Is there a democratic path to civilizational survival?

by Chris Bertram on August 16, 2022

A few weeks ago, faced with yet another disappointingly cautious announcement from the leadership of Britain’s Labour party, I quipped on twitter that it seemed impossible to get elected in the UK without promising not to do any of the things that are necessary to fix the country and, perhaps, the world. It is indeed hard not to be gripped by pessimism about the capacity of democratic politics to solve the problems we face, especially if solving them imposes any sort of cost or inconvenience on the more prosperous among the electorates of the wealthiest countries on earth. Yet we face a series of interlocking crises, several of which even threaten our survival as a species and perhaps life of earth itself. When I set about enumerating those crises, I have a sneaking fear that I may have forgotten one or two of them, but this looks like a reasonable list:

  1. Climate change and the risk that global temperatures will rise so much that it will be difficult to sustain life anywhere near the equator and so that life in coastal areas will be overwhelmed by sea-level rise.
  2. Nuclear warfare and the risk that an exchange that starts off conventionally escalates quickly to the use of tactical and then strategic nuclear weapons, with nuclear winter a likely consequences. The obvious immediate danger is over Ukraine, but it is quite possible that a confrontation between the US and China could spin out of control quickly. While nuclear weapons look like the most likely military threat to human survival, there are, let us not forget, other weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological agents, that could also kill lots of us.

  3. Pandemics and disease, and risk that a new strain of flu or a new coronavirus ends up killing very large numbers of people very fast, leading to civilizational collapse.

  4. Fascism, and the danger that liberal and democratic institutions are destroyed and that in their place nationalistic oligarchies use increasing violence against one another and against minorities within their borders.

  5. Crises of insufficiency and inequality, as crops fail and many people have insufficient means to meet their basic needs.

(To these we can add that in many countries, after decades of underinvestment in basic infrastructure and health-care systems desperately need public spending that only increased growth and tax revenues can provide.)
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