instead, we offloaded costs on others elsewhere or at some other time. The unavoidable conclusion is that economies, domestic and global, must be redesigned to meet more rigorous standards including full-cost pricing, fairness within and between nations and generations, and sustainability within the limits of the earth, i.e. carrying capacity.
A safe transition through the long emergency ahead requires growth in human solidarity summarized as a change of pronouns and outlook from “I,” “me,” and “mine” to “we,” “ours,” and “us,” including future generations and other species. The most important question we now face is whether we can quickly muster and then sustain the political will to govern wisely and well enough to prevent Earth’s climate from spiraling out of control.
*Paul Sears Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Oberlin College; Professor of Practice, Arizona State University, Author of Dangerous Years (Yale, 2017); co-editor, Democracy Unchained (New Press, 2020).
 James Gustave Speth, They Knew. Cambridge, MIT Press, 2021.
 William Barber, remarks at the State of American Democracy Conference, Oberlin College, November 19, 2017.
 Lance Gunderson and C.S. Holling, Panarchy. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002.
“Cogent. . . . Wide-ranging. . . . Penetrating analyses of the nation’s ills.” --Kirkus Reviews
“A peerless, one-stop compendium that explains with welcome clarity why American democracy is in such peril—and what we must do to repair and reinvent it before it is too late. Read this book, share it, and act on its authors’ wise counsel. The stakes could not be higher.” —Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America
“Democracy Unchained is an extraordinary compilation of essays on the parlous state of democracy in our country. Irrespective of whether you may disagree with some essays, every voting citizen should make the effort to read them all as they will stimulate serious thinking and make us better stewards of our democracy.” —Theodore Roosevelt IV, managing director and chairman, Barclays Clean Tech Initiative
“Democracy Unchained, in both spirit and substance, represents a revolutionary collection of voices and ideas imbued with the kind of hardheaded hope of which the country is in desperate need. We’ve grumbled amongst ourselves and wrung our hands long enough in the face of these issues, and now here comes an array of disparate and visionary thinkers ready to address the uncomfortable truths inherent in our flawed America.” —Eliza Griswold, writer, Pulitzer Prize winner
“The five-alarm fire that is our democracy in the present moment is a conflagration of our own making, but also one that we alone can put out. This book is a warning, a jolt to the system, but also a way out.” —Tim Egan, The New York Times
“This courageous book is a timely treatment of our crisis of democracy! The variety of powerful voices and cogency of analytical viewpoints are badly needed in these grim neo-fascist times!” —Cornel West, Harvard University“
This remarkable book is like speed dialing the smartest minds in America, and getting them to tackle the country’s toughest problems. It’s full of fresh and urgently needed ideas.” —Jane Mayer, chief Washington correspondent, The New Yorker
“This collection of essays by preeminent Americans from a wide array of backgrounds and professions may someday be recognized as the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Federalist Papers. Certainly the times are no less perilous than when Hamilton, Madison, and Jay set their pens to paper.” —Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle and Our Wild Calling
“The looming climate catastrophe requires that we disenthrall ourselves from the constructs and assumptions of the past. Democracy Unchained presents an urgent opportunity to think anew, and to engage Americans from every part of America.” —Tim Wirth, former U.S. senator from Colorado; president emeritus, United Nations Foundation
“Brilliant, provocative, and timely. These superb essays invite us to re-imagine and revitalize democratic institutions and practices. The invitation has never been more urgent or more persuasively articulated.” —Mary Evelyn Tucker, Yale University, co-director, Forum on Religion and Ecology
“Whatever your greatest public worry—from the climate emergency to extreme inequality—none can be resolved without democracy. So, here’s your tool for getting to the root solution. Let’s dig deep together.” —Frances Moore Lappé “Where do we go from here? In Democracy Unchained some of the country’s best minds tackle this most urgent of questions. The result is a must-read for anyone interested in—or worried about—the future of our Republic.” —Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer, The New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize winner for The Sixth Extinction