This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
For almost all of its more than 2,500-year history, democracy has been thought of as an attribute of purely human societies. For most of that history democracy was generally reviled and excoriated; only in the late 20th century did it come to be widely celebrated, and indeed widely practised.
But now democracy seems to be on the skids. No countries are transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy anymore. Quite the reverse seems to be taking place, in countries as diverse as Russia, Turkey, the US, Poland, the Philippines and Hungary. The people once thought to be committed to democratic citizenship now all too often reveal themselves in a far less flattering light.
Today many people will happily vote for demagogues. They do not seem to care that these demagogues have no interest in the truth. Voters vent their prejudices, even if it will make them worse off – poor white Trump voters will be the first to suffer and perhaps die if Obamacare is abolished, while Brexit voters will be hurt by decline in the UK economy.
The quality of political communication is on a downward spiral as people retreat into their social media echo chambers. Truth gives way to truthiness, to use the word coined by American comedian Stephen Colbert. And, as Colbert pointed out last year, truthiness then gave way to Trumpiness, when even feeling something is true no longer matters – all that matters is the feeling.
Political identity determines what people believe: so a large proportion of Republicans in the US still believes Barack Obama is a Muslim who was born outside the country, even though they know it to be untrue.
The democratic virtues of trees
If people are starting to look much worse in democratic terms, trees are starting to look much better.
In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohleben explores the subtle ways in which trees communicate with each other to their mutual advantage. Acacia trees, for example, give off ethylene if giraffes start eating them, as a warning to other trees to start pumping toxins into their leaves to deter the giraffes.
Both plant and animal societies feature meaningful communication, as do ecosystems of multiple species. Underground fungal networks transmit chemical signals even between trees of different species.
Trees do not lie. They do not disseminate or believe fake news. Neither do they believe things that are manifestly false, or try to undermine and destabilise science with well-funded misinformation campaigns.
We can further explore the relative democratic virtues of trees and Trump by examining recent interest in sortition, or random selection of panels of citizens as an alternative to voting for political representatives. This is the way juries in criminal cases have long been selected, and we entrust them with some very important decisions.
We do this because we know that juries are good at listening, reflecting and weighing evidence. Which is precisely what elected politicians are bad at – even when they are good at making arguments. The solution is surely that we need more and better listening and reflection in government, perhaps through a randomly selected upper house to replace the Senate.
I used to think that sortition would be a bad way to select prime ministers or presidents. Now I am not so sure. There is probably about a 90% chance that a randomly selected US citizen would make a better president than Donald Trump. There is about a 40-50% chance that person would actually make a good president.
I would argue further that there is a 100% chance a randomly selected tree would make a better president than Trump.
Now, one might think that there is zero chance this tree would actually make a good president. But that is to take a human-centred, anthropocentric view of the matter. Things might look different from the point of view of trees, which work on a much longer time scale.
Pay heed to nature’s screams of pain
A post-truth political world yields the unexpected benefit of enabling re-assessment of the relative merits of human and non-human communication. And if we attend to the latter, we might find that nature is screaming in pain at what we humans are doing to it – and ultimately to ourselves, for we are ecologically embedded creatures.
The screams might be from local extinctions, crashes in species diversity, drastic changes in the nitrogen cycle, climbing concentrations of greenhouse gases, acidic oceans, or the death of once-healthy waters. We do not hear because (with the exception of some indigenous societies) we are such bad listeners.
Earth scientists now think we are entering a new epoch of the Anthropocene – an epoch of human-induced instability in the Earth system – which replaces the past 11,000 years or so of the unusually stable Holocene. As my colleague Will Steffen puts it, the Holocene is the only state of the Earth system we know for sure can support human civilisation.
We can no longer assume that the Earth system is fixed and forgiving. Climate change is just a foretaste of the catastrophes in store if we do not find a way to better listen to its screams, and act in response.
If we can listen better and reflect upon non-human communication, we might also do better in listening and reflecting upon communication with other humans.
In 1927, American philosopher John Dewey famously wrote that “the cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy”. Today, we can see that one cure for the ailments of democracy is a more ecological democracy. Democracy now needs more trees and less Trump.
This article comes from a talk given at the Sydney Environment Institute’s Ecological Democracy: Looking Back, Looking Forward event on February 20. The event was co-sponsored by the University of Canberra and Stockholm University.