May is the member of Parliament for Saanich–Gulf Islands,
in British Columbia.She served as the leader of the Green Party
of Canada from 2006-2019.
We know we are at
risk of extinction, and that knowledge can be paralyzing. The
best science -- peer-reviewed and authoritative -- tells us
we must act with urgency for a complete global transformation.
It tells us we must stop using fossil fuels as soon as possible.
It tells us we must engage in massive forest restoration to
sequester carbon and revive biodiversity. And it tells us that,
even with immediate transformative action, we will continue
to face massive climate disruption, for which we must prepare
and adapt now.
Yet as a society,
we behave as though the situation is manageable with conventional
decision making. Or we tell ourselves we’ll make the tough
calls down the line. Such is the human condition.
As human beings,
we are capable of holding two mutually exclusive, even contradictory
beliefs at the same time. Living in denial can be nice, and
sometimes it’s just about trivial things. We tell our
dentist we floss regularly, for example, but we know deep down
that skipping a few days here and there doesn’t really
It gets dangerous,
at a level beyond dental hygiene, when we say that as a country,
we are climate leaders, but first we need to boost oil sands
production and build more pipelines.
I believe there
are politicians here in Canada who understand the climate crisis
yet want to protect the oil and gas industry. I don’t
condemn them as hypocrites or liars because they seem genuinely
certain that they can do both. They are experiencing cognitive
dissonance at a dangerous level.
political theorist David Moscrop, a postdoctoral fellow
at the University of Ottawa, spends little time describing cognitive
dissonance in his first book, but he does explore the cognitive
autopilot that seems to plague the modern voter. In many ways,
Too Dumb for Democracy? is an ambitious plunge into
neuroscience, politics, fake news, and how all of it can affect
critical decision making at the ballot box. By focusing on the
citizen, Moscrop skims over the fact that elected officials
are just as guilty of perilous cognitive bias and knee-jerk
thinking as John and Jane Doe.
Too Dumb for Democracy? raises timely issues. And even
as Moscrop makes a strong case that citizens are not, in fact,
too dumb for democracy, his argument leaves open the possibility
that we are.
Moscrop lays our
tendency to make bad decisions at the door of external forces:
“The world around us often sets us up for failure, in
part by exploiting the limits of our brains and minds”
(emphasis his). In doing so, he builds on the work of Ronald
Wright and his 2004 Massey Lectures, A Short History of
Progress. The human brain evolved to manage threats unlike
those of today, and to account for a different set of stimuli
than what we experience in modern society. As Wright put it,
“We are running 21st century software on hardware last
upgraded 50,000 years ago.”
How to tap into
that hardware and software is a question that underpins much
of today’s political messaging. Political apparatchiks
know that emotions are a more surefire driver of voter intention
than rational thought. Playing upon those emotions is, in many
ways, playing upon our reptilian brain. Politicians also know
that our ancient reptilian brain is the easiest part to reach,
and deeply fear-based. “Immigrants are a threat”
works as a political message, especially when coupled with the
word “terrorism,” because it appeals to inherent
biases and embedded conclusions that were baked millennia ago.
Our more mammalian
brain, the limbic system, also works on emotions and feelings,
but on those beyond fear and anger. This makes it harder to
reach the more sophisticated, creative and analytical part of
our brain, the neocortex. It is this brain that allows us to
‘think’ in ways that define us as human. We can
reason. We can invent. We can remember and learn from our experiences.
We can even be better voters.
As Moscrop puts
it, the brain is “a constant whirling mix of rationality
and emotion, of conscious and unconscious processing.”
Only by harnessing rationality can we survive the world, and
help the world survive. For the sake of our democracies and
for our world, we must harness the rationality of the limbic
system. As a species, not just as one country or as one class
operating alone, we must appeal to our ability to reason, to
remember, to learn from our mistakes. And then to act.
Of course, the “limits
of our biology and psychology,” as Moscrop describes them,
are familiar to students of history. By reviewing the collapse
of civilizations over time -- Sumerian Babylon, Easter Island,
ancient Rome -- he reminds us that we can, knowingly, allow
our entire world to fall apart. And as Wright puts it, “Each
time history repeats itself, the price goes up.” It does
Dumb for Democracy?, Moscrop rightly describes the climate
crisis as existential. We are aware of the risk that our actions
over the next five years can cast the die, irreversibly, toward
the end of civilization. Our action or inaction could set an
irrevocable course to the end of our species, and of millions
more that require the same life conditions that we do. Easter
Island is now planet Earth -- only this time, there may be no
one to stare in wonder at the monuments left behind.
Perhaps our planet’s
clearest voice for climate action is a young Swedish girl with
autism. Greta Thunberg has sparked a global movement of student
climate strikes. At the age 11, she learned about climate change
and fell into a deep depression and became physically ill:
Ideally, in making
the decisions that will shape not just the new term but perhaps
the fate of the world, we would reach to our best selves. We
would use the neocortex to reason our way out of complex problems.
We would cooperate -- our indispensable evolutionary advantage
-- and end the partisan slugfest that characterizes 21st century
politics in Canada and too much of the world.
In 2012, the American
social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explored the perverse nature
of partisan politics in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People
Are Divided by Politics and Religion. “Once people
join a political team,” Haidt wrote, “they get ensnared
in its moral matrix.” Just as partisan morality binds
us, it also blinds us “to the fact that each team is composed
of good people who have something important to say.”
attempts to offer voters an alternative, one where we would
cut through partisan bias and once again inject “regular,
inclusive, and meaningful participatory democratic mechanisms
into communities and all levels of government.” If we
can just turn off our reptilian brain, or at least make it secondary,
we can revive the critical importance of cooperative, adaptive
processes not only produce better outcomes -- more rational,
evidence based, easier to communicate to others --
but those outcomes are more likely to be accepted by others
(who are committed to and part of the process) as fair and legitimate,
even if they do not agree with the outcome.
In other words,
restored trust will beget more trust.
Public faith in
our politicians, our political institutions and our democratic
process itself is a long way from the “virtuous cycle”
Moscrop describes. In fact, a general lack of faith has reached
a crisis point, as the Toronto political activist Dave Meslin
argues in his new book, Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from
the Ground Up.
Only 13 percent
of Canadians trust politicians, according to one recent poll
Meslin cites. But new institutions, Moscrop maintains, can help
create trust built on greater consensus. This argument reminds
me of grand multi-stakeholder decision-making experiments
of the late 1980s and early 1990s. At both the federal and provincial
levels, we established sustainable development roundtables,
prompted by the UN’s World Commission on Environment and
Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission. In Canada
and around the world, it was an era that called for a different
kind of decision making. As Jim MacNeill, secretary general
of the Brundtland Commission and an extraordinary Canadian environmental
leader, put it at the time, “If we change the way we make
decisions, we’ll change the kind of decisions we make.”
Though the National
Round Table on the Environment and the Economy was ultimately
eliminated by Stephen Harper’s 2012 omnibus budget bill,
it excelled for a time in consensus-based decision making --
among business, labour, environmental groups, Indigenous peoples,
and politicians. It was an example of democracy without partisan
politics poisoning the well -- a type of example we can revive.
Too Dumb for
Democracy? may not be a revelation, but Moscrop offers
an important, thoughtful reminder that voting is always a political
act. It should also be a rational one -- especially in the face
of climate change. This is a reminder that couldn’t be
how earlier generations faced existential crises. Necessity
demands that voters and politicians alike jettison partisanship.
Perhaps it seems impossible, but rival factions came together
in the fight against fascism during the Second World War, in
the United Kingdom and in Canada. A war cabinet meant decisions
could be made through non-partisan consensus and be seen
as “fair and legitimate.” Might we create a survival
cabinet to battle climate change and chart the course to a safe
and prosperous future? David Moscrop’s book gives me hope
that we can.
We are not too dumb
for democracy. We merely need to remove the hands around the
throat of our democracy. We must rescue democracy from politics.