Dave Meslin is the author of Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up.
“You failed us."
These harsh words appear in a declaration written by the young leaders of the international Strike for Climate movement, an uprising that has inspired students in thousands of cities to march out of their schools in protest of climate change. This blunt accusation of failure is not aimed at any politician or government in particular. Let’s be honest: It’s directed at my entire generation. An accurate condemnation of our negligence toward the planet and our own children.
The recently published United Nations Global Assessment on Biodiversity warns of a terrifying future. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,” they write. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history.”
Imagine being a kid at this point in history, and learning that human civilization – under the watch of your parents – is actively and knowingly wiping out forests and wetlands, destroying entire species and producing endless mountains of toxic waste.
My parents’ generation, the boomers, can justifiably plead partial ignorance about the terrors of environmental degradation. They grew up before Rachel Carson penned Silent Spring (1962), before the first Earth Day (1970), before Greenpeace was formed (1971) or The Limits to Growth was published (1972), and before the UN held their first international summit on the environment (1972).
But I was born in 1974. We were the first generation to grow up with full awareness of the growing environmental crisis. We knew. Yet we’ve proven incapable, so far, of creating and implementing common-sense policies that have any true chance of averting irreversible disaster.
We can find hope in the growing protest movements spawning across the globe, including the student strikes, Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement. But what does success look like for these emerging forces? Some may assume that success simply means electing better politicians, with better policies. It is election season, after all. Here in Canada, candidates in 338 federal ridings are preparing for a summer of door-knocking while just across the border, more than 20 presidential hopefuls have assembled at the starting line of the Democratic Party’s primary marathon. In both countries, each candidate will claim to have a roadmap toward cleaner air, cleaner water and a better future.
But what if they don’t have an accurate roadmap? What if the greatest challenges of our time can’t be solved by our current political system at all? Indeed, what if the greatest challenges of our time are a direct result of our decaying political system? The symptoms are clear: Legislatures have descended into mob-driven battlegrounds. Centralized power within parties has transformed our elected representatives into trained seals who clap or jeer on cue, voting as they’re told. Growing cynicism and frustration among voters are leading to lower and lower levels of political participation. Corporate lobbyists continue to wield enormous influence. And we are constantly facing fishtail legislation: the absurd reality that each new government spends their first year in office undoing whatever the previous government had done.
None of this serves the public interest. In fact, all of it is holding us back from what we are capable of.
A simple truth was recently expressed eloquently by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg: “We live in a strange world where no one dares to look beyond our current political systems, even though it’s clear that the answers we seek will not be found within the politics of today.”
She’s right. If we want to see real change, we need to shift some of our political attention away from celebrity-driven election cycles and toward the root causes of our democratic deficit. Away from who is in power, and toward a deep examination of the shape of power itself. We need to challenge the structures of our political system – structures that we often see as static and unchangeable. Because they aren’t static, if we begin to use our imagination.
The first step is to overcome our fear of using words such as “rigged” or "broken” to describe our political state. There’s a concern that attacking our democratic institutions only serves to empower extremist ideologues. But the opposite is true. When we turn a blind eye to the need for radical change, it’s those very extremist leaders who happily take advantage of the vacuum and use it for their own purposes. We’ve seen the electoral results of this.
It’s time to change course. Pretending that that we can use our current political ecosystem to bring about meaningful change is not only negligent, it’s a guaranteed recipe for environmental suicide.
We need a political uprising of passionate activists and leaders, prepared to prescribe and implement surgical interventions that will change the tone, shape and nature of power. Ours is a battle for inclusive governance, for deliberative and thoughtful decision-making and for elections that offer real choice and representative results. It’s a fight to inject some humanity into our democracy, for a new culture of political engagement and for decentralized and participatory local government, throwing open the doors to a system that is currently designed as an insider’s game.
Some will resist change. People will tell you that reform is too complicated, too expensive, too risky. But these myths are a form of political molasses, holding us back from dreaming, from evolving, from responding appropriately to the kids who know we’ve failed them so far.
Don’t get me wrong. We should be grateful for what we do have. Free elections and the peaceful transfer of power are indeed precious. But remember that the only reason we have elections in the first place is because generations before us dared to dream. The political structures of their day weren’t working in the interest of ordinary people, so they turned their world upside down. But when they secured free and independent elections, it wasn’t the end of the journey towards democracy. It was just the beginning. It’s our turn to write the next chapter.
Revolution is in the air: Kids are marching out of their schools, traditional parties are losing support, cabinet members are rebelling against centralized control and political leaders of all stripes are preaching their own versions of revolution.
Here’s the thing about populist anger: It can be artfully used by political forces to further polarize and divide people or it can be delicately redirected toward something constructive: a daring revolution against our broken democratic system.