Why is the political system blocking environmental (and social) laws so strongly and successfully?
In a nutshell, governments around the world — intentionally or not — are working for the interest of large for-profit corporations, incompatible with most people’s interests.
To the statement above, I expect at least two reactions, based on the ones I personally had or could have had a few years ago. The first could be: “more of the nonsense that corporations are evil and responsible for everything”. Another could be: “nothing new under the sun, I already knew this”. If the fact that I oppose corporations and people’s interests makes you uncomfortable, please have a look at this short article. If you agree with the opposition, please keep reading, the new stuff is about to come.
To try to understand why the political system so strongly and successfully resists the laws that would help us solve the environmental crisis, we will analyze the structure of our political system. An interesting way of doing so is to ask ourselves what changed for it to transition into democracies.
Before democracies, it made no difference whether you liked your King or not. Kings could rule as they pleased. And then came democracy, with a mechanism to change that: the vote. Whether people liked politicians became no longer a detail, as politicians now needed people’s votes to get to power.
Explicitly or implicitly, when deciding who to vote for, we tend to compare the desired performance to the actual performance of politicians (this also applies to the political program should the politician not be in office yet. We analyze if what is proposed in the program is in line with what we would like politicians to focus on). If the gap between the desired and actual performance is small, we will likely vote for the same politician or party again (and maybe we would not even make the effort to vote, as when the gap is small we may have the sensation that “everything is fine” and the effort is not worth it). If the gap increases, so does the incentive to vote for a “better” candidate, hoping he or she closes the gap.
The vote mechanism, a balancing feedback loop, introduces an incentive for politicians to respond to people’s desires and needs. And you may have realized that this incentive does not always work.
While the world has positively evolved in many ways thanks to the vote mechanism, Thwink argues that our democracies are incomplete. This incompleteness is at the roots of why most democratic countries are governed by politicians that — consciously or not — defend corporate interests fighting against environmental laws.
Why is that the case? Why do we vote for politicians that defend corporate interests rather than our own in the first place? (spoiler: it is not because people are dumb)
In a nutshell, we do not know that they are. There is a disconnect between the actual performance of politicians and our perception of their actions. To understand this disconnect, we need to look into the strategies that politicians use to get elected.
There are mainly two strategies: the use of “truth” (or as-unbiased-as-possible information), and the use of falsehood or biased information. While “truth” may not exist, there is a big difference between trying to convey the most accurate information possible according to evidence and scientific agreement; and disregarding such evidence and manipulating facts to create a specific reality that benefits a minority group. The use of false or biased information can either be intentional (a number of examples in this documentary), or the result of uncritical and/or poorly informed politicians (as I argue is the case for the idea of economic growth. More on this here (link coming soon)).
To get to power, politicians aiming to govern for the common good will try, by telling the “truth”, to convince voters to vote for them. Politicians defending minority interests — which in the current situation happen to be corporate interests — use deception to get to power. This because running for office by telling people the truth, i.e. that their interests are less important than corporate interests, is not an option, very few people would vote for them.
These two types of politicians compete against each other. They are in a duel since the one that convinces more people to vote for him/her gets to power (the “+” in the arrows in the diagram below means that when one variable increases, the other does as well, and vice versa).
This duel is, however, unfair. Politicians using falsehood or biased information have an inherent advantage. They can lie, make false promises, invent fake solutions, scare people with false enemies, focus on wrong goals, and use secrecy to withhold information from voters.
False information can be exaggerated and manipulated as needed. Truth cannot. As a result, “the race to the bottom” loop dominates the political system.
The key deceptive information politicians use to block environmental laws is the idea that economic growth should be the government’s main priority as it is the only way to ensure people’s well-being (and eventually solve the environmental crisis). The story says that there is nothing to worry about: economic growth, combined with human ingenuity and technology, will allow us to keep our lifestyles while at the same time reduce the environmental impact. This idea is, for example, much more appealing than the idea that our socio-economic system may collapse, or that we may not be able to take as many flights a year as we used to do. Data suggests that the future that the economic growth story depicts is unlikely to be real, but that is not important if people cannot tell.
Our political system — by allowing the exploitation of this inherent advantage — is benefiting politicians that use deception (and in particular that place economic growth as their main priority) to win elections. The more a politician deceits — as long as people do not realize — the more likely s.he is to win. Said differently, by design, our democracies disadvantage (and in some cases filter out) politicians aiming to govern for the common good.
If I take the time to write these articles is because I am profoundly convinced that we can do better than that. We can decide to not tolerate a political system dominated by “the race to the bottom”.
Many would argue, however, that change is not possible, that it is too late, that we have the political system we deserve. And “the race of the bottom” loop we just discussed can shed light on why many people think that way.
The more politicians using deceit win elections and govern for minority interests, the more the idea that “all politicians are corrupt” gets confirmed and reinforced. To this we may add the impact of ideas such as individualism and meritocracy (actively pushed for decades), as well as an education based on analytical thinking, both pushing us into blaming individuals, rather than focusing on the system’s incentives that encourage (and sometimes impose) people to behave as they do.
Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error. This tendency, coupled with what we observe in reality (e.g. Trump being elected president of the United States), reinforces fatalism. This is not a detail: communication experts identify fatalism as a key obstacle to solve the environmental crisis. Fatalism is reinforced as if “all politicians are corrupt”, then it must be “human nature”. Since “all politicians are corrupt”, human nature must be bad, and thus the socio-economic system we have is the best we can get to.
Or not. Because it may not be about people. It may not be about “human nature”. Politicians and CEOs may not be “evil”, may not be “naturally” corrupt.
What if we looked at the design of the system instead? What if the undesirable results we observe emerged from the incentives arising from its structure?
A key insight of systems thinking — upon which this analysis is based — is that good people can make bad decisions if the system they are part of is poorly designed. Said differently, the way we choose to design the systems’ structure is what determines, to a great extent, the behaviors and the results that we observe.
Social systems are created by us, and they can thus be redesigned by us. From monarchies to democracies, we redesigned the system’s structure in an attempt to make politicians accountable for their actions by introducing the vote mechanism. People were the same, the population was not “replaced”, while behaviors and results changed significantly.
The introduction of the vote mechanism was, however, not enough for the political system to prioritize the long-term well-being of its people to other objectives. While a huge step forward, our democracies are still resisting the policies and laws we need to solve the environmental crisis.
The next article looks into what would need to change in our political systems so that ambitious environmental laws finally pass.
This article is part of a series of articles, available here.