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It’s messy. It’s incremental. It’s what we have.

In support of the use of power: The naïve hope of a democratic system is that elected officials work on behalf of those who elect them. We’ve devolved from that as Susan Clark and Woden Teachout suggest in their book Slow Democracy. They argue that the dominant conception of democracy—voting—is analogous to the use of a public bathroom: an individual matter, done discretely. We enter the stall, close the door, do our private business, and exit. We might linger to wash our hands, but the whole experience is profoundly private even though it takes place in public space.

We are suffering, collectively, from this impoverished conception of democracy. In Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, Benjamin Barber argues that liberal conceptions of democracy have led at best to “dog-biscuit laws”—laws initiated by presidents (or governors or mayors) that play well to public sentiment without resulting in any structural change. Moreover, dog-biscuit laws, like those requiring labeling calories in fast food items, play into our over-developed sense of individualism and mask the growing erosion of the public sphere.

Overall, we are missing clear and compelling appeals to reclaim our shared lives, our public, and our future—the collective identity that the Occupy Movement tried to foster.

We need to reclaim citizenship as a concept that means active involvement in local politics including, Barber notes, neighborhood politics. Local politics are critical.

Polarized politics

Meanwhile, as Jill Lepore documents in a recent (12/2/13) New Yorker article, American politics at a federal level have never been more polarized. She cites different kinds of evidence to show that the more polarized members of Congress are, the less productive it is. The less Congress gets done, historically speaking, the greater the gap grows between rich and poor and, conversely, the greater the gap between the rich and poor, the greater the disagreement between liberals and conservatives. We are caught, she says, in a situation akin to being  in a kitchen when it’s on fire and the only thing we have are matches.

Weak democracy. Low public participation at even a minimal level. Polarization in Congress at record levels. Ditto the income gap. Enter climate change. The likelihood of business-as-usual politics in the US being equal to the task of mitigating and adapting to climate change must be close to zero. No smart bookie would place odds on a bet like this.

John Podesta at the federal level

The Obama administration recently announced the appointment of John Podesta, an advisor expected to play a central role helping agencies and departments implement the president’s Climate Action Plan. The plan was announced in July 2013, and the White House created a great infographic that captures the key concepts: http://www.whitehouse.gov/share/climate-action-plan.

Podesta’s appointment matters. In November 2010, the nonpartisan think tank he founded, Center for American Progress, published “The Power of the President: Recommendations to Advance Progressive Change” describing actions a president can take through the use of executive powers, rather than focusing on trying to get agreement from a divided Congress. Action areas include energy and environment, domestic economic policy, education policy, federal government reforms, and foreign policy and national security actions. [The report can be viewed on the Center for American Progress website.]

Now Podesta is in the White House, tasked with helping implement Obama’s climate action plan, and fully prepared to do what he can do without having to work through the historically polarized Congress. He will exercise power.

Opportunity at the local level

On December 13, 2013, the Climate Legislative and Executive Task Force (CLEW) was charged with examining policies to help Washington State meet 2007 goals for reducing green house gas emissions. Predictably, the Democrats took one position; the Republicans took another.

It’s not that Democrats predictably take a clear position on the matter of climate change. Like their Republican colleagues, they are for the most part overly responsive to the needs of  private capital and too insensitive to the needs of people.

However, in this case, Governor Inslee, Senator Ranker and Representative Fitzgibbon took the right tack. They opted to put the future—“our children, our grandchildren and all those generations who will be lucky enough to call Washington state home”—first.

We live in a time when public comments on the plan for a Sustainable Thurston include concerns of creeping socialism. A sharp critique of capitalism is not forthcoming from our elected officials. Within the more circumscribed space of regulating capitalism, we may follow the lead of Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins in Natural Capitalism, who advocate not an end to capitalism, but a clearer accounting which includes the function of natural capital—the resources, living systems and ecosystem services that everything else depends on. They argue that the environment is an “an envelope containing, provisioning, and sustaining the entire economy.” The more tattered the envelope, the worse the economy.

The Republican position articulated by Representative Short and Senator Ericksen represents the antithesis of the envelope theory. They write: “Our concern is that policies which limit the emissions of greenhouse gasses, such as a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, and a low carbon fuel standard, would inevitably raise the price of gasoline, home heating, and all consumer goods relied upon by the people of Washington State, while potentially driving businesses, such as Boeing, to relocate to states which do not impose such costs.”

With Governor Inslee’s commitment to doing something for the future, including his willingness to exercise the power he has (e.g. signing the West Coast Climate Agreement along with the governors of Oregon and California and British Columbia’s environment minister) we have a chance to enact policies that prioritize the envelope, rather than the economy. It’s messy. It’s not revolutionary. It’s incremental. It’s what we have though—grassroots activists and a handful of elected and appointed leaders, trying to find a productive space for action.

Two projects close to home bear watching—and supporting. First, keep your eyes open for news about the CLEW final report, which is due to the 2014 Washington state legislature. Governor Inslee needs to find what he describes as the “Teddy Roosevelt” of this generation—the Republican legislator who is also a conservationist. It’s not clear yet what happens if CLEW can’t come up with a final report. Second, Sustainable Thurston has finalized its proposal to make our county sustainable. Those recommendations need to be validated by local jurisdictions, a vetting process that is beginning now.

 

Emily Lardner teaches at Evergreen and co-directs one of Evergreen’s public service centers. She served on LOTT’s groundwater scoping study committee and on Olympia’s Utility Advisory Committee. Emily currently  serves on the Thurston County’s Storm and Surface Water Advisory Committee.

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