By Summer Isaacson
In the contemporary battle for the environment, the discourse often calls for less egoism and greed of the elite. This text attempts instead to appeal to exactly these traits.
In Sheri Berman’s 2019 book Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe, she illustrates how nationalism’s birth in the late 1700’s spurred an important cognitive change in how political mass mobilization and change took place. Quoting Carl von Clausewitz, she writes “Suddenly war… became the business of the people— […] all of whom considered themselves to be citizens… The people became a participant in war; instead of governments and armies as heretofore”. How could and does this relate to the arguably most pressing issue of the 21st century; the demise of the earth’s natural environment? Does the cognitive change brought on by people considering something to be the business of their “group” affect the response they will give to the actor harming the group? In order to look at future events and responses, I suggest we look first to the past. Historically, when the ruling classes in European countries faced widespread dissatisfaction, national uprisings and external crises threatening the stability of their power positions, many cases ended in dramatic political turbulence and eventually loss of power. However, not all countries went down the path of chaos, as is the case with the English elite.
Worth mentioning is that how harm done to the environment is measured varies from study to study, and depends on e.g. environmental category, sector, international vs. national vs. per capita focus; in the end few actors are held accountable. Yet, the running theme is that the lion’s share of harm tends to be caused by wealthy minorities – be it individuals, corporations or states. On the national level, studies have found that across 86 countries, the wealthiest tenth of people consume circa 20 times more energy than the bottom tenth. Furthermore, the top tenth uses 187 times more fuel than the bottom tenth. On the international level, the 10 largest economies in the world all are on the list of the 20 countries emitting the most CO2 in 2018. While this not exactly breaking news, this is an attempt to offer the reader a thought experiment where a comparison is drawn between these contemporary wealthy few and the elite minorities that contributed to English Exceptionalism.
According to Berman’s historical analysis, one of the main reasons Britain did not fall subject to the same political turmoil as did its counterparts in the 1800- early 1900’s is due to some important steps taken by British elites. Their wealth and power positions were unprecedented in Europe at the time – they completely dominated the judiciary, church, military, cabinet positions and more. When they faced potential uprisings and harm to their political positions’ stability due to increased unrest and dissatisfaction, they realized that for everything to remain the same, everything must change. In other words, they were keen on staying in power, and succeeded to do so by taking what could be considered a counter-intuitive approach. Thousands of citizens were joining pro-reform associations, political reform became a big electoral issue; the elite saw that the people required change, and so they made important symbolic, effective and strategic changes. For example, the electorate was increased by nearly 50%, steps were taken supporting religious freedom, and slavery was abolished in parts of the British Empire. The then-Prime Minister Earl Grey stated, “The principle of my reform is, to prevent the necessity for revolution”. This behavior is now remembered in political history as a time when something was done exactly right, at exactly the right time, allowing the British elite to hold on to their political, economic, and social power for hundreds of years.
Tying this back to the contemporary political issue at hand, a comparison is drawn to environmental demise. There are of course many potential critiques to this simple thought experiment. But nonetheless, the ongoing battle is causing mass mobilization, reform is being demanded among countries’ electorates, millions of people are joining pro-reform associations and people around the world are protesting on the streets. After stating that the past has a lot to teach the present, Berman asks ominously at the end of her book if we are entering an interregnum where the West’s faith in capitalist liberal democracy is fading: “But what if people no longer feel like they rule? […] If rather than the needs of average citizens, political outcomes are seen as being determined by markets, technocrats, international organizations, businesses, or the wealthy?”. Indeed, in such a globalized, interconnected world, with young generations pushing never-before seen magnitudes of global protests, the environment has become everybody’s business. Speakers of the movement say they are proud to unite diverse voices, that the movement’s inclusion knows no borders; there is talk of humanity and the global population wanting and deserving change. It smells of something resembling nationalism, of new groups forming both national and international solidarity, citizens of a global environment, ready to fight those in power who oppose their goals. Backing them up the United Nations list climate change and sustainable development as their very top priorities in the coming century.
Berman reminds us that one thing our history can assure us of is that “When there is a mismatch between citizens’ demands and expectations and the willingness or ability of political institutions to respond to them, the outcome is disorder and instability”. Wealthy minorities, including yours truly and likely yourself, enjoy comforts that are largely invisibly paid for by the less fortunate and with finite resources. To conclude, it appears to lie in the interest of contemporary elites to start making major strategic and effective efforts in the direction of environmental protection – if not for the earth or its inhabitants then perhaps, like the English, simply for self-preservation.
Illustration: Christina Yavorchuk
Summer Isaacson is getting her MSc in Political Science and recently became an editor at Uttryck. Her main fields of interest are political psychology, sustainable development and foreign policy. She’ll fight you for a coffee cocktail and gets nearly as excited about political intrigues as she does about jam sessions with her friends.