Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fundamental Politics

I recently attended a debate and book signing event featuring the two radio talk show hosts I respect most, Thom Hartmann and David Sirota. The subject was whether the Democratic Party is capable of being progressive enough, and what if any alternatives are available.

The night before I had begun reading Hartmann's latest book, “Threshold,” which deals with the issue I think should be at the top of everyone's agenda: enabling humanity to avoid extinction by removing the multiple threats we have created for ourselves and the rest of the planet. I hoped this big picture topic would be brought up in the debate (it wasn't), and contributed the following handwritten question, which wasn't asked: If, as Thom says in his book (and I agree with), our way of life is unsustainable, how can we convince the majority of the electorate to accept the radical solution (a steady state, in equilibrium with Nature) when our system of governance is focused on the opposite (outgrowing Nature)?

I felt a little uncomfortable with the last part of my question, because I hadn't fully thought it through. Is our form of government, by design, incapable of limiting growth and therefore our destruction of the biosphere? On the surface this appears true: we promote and protect people's right to acquire and hold onto property, effectively taking land and other resources out of common use by other species (as well as other people) for an indefinite period. In a closed system with technology that exerts great power over people and species all around the world and into the future, the harm we can do (unknowingly in most instances) is a growing thing, which can be offset by educating people about their effect on others; and where harm persists, imposing restrictions on their behavior – limiting liberty, which our system appears designed to increase rather than decrease.

The consequences for the political debate in this country are obvious. Any limitation on ownership or people's ability to do whatever they want will be perceived as unacceptable by a large part of the population, and not just conservatives. In response, some question why we should even care about our impact on people (not to mention species) that aren't like us, and don't share our immediate interests. The answer – in Hartmann's book and others – is that we all share a common heritage, a common identity, and a common fate; to believe otherwise is both inaccurate and fundamentally suicidal.

I just wish we could talk about this more.

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