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Archives for May 2010

Are we doomed by democracy?

Justin Rowlatt | 11:31 UK time, Monday, 24 May 2010

Whatever your views on climate change you should be concerned by the question of how our societies respond to the issue.

If you are worried by the threat of global warming the fear is that democratic societies simply won't be able to take the radical action necessary to tackle the problem.

If you believe the threat has been exaggerated you should be worried about whether democracy itself will be sacrificed in the name of action on climate change.

Indeed, democratic principles may already be being overridden here in Britain in the effort to reduce carbon emissions, as I discover in this week's Analysis programme on BBC Radio 4.

My last Analysis programme proved very controversial. We explored the provocative idea that the green movement might have hidden political agendas that could prove damaging to the environment. It even got the Analysis editor a grilling on Feedback - listen here:

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The challenge climate change presents for and to democracy has been an issue I've been preoccupied with since the very early days of the so-called Ethical Man project.

The idea of Ethical Man was to see how much a well-meaning family could cut its greenhouse gas emissions without giving up all the trapping of modern life and moving to an isolated croft.

The project started out as an optimistic adventure into a low carbon world but ended up with a profoundly pessimistic conclusion - it is impossible for individuals to respond adequately; only a wholesale transformation of the entire world economy can achieve the carbon cuts the scientists say are necessary.

How did we reach this conclusion?

Our family did everything we could think of to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions - got rid of the car, stopped flying, turned down the thermostat, changed what we eat. Yet we only managed to cut our total emissions by just 20%.

Which is where the question about democracy comes in. Will people ever vote for politicians who will force us to make the sacrifices necessary to bring this transformation about?

The debate was thrown open a few weeks back when the visionary scientist James Lovelock dared suggest in an interview in the Guardian that maybe democracy might need to be suspended while societies grapple with the issue.

"I have a feeling", Mr Lovelock told journalist Leo Hickman, "that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while."

That was the jumping off point for our programme. Tell me what you think.

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