Political stability and environmental sustainability



Political stability and environmental sustainability

Image: Nick Youngson / Alpha Stock Images

It may sound paradoxical, but political stability is a prerequisite for the change we need to shift our economy to an environmentally sustainable economy. The beating heart of America’s economic wealth and might is the politically stable legal system that we Americans take for granted. Investors around the world know that a dollar loaned to the United States or invested in American companies will not disappear or be stolen by a corrupt and lawless regime. Last week we saw both the fragility and the resilience of our political system. Its stability was attacked by an aspiring autocrat and his deceived supporters as they ransacked the United States Capitol building. His resilience was demonstrated as determined lawmakers worked through the night to complete the certification of the duly-elected President of the United States.

It was shocking, but unfortunately not surprising. And it is far from over. The day of the inauguration and the days leading up to January 20 will see more political violence. Hopefully this time our police and army will be better prepared to resist it.

President-elect Biden and his team have a huge task ahead of them. They must immunize the nation, restore the economy, promote fairness, fight racism, fight climate change, and strengthen and solidify our democracy. This work requires a stable and functional political process. In my opinion, there is a misconception that autocracies are stable and democracies are not. The American experience has been the opposite: that a democracy governed by a system of law and built on the consent of the governed offers the greatest probability of political stability. The consent of the governed, and not the “muscle” of the autocrat, is the source of real political stability. But as we have learned over the past four years, our political system is more fragile than we thought. Trump’s attack on the electoral system before and after the election has been relentless. Fortunately, he encountered determined and bipartisan resistance. Democracy does not work on automatic pilot. It demands that people place principle above power. We saw it with the Republicans in charge of the elections in Georgia. We saw it in Congress before the assault on the Capitol building and it only got stronger after the Trump mob was kicked out of the building. Belief in the Constitution and the rule of law dominated the discussion of our elected leaders.

But it was far from unanimous. Fear of the Trump base has led elected officials across the country to repeat the president’s disinformation about the presidential election. Millions of misled voters across the country fell victim to the campaign of lies and fantasies perpetuated by the precarious and conceited man who simply could not come to terms with his electoral defeat. We are fortunate that Trump is an incompetent aspiring autocrat. A more skilled operator could have been more successful in attacking our political institutions.

Since the initial attack was quickly repelled, the resilience of our institutions should provide some assurance that political stability will be maintained. Extremism fueled by disinformation will continue, but it will no longer be ruled by the world’s most powerful elected official. Images of Capitol Hill desecrated by a mob should serve to delegitimize this form of political extremism, as should the calm, principled, moderating voice of President-elect Joe Biden.

And we need calm voices and political stability to tackle the climate crisis and meet the challenge of creating an economy that offers economic opportunity without destroying the planet. The kind of economic transformation we need will require a massive investment of long-term capital. The government must invest in green infrastructure to decarbonize our economy and private capital must be attracted to investments in renewable energy, electric vehicles, production systems and circular economy supply chains. Long-term investments require government incentives, and we need a stable government to ensure that these long-term investments will eventually pay off.

Political stability is not just a set of laws, but is based on the belief in the sanctity of those laws. It is a social construct. A social paradigm dominating the functioning of the political world. A big challenge to this set of beliefs is the ability of social and mass media to create a universe of alternative facts. The recent elections are a visible example. Dozens of election challenges have been filed in court and repeatedly dismissed by judges across America. But the mob attacking the Capitol continued to repeat the same fiction in dozens of interviews and on social media. Obviously, part of the intensity has come from the President repeating these lies relentlessly. Taking the presidency out of the equation and separating Trump from his 80 million Twitter followers should help, but political stability and the capacity for constructive political and economic change require a shared consensus on reality.

Attacks on the electoral process, the severity of COVID-19 and the science of climate change have been part of the Trump administration’s political landscape for years. The result was a massive pandemic impact, a constantly warming planet and a Congress crouching in the basement as crowds rampaged overhead. These impacts are intertwined and are a direct result of our incompetent but aspiring autocratic president seeking to retain his grip on political power.

We Americans are fortunate that most of us have never lived in conditions of political instability. As racism and xenophobia make America less free than it should be, and too many people fear being attacked for their looks or accent, there remains a calm predictability in our daily lives that people in Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and other places the world sucks. This calm predictability is why the rich around the world are buying real estate in the United States and trying to make sure that some of their wealth is invested here. Coupled with our vast military might, America possesses the wealth and stability to invest in the renewable resource economy. I know this sounds like a logical contradiction since the thirst for economic power is what created the crisis in environmental sustainability. But we need organizational skills, financial capital and political power for a peaceful transition to an environmentally sustainable economy. The transition will be a high-flying act, maintaining a productive economy while eliminating its destructive environmental impacts. We have to fix the plane and fly it at the same time. An economic crash would slow down and could end the transition to sustainability. Our production and consumption patterns must be transformed rather than reduced. A stable political system that inspires economic confidence is a prerequisite for a successful transition to sustainability.

Our military might, our global reach, and our vast might come with both costs and benefits, but the vast might of this nation makes the goals of the Green New Deal achievable. The transition we need requires American leadership and without that leadership it is difficult to see how the climate crisis and the interconnected crisis of environmental sustainability can ever be resolved. We have spent the past four years relying on businesses, non-governmental organizations, cities, states, and civil society to lead America’s renewable resource transition. While we’ve made progress, it’s clear that the job requires federal leadership, and leadership requires political stability and a shared factual understanding of how the world works. While the past week has been heartbreaking, the election results in Georgia, the courage of many elected Republican officials, and the silence of Trump’s Twitter account give hope that better days lie ahead.

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