“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” said Winston Churchill.
The great man was right and remains so. Despite its manifest shortcomings we have devised no better means of giving citizens a real voice in the governance of their countries. So here in Africa, where democratic elections are few and far between, the news of outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan’s acceptance of defeat in Nigeria’s recent ballot has been a pleasant surprise. The decision by Nigerian voters and the leadership response to it marks one of the few instances in Africa’s turbulent electoral history of an incumbent supremo and his government being peacefully and constitutionally toppled.
However, the Democracy Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, shows that democracy is a relative term and that despite some progress Africa has a long way to go. The index measures the state of democracy in 167 countries and of the surprisingly few (24) listed as “full democracies”, only one African country is so rated: the island state of Mauritius. In the “flawed democracy” category, a mere nine of the 51 listed are African, with the rest of the continent’s 54 sovereign states falling into the rather dubious categories of “hybrid regime” and “authoritarian regime”.
Capitalism, the economic model that underpins democratic systems, is no less flawed. Ed Miliband, who is hoping to wrest control of Great Britain for his Labour Party in the forthcoming elections, has parodied Churchill’s bon mot, saying that he had nothing against the rich – as long as they made their money “the hard way”. Capitalism, he felt, was “the least worst system we’ve got”, adding the caveat that the “creativity” of capitalism had to be harnessed and made “more decent” and “humane”.
He is certainly right that capitalism lacks decency and humanity. It has developed into a system of unbridled greed that works extremely well for very few, sort of well for a slightly broader group and leaves the billions of people left over in a position of simply having to accept what befalls them. It is not helped by that fact that many of the most powerful of the global conglomerates, particularly the oil giants, have wrought environmental havoc on the planet’s natural systems. Furthermore, corruption is fertile ground for rampant capitalism and the poor governance that is endemic in Africa, even in its best performing democracies, makes the continent and the vast majority of its people especially vulnerable.
Capitalism, coupled with the seven billion – and growing – of us humans has turned our current notions of sustainability into a joke. Sustainable growth is an oxymoron of the first order. No growth is ultimately sustainable. Even our galloping universe is almost certain to collapse, albeit only in a good few billion years’ time, into a dark dot of pressure before the next Big Bang.
Social futurist Sara Robinson has this to say: “The problem, in a nutshell, is this: The old economic model has utterly failed us. It has destroyed our communities, our democracy, our economic security, and the planet we live on. The old industrial-age systems – state communism, fascism, free-market capitalism – have all let us down hard, and growing numbers of us understand that going back there isn’t an option.”
“But we also know,” she continues, “that transitioning to some kind of a new economy – and, probably, a new governing model to match – will be a civilisation-wrenching process. We’re having to reverse deep and ancient assumptions about how we allocate goods, labour, money, and power on a rapidly shrinking, endangered, complex, and ever more populated planet.”
Even if the nations of the world were to agree, not only that a paradigm shift in economic thinking and policy is necessary but what the new paradigm should be, it will take a very long time to implement. So one can’t help but wonder where the “business as usual” system will lead us in the interim.
The financial wealth of the world is ultimately based in exploiting natural resources, whether the oceans, the soils, the minerals, the animals or plants. It has always been thus since our species started warring, hunting and trading way back in the mists of prehistory.
The notion of the “noble savage”, of human kind living in harmony with nature doesn’t hold water. Like all species, we are selfish and self-seeking and our exploitation of the earth has never really been sustainable. Even 1,000 years ago when there were so few of us that our impact was less noticeable on the balance sheet, the scene was being set. About 320 million people roamed the planet then, no more than 25 percent of China’s population today and about a third of Africa’s current tally.
The planet already crawls with 7.3 billion people and by the end of the year another 50 million or so will have been added (that’s more that the total population of South Africa!). If you really want to stop yourself in your tracks, watch the world population grow before your eyes. Already more than a billion children – one in two – live in abject poverty. How will their lives play out, notwithstanding the noble goals of reducing global hardship? Realistically, what chance do they have of adequate food and shelter and some form of education?
And what of the environmental goals? We cannot even find consensus on climate change policy. How can we possibly continue to talk about “sustainable” development when we’ve already long passed the planet’s ability to renew its resources? But we do. One might have thought the widespread financial turmoil of our time would have resulted in some reflection among the moguls and policy makers of the world, but I fear not. Experience shows quite clearly that once the worst of the storm has abated, it is back to business as usual.
As much as I despair in the havoc we have wrought upon the planet, I also rejoice in our ingenuity, our thirst for knowledge, our creativity and, sometimes, glimpses of our capacity to care. I have no doubt that we have the ability to think through the problems of our time and to set a new course for the future that will embrace a respect and understanding of the ultimate interdependence of all life.
But we don’t have long, and in that pursuit, we have to conquer an even greater threat than avarice – our hubris in assuming that we represent the pinnacle of the evolutionary process and that, by some destiny, all paths have led on and upwards towards “us”. It is well to remember that we were not there at the start and it is very unlikely that we will be there at the end. We are but a punctuation mark in the story of time. Most certainly we are not evolution’s purpose. DM
The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum is solar-powered.
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