Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Can Democracy Solve Climate Change?

I've very much enjoyed the interesting and sometimes quirky blogs that the New York Times has brought together over the past year or two (check out Freakonomics if you haven't yet done so), and I've found the varying and sometimes contrarian opinions expressed by Stanley Fish to be particularly engaging. He has the kind of plodding, old-time academic style that I've actually grown to enjoy in recent years, and he puts it to work in a masterful way. Still, I have to strenuously disagree with a point he made in a recent post answering questions on the merits of democracy:

One question I was asked seemed to me to involve a category mistake: “Can democracy solve climate change?” Solving the problems of climate change, if it can be done, will be a matter of advances in technology and alterations in personal and corporate behavior in response to state directives and regulations. No political system is either naturally suited to the task or barred by definition from performing it. Politics and technology are independent variables.

Dr. Fish makes several serious mistakes in his flippant dismissal of so important a question. First, he treats "advances in technology" as a variable that is not only independent of politics (which I'll get back to in a moment), but of resources. In other words, in this day and age, the speed with which particular technologies advance is largely (though obviously not totally) a function of the amounts of a society's material resources and human capital that are applied to advancing them. The United States may well possess the necessary brain power and material resources to develop the kinds of energy technologies that will be needed to arrest the worst aspects of climate change, but that will mean very little if we fail to apply those resources vigorously and efficiently. Whether or not we do that, in turn, is a function of decisions made by those members of our society - mostly government leaders and captains of industry - that dictate the ends to which scarce resources are dedicated. To argue that somehow the structural environment in which such people operate does not affect the ultimate speed and direction of technological advances seems a bit small-minded.

Indeed, the anthropologist-biologist-geographer-sociologist-historian - I suppose I'll just call him a polymath - Jared Diamond has written two incredible volumes, Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, that detail the interaction of environment, culture, technology and politics in the development and decline of human societies (criticisms of Diamond's work as "environmental determinism" which are mentioned in the above links strike me as simplistic, and mis-represent his arguments as a whole, which are more nuanced). Consider also the work of a man like Joseph Needham, the orientalist (before Edward Said made the word pejorative) who opened the history of Chinese science to the West, which highlights the very different technological trajectories that societies can take based, at least in part, on their political structure. The level and nature of feedback between different elite classes of society, as well as between elites and non-elites, can have a profound effect not only on the development of particular technologies, but on the fate of societies as a whole. To make myself a bit more clear, I'll point out a few examples:


The printing press (combined with movable type) that most see as a key springboard of western modernity was not, as popular lore would have it, developed from thin air by Gutenberg and his predecessors, but rather was an import from the Chinese, who had developed the technique centuries earlier. Needless to say, this technology had a very different impact in Europe than it did in China.

In the context of the politically-unified Middle Kingdom, ruled as it was by a centralized authority that derived legitimacy from a combination of force and a nebulous Confucian philosophical milieu that emphasized the importance of hierarchy to social harmony and correct behavior, the development of print did not have particularly tumultuous social effects. To be sure, the technology streamlined government administration, fostered intellectual exchange, and was doubtless beneficial to the overall economy, but it did not threaten the prevailing social order, because that order was not predicated on an elite monopoly of particular information (it is worth noting as an aside that, except in certain administrative areas, movable type never caught on in China, partly because it is a far more cumbersome technology when applied to a language with thousands of written characters, and partly because of the aesthetic importance the Chinese placed on a writer's calligraphic talents; however, block printing was ubiquitous).

In Europe, of course, print fundamentally undermined the feudal hierarchy atop which stood the Vatican, because that hierarchy was not based on any unified political and administrative structure, but rather on a set of ideas that depended upon a small cadre of elites holding an interpretive monopoly. As long as the organs of the Catholic Church remained the principal repositories and transmitters of knowledge, especially theological knowledge, the authority of the Church was basically secure (Marxists might call this 'engineered false consciousness'). Once printing allowed for the wide, multi-linguistic dissemination of the purported textual basis of Church power (the Bible), as well as criticisms of that power, the entire system broke down. Furthermore, while printing in China remained primarily an administrative tool and/or an intellectual cottage industry, in the West it mixed with capitalism to remake Europe's ethno-linguistic map. In their desire to increase the size of their market, European printers unwittingly codified localized dialects into unified regional languages, creating "print communities" that were the embryos of modern European national groups (see Benedict Anderson's seminal work Imagined Communities for a better treatment of the argument that I just tried to summarize in a sentence).

Chinese Shipping

The case of the printing press may do a fine job demonstrating how technology can affect the development of politics, but can politics truly affect the development of technology? Absolutely. Recall the voyages of Zheng He, the Chinese admiral who led a massive treasure fleet around the Indian Ocean in the decades before Columbus. His travels are indicative of a level of ship-building technology and navigational knowledge that far surpassed that of other contemporary civilizations, yet much of it was lost in the centuries that followed his last voyages because of a political decision by the Ming court to stop such ventures and restrict Chinese contact with the outside world. Had China not been so bureaucratically unified, such decisions may well have carried less weight, and history may have witnessed Spanish Conquistadores vying with Chinese soldiers for control of the New World.

Guns in Japan

Recall also the deliberate halt called to the development of firearms in Japan following the ascent of the Tokugowa Shogunate. Guns, at first purchased from European traders, then indigenously produced, had played a central role in the many decades of fratricidal conflict that preceded Tokugowa ascension. Because Ieasu Tokugowa (correctly, perhaps) saw such devices as a greater threat to his rule than their utility merited, he arranged for their almost complete elimination in Japan, and Japanese firearm technology began to fall behind. This would have fateful consequences when Commodore Perry's gunships sailed into Tokyo Harbor in 1852.

Stem Cells in the United States

Finally, those who require a demonstration of the effect that politics can have on technological development need look no further than the contemporary United States which, despite impressive wealth and some of the most advanced biotechnology facilities and researchers on Earth, devotes almost no resources to one of the great biomedical frontiers of our time: embryonic stem cells. This is entirely because structural peculiarities in the American political system make it advantageous for the President to defy the will of the majority and put a de facto moratorium on such research. It is also worth noting that this moratorium is enforced not through prohibiting the research outright, but by holding back the resources necessary for it to bear fruit.

Regime Stability and Economics
All this history to emphasize just how important the political structure and climate of a society can be to the development and trajectory of important technology. Had Ming China been more decentralized, the rise of a new Emperor may not have brought Chinese naval development to such a grinding halt. Had the Tokugowa shoguns not halted firearms production, Japanese batteries may have been able to repulse Commodore Perry's ships. Were America's current leaders not so politically beholden to a minority of social conservatives, U.S. biotechnology might develop more freely.

Dr. Fish, though, understands that solving the question of climate change is not just a technological challenge, but an economic and behavioral one as well. Though many scientists predict that the sacrifice in current production and growth necessary to bring global warming to heel pale in comparison to the future production and growth sacrificed by letting it continue unchecked, it still bears mentioning that adjusting modern societies to sustainable energy usage will involve some material sacrifice, as well as changes in economic behavior. The problem, which Fish evidently fails to recognize, is that some political systems are better structured than others to respond flexibly to changing economic circumstances rather than sprinting at full speed towards their own collapse.

A prime example noted by Diamond and others is that of Easter Island. As best we can tell, that society evolved a fragmented political structure that incentivized elites to one-up each other in religious monument-building in order to maintain political legitimacy. These public works programs eventually overtaxed the society's (very) scarce resources, leading to a catastrophic economic meltdown accompanied by revolution, war and famine, reducing the remaining population to half-starved subsistence. Had the Easter Islanders' political order been better suited to managing resources, perhaps with more constructive feedback mechanisms between elites and the general population, more would remain of their civilization than haunting, eyeless statues.

In sum, a society's political structure is intimately related to the pace and direction of its technological development as well as the efficiency and flexibility with which it manages available resources. I return to the question, then, of whether or not democracy is a superior means of political organization when it comes to the question of climate change. Some might reasonably argue that it isn't. Authoritarian regimes, which have a certain capacity to insulate themselves from public discontent, might in theory be better suited to make the kinds of gargantuan economic adjustments necessary to move their societies away from a carbon economy (Orwell was famously impressed - and terrified - by the ability of Nazi authoritarian industrialism to organize Germany's mighty war machine). If those hurt by the adjustments have no voice in government, then the political road might be more easily cleared.

This logic, though, suffers from some empirical difficulties. First, there is little evidence that most autocrats take the problem of climate change particularly seriously. The Russian government seems to actually count on some benefits from the World heating up, and Chinese leaders seem inclined to pursue growth at all costs, climate be damned. Pettier dictatorships and juntas from the Middle East to Myanmar seem all too willing to follow this logic as well. While the World's democracies have few bragging rights in this area, their are fewer inherent contradictions between their political structures and the steps that will need to be taken to address global warming. I would direct readers to a recent article in Foreign Affairs by Elizabeth Economy which highlights the quandry currently faced by China's rulers: take concrete steps to address climate change, and one harms growth. Breakneck growth, in turn, is the only legitimating factor the CCP has left. China's authoritarian government cannot impose economic pain without undermining its own power. It is not alone in this regard.

Democratic states, by contrast, are more flexible. Yes, individual governments can be frustratingly slow to recognize and confront serious problems, and election year pandering can make democratic leaders reluctant to demand sacrifice, but well consolidated democratic systems have proven capable of withstanding stresses that would topple the most iron-fisted dictator. A president may risk his job by telling harsh truths, but he seldom risks democracy itself. Thus, democratic development and climate solutions should be looked at neither as unrelated issues nor as competing imperatives, but rather as complementary goals.

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