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Spring 2021 Advisory

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Political Stability and Environmental Sustainability

It may seem paradoxical, but political stability is a prerequisite for the change we need to transition our economy to one that is environmentally sustainable. The beating heart of America’s economic wealth and power is the politically stable system of law that we Americans take for granted. Investors around the world know that a dollar loaned to the United States or invested in American corporations will not disappear or be stolen by a corrupt, lawless regime. Last week, we saw both the fragility and the resilience of our political system. Its stability was attacked by an aspiring autocrat and his deluded followers as they ransacked the U.S. Capitol building. Its resilience was demonstrated as determined legislators worked all night to complete the certification of the duly elected President of the United States.

It was shocking, but sadly, not surprising. And it is far from over. Inauguration Day and the days leading up to January 20 will see more political violence. Hopefully this time our police and military will be better prepared to resist it.

President-elect Biden and his team have an enormous task ahead of them. They must vaccinate the nation, restore the economy, promote equity, address racism, combat climate change and reinforce and solidify our democracy. That work requires a stable, functioning political process. In my view, there is a mistaken belief that autocracies are stable, and democracies are not. The American experience has been the opposite: that a democracy governed by a system of law and built on the consent of the governed provides the highest probability of political stability. The consent of the governed, not the “muscle” of the autocrat is the source of genuine political stability. But as we have learned over the past four years, our political system is more fragile than we thought. Trump’s attack on the electoral system before and after the election was relentless. Fortunately, it was met with determined, bi-partisan resistance. Democracy does not run on autopilot. It requires people to place principle over power. We saw that with the Republicans in charge of Georgia’s elections. We saw that in Congress before the assault on the Capitol building and it only grew stronger after Trump’s mob was expelled from the building. A belief in the Constitution and the rule of law dominated the discussion of our elected leaders.

But it was far from unanimous. Fear of the Trump base led elected officials all over the nation to parrot the president’s disinformation about the presidential election. Millions of misled voters all over the nation fell victim to the campaign of lies and fantasy perpetuated by the insecure and vain man who simply could not accept his electoral loss. We are fortunate that Trump is an incompetent aspiring autocrat. A more skilled operator might have had greater success in attacking our political institutions.

Since the initial attack was quickly repelled, the resilience of our institutions should provide some assurance that political stability will be maintained. Disinformation-fueled extremism will continue, but it will no longer be led by the most powerful elected official in the world. The images of the Capitol building desecrated by a mob should serve to delegitimize this form of political extremism, as will the calm, principled and moderating voice of President-elect Joe Biden.

And we need calm voices and political stability to take on the climate crisis and the challenge of creating an economy that provides economic opportunity without destroying the planet. The type of economic transformation we need will require massive long-term investment of capital. Government needs to invest in green infrastructure to decarbonize our economy and private capital must be attracted to investments in renewable energy, electric vehicles, and the production systems and supply chains of the circular economy. Long term investments require government incentives, and we require a stable government to assure that these long-term investments will eventually pay off.

Political stability is not simply a set of laws but is based on belief in the sanctity of those laws. It is a social construct. A dominant social paradigm about how the political world works. A great challenge to that set of beliefs is the ability of social and mass media to create a universe of alternative facts. The recent election is a visible case in point. Scores of challenges to the election were filed in court and dismissed over and over by judges all over America. But the mob attacking the Capitol continued to repeat the same fiction in scores of interviews and on social media. Clearly, some of the intensity stemmed from the president repeating these falsehoods relentlessly. Removing the presidency from the equation and separating Trump from his 80 million-plus Twitter followers should help, but political stability and the capacity for constructive political and economic change requires a shared consensus about reality.

Political stability is not simply a set of laws but is based on belief in the sanctity of those laws. It is a social construct. A dominant social paradigm about how the political world works.

Attacks on the electoral process, the seriousness of COVID-19 and the science of climate change have been part of the political landscape of the Trump administration for years. The result has been a massive pandemic impact, a steadily warming planet, and a Congress hunkered down in the basement while mobs ran amuck above. These impacts are closely connected and a direct result of our incompetent but aspiring autocrat-president seeking to retain his hold on political power.

We Americans are fortunate that most of us have never lived under conditions of political instability. While racism and xenophobia make America less free than it should be, and too many fear they will be attacked for their appearance or accent, there remains a calm predictability in our daily lives that people in Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and other places in the world long for. That calm predictability is why wealthy people from all over the world purchase real estate in the United States and try to ensure that some of their wealth is invested here. Coupled with our vast military power, America possesses the wealth and stability that is needed to invest in the renewable resource-based economy. I know that sounds like a logical contradiction since the lust for economic power is what created the crisis of environmental sustainability. But we need organizational competence, financial capital and political power for a peaceful transition to an environmentally sustainable economy. The transition will be a high wire act, maintaining a productive economy while eliminating its destructive environmental impacts. We need to repair the airplane and fly it at the same time. An economic crash would slow and possibly end the transition to sustainability. Our methods of production and consumption must be transformed rather than reduced. A stable political system inspiring economic confidence is a prerequisite to a successful transition to sustainability.

Our military might, global reach, and vast power have both costs and benefits, but this nation’s vast power makes the goals of the Green New Deal feasible. The transition we need requires America’s leadership and without that leadership, it is hard to see how the climate crisis and the interconnected crisis of environmental sustainability can ever be addressed. We have spent the past four years relying on corporations, non-governmental organizations, cities, states and civil society to lead the renewable resource transition in America. Although we’ve made progress, it’s clear that the job requires federal leadership and that leadership requires political stability and a shared factual understanding of how the world works. While last week was wrenching, the electoral results in Georgia, the courage of many Republican elected officials, and the silencing of Trump’s Twitter account give us reason to hope that better days lie ahead.

This article was originally published in State of the Planet.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other person or entity.