Can direct democracy succeed where politics has failed?

Earlier this month, I was pleased to have my third article appear on Guardian Environment. The topic was one I have previously teased around the edges, here and elsewhere, on numerous occasions. In a nutshell: once we’ve figured out our elected representatives don’t represent us, once we’ve finally grasped that yes, the system is indeed crazy enough to literally burn the world down, destroying itself the rest of us in the process….what then?

Direct action, legal action, protest, civil disobedience; given what’s at stake, and given that everything is on the line, then surely absolutely every option has to be considered. It’s not like time is on our side. Twenty-five years ago, a stark ‘Warning To Humanity‘ was issued by 1,700 top scientists. We ignored it and carried on regardless. Now, it has been reissued, this time signed by tens of thousands of scientists.  Well, I’m with Don McLean on this one: ‘They would not listen, they’re not listening still, perhaps they never will‘.

While the Guardian’s reach is global, I did manage to smuggle in some coverage of two important recent Irish initiatives; first, the highly successful deliberations of the Citizens’ Assembly, and second, the FIE legal challenge lodged in the High Court to the government’s wholly inadequate response to the climate crisis. These are two flickering lights in an otherwise desolate landscape of denial, distraction and delay that typify our execrable national ‘response’ to date.

This has been capped off by confirmation that we now rank as the worst country in all of Europe when it comes to climate action. Regular ThinkOrSwim readers will be none too surprised at this reality; the only wonder is how long it has taken for Ireland to attract the international opprobrium our cynicism and foot-dragging so richly deserve.


IN THE medieval legend made famous by the brothers Grimm, the German town of Hamelin is besieged by a plague of rats, until the mysterious pied piper appears and agrees, for a fee, to rid them of the infestation. The mayor then reneges on payment and the piper exacts a savage revenge on the town’s ingrates by luring away their children, who are never seen again.

The tale could also be an allegory for today’s grim intergenerational smash-and-grab – the global economy. As environmentalist Paul Hawken put it: “We have an economy where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it GDP.”

Like the hapless mayor of Hamelin, elected officials all over the world are today blindly pursuing growth-as-usual, while the gathering climate catastrophe rumbles ever closer. We adults may, if we’re lucky, get to die peacefully in our beds, but it’s our children who will be left to pay the ecological piper.

Despite determined efforts by lobbyists to quash the case, it is now set to be heard in February 2018. “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society” was the view of US district judge Ann Aiken, in denying motions filed by the Trump administration opposing the suit.

Last month NGO Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) filed a legal challenge against the Irish government over its failure to take steps to honour its climate commitments under the Paris agreement, and so endangering future generations. The FIE suit is modelled on a successful similar action taken in the Dutch courts by the Urgenda Foundation. They ruled in 2015 that the Dutch government had acted unlawfully in failing to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by 2020. Similar cases are being brought in New Zealand, India, the Philippines and South Africa, among others.

Despite being on track for climate neutrality by 2030, the Norwegian government is being sued by citizen activists for issuing oil drilling licences in the Arctic Ocean, which make a mockery of its supposed domestic green credentials.

Pope Francis, the first pontiff from the global south, weighed in powerfully on the moral arguments against the havoc to the biosphere wrought by neoliberalism: “The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market.”

Geophysicist Dr Brad Werner made waves five years ago with the publication of his paper titled: Is Earth F**ked? (the asterisks are his). When pressed for an answer to his own question, he ventured: “more or less”. In his analysis, the system itself is incapable of internally responding to the deepening ecological crises that encircle civilisation. The only possible hope, he suggested, lay in active resistance. He identified this as “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers and other activist groups”.

Those who resist face arrest, harassment, and worse. Almost four murders a week of environmental and land defenders were recorded in 2016.

With politicians failing to step up to the climate challenge, what are the alternatives? One intriguing experiment in direct democracy has just concluded in Ireland, where a government-appointed Citizens’ Assembly composed of a nationally representative group of people selected at random heard detailed expert testimony on climate change from a range of experts. No lobbyists or politicians were allowed in the room.

The result: 13 recommendations for sharply enhanced climate action were overwhelmingly endorsed early this month, including citizens being personally prepared to pay more tax on high-carbon activities. The recommendations will now be discussed in parliament. Democracy may be dysfunctional, but rumours of its death have, perhaps, been exaggerated.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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3 Responses to Can direct democracy succeed where politics has failed?

  1. David Sprott says:

    Where is the center of direct democracy? Where is the social media hub? Sadly an taisce don’t have the popular support – maybe they are the precisely what they say, the (middle class) National Trust in Ireland. Where is the ground war? Yes popular opinion is clearly changing, but there is no compelling event. Also maybe people are wary about what they ask for – climate change already means higher electricity prices, and action is just as likely to mean even higher electricity plus higher diesel prices. And there is zero confidence the minister for transport will promote sustainable public transport. Direct democracy needs to have an angle, but right now it’s being shut out of the national agenda by Brexit.

    Think water charges. . . . then figure the compelling issues that people will march for – flood and storm protection; public transport over new motorways; reduced electricity charges; effective grants like micro generation pricing; cycleways over roads; that’s probably too many . . .

  2. John Gibbons says:

    @David Sorry, must have missed the above comment at the time you submitted. Can’t really disagree with the points you make about all the shortcomings in the likes of An Taisce and it apparent lack of support (calling out abuses in the planning system, once off housing, illegal bog cutting etc. is a sure-fire way of making lots of highly motivated enemies.

    On direct democracy, as seen in the water charges protest, this is a good example IMO of the hazards of any movement quickly being hijacked by populists with agendas that have little or nothing to do with the issue at hand. Opposing and ‘defeating’ water charges was ignorant, anti-scientific and profoundly counterproductive. Is there a single other OECD country where potable water is provided for zero cost to the end user, with effectively no caps on usage to prevent wasting this extremely expensive and critical resource?

    If that’s what direct democracy looks like, how do we distinguish it from mob rule? If climate change activism is going to take to the streets, it has to guard against being similarly hijacked.

  3. what do you think? can it?

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