I have lived in three democracies and a fragile, dysfunctional basket case: Ireland, Sweden, mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.
In case there is any doubt, the basket case was Northern Ireland. I lived in Antrim from 1978 to 1988 and went to school in County Derry. Watch Derry Girls on Netflix to get an idea of the general lifestyle.
The conflict was sparked from peaceful protests demanding civil rights for minorities in Northern Ireland which were violently suppressed. This kicked off three decades of violence and terror.
I am from a middle class family and certainly did not live on the frontlines, but everyone lived under this strange, oppressive cloud. The province was heavily militarised and everywhere we went, we were stopped and searched. We had nothing to compare it with. It was only when I left for university that I realised the scale of oppression.
Everyone living in stable democracies take these miracles for granted.
Why am I telling you all this? The Swedish language version of Earth For All, En Jord För Alla, was published recently. A reviewer in Svenska Dagbladet, one of the biggest newspapers in Sweden, wrote an article that concluded that the five turnarounds in Earth For All are so vast that to achieve them we’d have to submit to a significantly more authoritarian regime. She decided democracy is not up to the task.
The reviewer was, of course, being deliberately provocative to force a reaction and drive a healthy debate. Do we really need to sacrifice democracy to drive very rapid transformation on the scale needed? I am absolutely convinced that democracies can be reinforced to drive this scale of change.
In fact, in Earth For All, our singular goal was to explore how to strengthen democracies to allow them to make big long-term decisions that benefit the majority of people. We emphasize this time and time again. The policies we propose are the policies we believe are most likely to be supported by the majority of people. Why? Because, in a democracy, if the majority of people don’t like a policy, it is likely to fail.
Around the world democracies are under threat. Over the past six years, the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism is more than double the number moving toward democracy, according to IDEA, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Half of the world’s democracies are in retreat and among non-democracies, half are becoming significantly more repressive.
Perhaps our most significant conclusions in Earth For All is that this disastrous trend is likely to continue. This century, social tensions are likely to rise and this will create the enabling environments for more populist leaders. Why? Because the economic system will drive a bigger gap between the rich and everyone else. People will feel, rightly, that democracy is rigged towards the super-wealthy. And on top of that the world will face more economic and social shocks as climate change bites harder. The rich will sail above the shocks. Everyone else will have to pick up the costs. It is not difficult to imagine a rising risk of social unrest everywhere — you just need to open your eyes.
So, we conclude, doing nothing is likely to lead to more authoritarianism not greater democracy.
But we also conclude that our Giant Leap, our extraordinary turnarounds, will really challenge democracies to their core. The solution, though, is not to ditch democracies; it’s to strengthen them.
The foundation of democracy is trust. We propose in our book three ways democratic societies can build the essential trust to bring everyone on this journey.
- Citizens Assemblies. Democracies are struggling. Polarisation is deepening. Frustration is growing. Citizens Assemblies have been used successfully to navigate politically contentious issues in highly polarized democracies. We propose that governments establish citizens assemblies on economic systems change. We believe such a process can create a safe space for dialogue and trust building.
- Tax. Tax the rich. Tax luxury carbon consumption. Tax luxury biosphere consumption. Close tax loopholes. Why will progressive taxation help? First, it provides finance for the five extraordinary transformations where the richest, who have caused the most harm, contribute the most. Second, it penalizes high emitters, so contributing to reducing emissions. And last, but definitely not least, it strengthens democracies because it indicates the transformation will be fairer, and the poorest in society will not be penalized. The majority are likely to support it — if it is fair.
- Introduce a Universal Basic Dividend (I’ve written about this idea before here). The extraordinary transformations will be disruptive. Entire industries will disappear, and new ones will appear. Providing a monthly or annual dividend to everyone in society will help people navigate the transformation. It may also help spur innovation as people will have extra resources to set up a business or tinker with a new idea. We propose that all companies using the global commons — be it the atmosphere and carbon, the oceans and forests, data and the financial infrastructure — are charged a fee and this is returned to all.
Our reviewer thought a universal basic dividend would never fly in a democracy. Au contraire. In Alaska, all citizens receive about $1000 a year from a carbon dividend. More remarkably, this was introduced in the 1970s by a Republican Congressman. Republican governor Sarah Palin oversaw one of the largest payout in its history when she was governor. In 2022, the dividend was over $3284. This is a policy that reaches across political divides.
Of course there is much, much more needed than these three fixes. Read the book. But in a nutshell, this is it: Build trust to empower democratic governments to take brave long-term decisions that benefit the majority of people. The alternative is to do nothing and risk further backsliding on democracy. We can’t allow that to happen.