What needs to change for our democracies to want to solve the environmental crisis?

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In a nutshell, we need to transition from a political system dominated by “the race to the bottom” towards one where “the race to the top” dominates. For this to happen, we need mechanisms that eliminate the inherent advantage of politicians using deception strategies. This is a high leverage point that has not been seriously tried yet, and as such, a piece of great news.

False information can be split into undetected and detected false information (bottom loop in Figure). Undetected false information contributes to “the race to the bottom” loop.

The impact of undetected false information.

As people’s capacity to discern political deception increases, the share of detected false information also increases. Since no one likes to be fooled, as false information is detected, less people should vote for deceptive politicians.

The political duel and people’s capacity to discern “truth” from falsehood. The “+” in the arrows in the diagram means that when one variable increases, the other does as well, and vice versa. The “-” means that when one variable increases, the other decreases, and vice versa

According to Thwink, the root cause of the political system resistance to environmental laws is — as strange as it may sound — the low capacity of the population to discern “truth” from falsehood. This low capacity is not an individual handicap, but the result of the systems’ structure.

While it may be counterintuitive at first, the result makes a lot of sense if looked at closely. If people were able to discern truth from falsehood, they would likely not vote for politicians governing against their own interests and opposing environmental (and social) laws. The effectiveness of political deception — another way of expressing the root cause — would decrease, and our political system could then become dominated by “the race to the top”.

Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

Again, no one likes to be fooled. If the information environment and people’s capacity allowed them to detect false promises, enemies, or solutions, they could make better decisions, and chances are they would not vote for deceptive politicians.

The system in place, however, does the exact opposite, and our democracies have no mechanism to avoid this from happening. As a consequence, our political systems are today “factories of ignorance”. Politicians can today exploit the inherent advantage of false or biased information without consequences. Social media algorithms — a technology that could, in theory, be highly beneficial to democracy — spread fake information at a rate never seen before without consequences. Journalists, which could play a key role in exposing lies and providing unbiased information in democracies, work under relentless pressure for clicks and profits, which limits the time dedicated to in-depth research (many journalists carry out this in-depth research and play the key role of exposing lies already, against all odds, and not without risks!). Increasing people’s capacity to discern truth from falsehood through better education is nowhere to be seen among political programs’ priorities.

Changemakers advocating for better information environments are also rare. We are, overall, fairly blind on how dependent democracy, the success of any struggle, and ultimately our well-being (and survival?) is on the information environment. As a result of this blindness, few people fight to preserve it.

We can do better than this.

Changemakers could team up to demand high quality information, for a democracy dominated by the “the race to the top”. Politicians could then compete with each other over who is able to provide the most accurate information, over who pushes for the most ambitious environmental and social laws. The artificial intelligence of social media platforms could then have the goal to support democracy and citizen’s well-being. Journalists could then have the right conditions to properly do their jobs.

Ambitious environmental laws could, only then, finally pass.

The next article focuses on how to bring about these changes.

Go to the next article

This article is part of a series of articles, available here.

I am an economist with a passion to improve systems. All views are my own.