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  • Writer's pictureMichael Sales

An Environmental Dictatorship Is Closer Than You Think

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

War and Civil Liberties Don't Mix

Writing in the December 20, 2021 edition of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, security analyst Arnaud Boehmann, reminds us that concerned world leaders are calling for a planetary “war” to be declared against climate change:

In 2020, climate activist King Charles III said, “We must now put ourselves on a warlike footing, approaching our action from the perspective of a military-style campaign.” More recently, John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, said the world needs a “wartime mentality” to fight climate change.

The civil liberties people living in democratic states take for granted come under assault in wartime:

  • Americans rely on basic legal protections spelled out by the Bill of Rights," writes reporter Angie Cannon, "but during past wartimes, civil liberties have been curbed dramatically," ranging from the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798—which made it a crime to criticize the government—to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II

Scene from a Japanese-American Internment Camp.
  • Throughout the Civil War, newspaper reporters and editors were arrested without due process.

  • In 1918, Congress passed the Sedition Act. Those who used "disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language" against the flag, the Constitution, and the uniform of the armed forces risked up to twenty years in jail.

Unless addressed now, allowing the climate change pot to come to a planetary-wide boil will have unimaginably negative consequences for democracy. For example, strict military-style control could be exerted over the economy. Resources might not be distributed by market forces but, rather, by politburos deciding who should get what. Cultural revolution-style neighborhood brigades might impose punishment on households that don’t act “normal” when it comes to following recycling mandates. It is estimated that the carbon footprint of every child in a developed country is 58.6 metric tons/year. Deciding not to have children is one of the most important steps one can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Consider the scenarios that would play out if governments were to forbid anyone from having more than one child and incentives were offered to neighbors for reporting on others who disobeyed such a directive, as they are now in Texas for reporting on anyone seeking to have an abortion. What if a requirement like this were to be imposed in a very brief period, e.g., one year, in the wake of a global environmental catastrophe.

Mom of 11 Speaks Out in Favor of Large Families.

Enforcers Punish

The experience of many societies demonstrates that there are, unfortunately, tens of thousands of people of all sizes and shapes who are all too willing to be enforcers:

Enforcers feel compelled to punish wrongdoers and stamp out injustice… Self-assertive, with a deep sense of right and wrong, and with occasional authoritarian tendencies, enforcers do whatever they feel is necessary to keep their community in order.

Theodor Adorno and associates’ research from the 1950s placed enforcers in the classic personality type known as "authoritarian," which included conventionalism, respect for and submission to authority, aggression, stereotyping, power and toughness, and scapegoating and childhood exposure to a strong, authoritarian father or male figure.

If a war against climate change were declared and backed up with socially approved of punitive legislation, an enormous squad of enforcers would delight in watching everyone’s every move to make sure that all are performing our civic duties perfectly, reporting us to the authorities if we do not, and/or personally intervening to make sure that others conform to the norms that they obey. They would not only punish the wrong doers among us, but they would also have the glow of hearty social approval. Eco-fascists would be marching under the banner of heaven.

No one is more dangerous to democracy than the true believer with God (or the inspiring leader) on his/her/their side. The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers would volunteer to be platoon leaders.

So, what's needed?

What can we do now to avoid the imposition of democracy-destroying rigid enforcement of environmental regulations?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Plain-speaking leaders from every demographic need to tell the truth about the climate crisis. While controversial, Bill Gates is an example of an exceedingly wealthy, bright, and influential person who has gotten the message regarding the severity of climate change. Thousands of well-to-do leaders should emulate him. We are 30 years behind schedule.

  • The United Nations recently issued the powerful and extensive New Threats to Human Security in the Anthropocene. The report’s conclusion: planetary solidarity is needed to create the kind of global covenant of trust to encourage experimentation with and cross-fertilization of action. We need thousands of initiatives far beyond what we’re experiencing now. Perhaps just as important, we need persuasive communicators to tell the story of their achievements so that people in one locale learn about successes in another that might be applicable to their situation.

  • We need the media, and maybe especially social media, to get the message that reporting on climate change and success in addressing the problems it create is their Job #1. Given the hyper-capitalism of many private sector platforms, who value the commercials more than they do the content, this might require legislation and regulation.

  • While jawboning is preferable to regulation, once the recognition takes hold that the battle to save Earth and its inhabitants from extinction represents the biggest “World War” humanity has ever faced, there is a point where humanity ought to conclude that outright denial of climate change and/or environmental degradation more generally is misinformation and should be banned from media that draw support in any way from public funds and from any form of public education. Raise your hand if you’re ready for that!

  • Persuasion not coercion. All responsible media need to show respect for and act upon the insight and advice of private sector actors, policymakers, regulators, scientists, inventors, engineers, educators, students, and working people who understand the severity of the climate crisis and stand ready to help others to do so. These spokespeople, especially those with oratorical skills, e.g., Neil deGrasse Tyson, should be elevated to rock star status.

The Bottom Line: Act Now Before Democracy is Lost

With the passage of laws such as the recent climate elements of the Inflation Reduction Act and California’s banning of the sale of fossil fuel-powered cars starting in 2035, we can see that the Big Green Shift is starting to get seriously underway. But, as Nina Simone’s song about the Civil Rights Movement made clear, we’re moving too slowly! We’ve got to achieve a profound change in our hearts and minds to address the volcano that is already starting to explode. This is the alternative to the imposition of increasingly rigid and bureaucratic measures.

What can we do to address these impacts?

Protecting Democracy at the Local Level: An Action Research Approach

We need global priorities and objectives, but local action. Here’s an incomplete and imperfect image of how to elaborate this democracy-building idea:

Every neighborhood would have its own environmental caucus that would set policy for the community with the linkages between local behavior and global priorities clear to both the residents of the neighborhood and external observers. Each of these local boards would have to have at least one member who had a strong interest in making a transition to a cleaner and greener society and at least one person who has a considered critique of that other person’s ideas. They would debate their points of view in public on a regular basis and decisions would be made based on a majority vote. External actors, e.g., members of bordering communities who would be affected by local decisions would have a right to participate in these conversations, as would members of the community. There would be other members on the neighborhood decision-making panel. Panel members, including the expert and h/er critic, would cycle off the group periodically with no one having longer than a six-year term. To help avoid the kind of burnout that citizens frequently experience when serving on local committees, meetings would be time-limited, e.g., to a maximum, e.g., 3 hours, and occur on some sort of humane periodic basis, e.g., once every three weeks.

Obviously, there are a lot of blanks in this plan that needs to be filled in!


Further Reading

Books and Reports

Adorno, Theodor et. al., The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950.

Gates, Bill. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. New York: Penguin Random House, 2021.

Hoffer, Eric, The True Believer. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951.

Reich, Wilhelm, The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1946.

United Nations Development Programme, New Threats to Human Security in the Anthropocene. New York: 2022.

Selected Articles and Online Sources

A History Of Civil Liberties During Wartime, published in [ND]

The Enforcer Personality Type,” [ND]

Feng, Wang et al., “The End of China’s One Child Policy,” in Studies in Family Planning, 30 March 2016.

Teich, Mark, “Field Guide to the Enforcers: The Punishers,” Psychology Today, March 2009

Tyson, Neil deGrasse, Star Talk Live – Climate Science, 2020

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