These are perilous times. The biosphere is experiencing unprecedented rates of changes. Overconsumption, unsustainable practices and anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are altering Earth’s life-supporting climate at an alarming pace. Thanks to climate change, COVID, fact denial and distortions of truth, lines between difficult and dark times continue to blur, and no Asoka, Suleiman, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King is answering our roll call. According to the United States Humane Society, roughly 420 depraved “contests” are held in America each year in which 63,000 or more wild animals are slaughtered. Sixty such hunts occur in Texas alone. Competing for cash, hunters sign up via Facebook and other social media to kill coyotes and other wildlife, including but not limited to bobcats, foxes and crows. That destruction of top predators and scavengers destabilizes ecological communities. Yet only 8 states currently ban the abominations, less because of moral and environmental objections than because the killing violates state wildlife and gambling laws. Rene Ebersole, writing for National Geographic, suggests the United States is the only country in the world that, in a twisted perversion of “entertainment” and “sport,” permits such wanton destruction for prizes. India, the world’s largest democracy, does not, and neither do autocracies. Why then is a declining, tiny minority of hunters in America (none of whom are subsistent other than the Inuit) allowed to conflict with large majorities that find such behaviors morally and ecologically reprehensible, even deviant? Cultural-evolution in a functioning teleological democracy should abolish social evils, not allow them to persist until eliminated by whim. That’s especially true when other governments, some considered less exemplary than our own, don’t condone such aberrant practices or leave their dissolution up to gradual attenuation.
Not surprisingly, autocrats, such as China’s Xi Jinping, insist democracies are ill-equipped to make critical decisions necessary to adapt to rapid changes. Democracy requires consensus which, even among informed, thoughtful, well-educated citizens, runs steps behind our fast-clip world of digitally-accelerated social change and planetary woes. Given an ill-informed, politically-subdivided, deadlocked population, modern challenges are nearly always overwhelming. Although American democracy, despite its checkered past, still asserts itself as preeminently ethical, effective and fair, facts no longer justify the claim. The January 6th insurrection, origins of which keep pointing to the White House, was a nadir in our history. Congress, paralyzed by both major parties, is like a caterpillar preyed upon by ichneumonid wasps, eaten alive from the inside out by corporate money and oligarchic influences. Disjointed, inefficient and politicized responses to the pandemic made it devastating in this country. Not only are 1 million Americans dead to date from SARS-CoV-2 and its aftermaths, but the WHO, extrapolating worldwide, insists contagion has indirectly killed two- or threefold more. Untold thousands of Americans, for instance, have died from overcrowded ICUs and pandemic-related delays in seeking medical attention for life-threatening conditions other than COVID-19.
Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH’s longest-serving director, estimates some 100,000 people in the U.S. died from politically-driven misinformation causing “resistances of more than 50 million Americans to taking lifesaving, safe and effective vaccines.” People, of course, aren’t seduced solely in democracies to believe the counterintuitive or cling ideologically to misinformation that endangers them. But more than a handful of American politicians have advanced their political fortunes and fund-raising capabilities by propagating lies and creating a subculture of antagonists to public health and safety measures. Providing culture media in human petri dishes, resistances to inoculations and mask-wearing have thusly enabled adaptive radiation of newly evolving variants of SARS-C0V-2, and infections stay persistent.
The most damning indictment of democracies, however, at least those subverted by capitalism, has been America’s poor response to global warming over the last 4 decades. Bear in mind, the U.S. was the #1 greenhouse gas emitter for well over a century and, on a per capita basis, remains so today. As Nicholas Goldberg of the Los Angeles Times recently emphasized, disproportionate power wielded by fossil fuel industries clearly underlies our failure to address climate change. By giving tens of millions of dollars to candidates in the 2019-2020 election, Big Oil, coal and natural gas cartels openly thwart our efforts to save the biosphere, where climate change now surpasses habitat loss as the primary cause of mass extinctions. As the Earth warms further, species diversity will continue to decline, even more drastically. Should global warming remain unabated another 300 years, one third of all marine life will be gone, victims of dramatically lowered oxygen levels from increasing oceanic temps. Such a mass extinction would rival the “Great Dying” of 250 million years ago, about the time of the Permian-Triassic Boundary (or interface) when 90% of life in the seas and 70% of life on land vanished forever. Make no mistake about it. Despite public posturing to the contrary, such outcomes are premeditated. Emily Barone’s and Chris Wilson’s recent examination in TIME of 10-K filings ─ financial documents public companies submit each year to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) ─ shows how Big Oil and other companies admit to causing climate change. And other than concerns for how global warming will impact their profit margins, they have little compunction for the damage they’re doing. Can such greed and stupidity really be sanctioned or explained by majority rule?
Referencing Freedom House, which rates democracies around the world, Goldberg also points to systemic failures of American democracy, currently ranked below Romania and Panama in the political rights and civil liberties index. Voting rights are under siege. States with comparatively small populations, such as Wyoming, Alaska, and North Dakota, have the same congressional voting power as California, Florida and New York. Campaign finance laws, badly in need of reform, allow unlimited spending by plutocrats and corporate syndicates to peddle their agendas. Furthermore, an anachronistic electoral college and filibusters keep blunting majority rule. When unearned wealth of small, but rich and powerful minorities supersedes the common good, democracies are doomed to failure. Insurgent candidates, lacking knowledge, foresight and skills to safeguard the future gain undeserved legitimacy preaching short-term goals and self-interests allied with their own. What may lead to populist support and political victory can put society at risk. That’s how dangerous demagogues, supported by quid pro quo benefactors, gain entrance into the halls of power, navigating mirrored walls but failing to avert crises.
In the 1970s, Eric Kandel, Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist at Columbia University, established how changes in chemical signals between brain neurons were the physiological basis for learning and memory. It holds true for all animals that the more a “preferred pathway” of neurons is excited by neurotransmitter chemicals the stronger the memory becomes. As Kandel said in his Nobel lecture, “Practice makes perfect, even in snails.” A recent study of baby zebrafish at USC has further shown that just as animal brains form new synaptic connections to create memories some connections are selectively pared away whenever we’re inundated with information. What is relevant to survival is kept and strengthened. What’s extraneous or inconsequential isn’t reinforced and lost. Forgetting can therefore be as important as what we learn and remember. Otherwise, the evolutionary benefits of strong memories would be redundant. The validity of information from which we form memories is all-important because what we learn, reinforce and retain as a society determines the future. Failing to learn and retain vital information and, as importantly, forget the irrelevant and false produces garbage dumps as footings for decision-making.
For democracies to prevail, majorities must be mentally equipped to make sound, moral decisions about the future, especially long-term, and consensuses must be uninhibited by powerful Machiavellian minority interests thinking only of themselves, even if it costs the forthright an election. To grow genuine democracy in America we must restore checks and balances, reduce influence of outside donors, and countervail media that declare everything farsighted as traitorous and anti-American because it doesn’t focus on short-term profits and profligate economic growth. We need to disentangle Big Money from political decision-making and mitigation of crises. Most of all, we need to better educate the public and put a stop to deliberate, financially-driven, politically-motivated disinformation. Unless we Americans acknowledge reality and existential threats, and agree on solutions and priorities, democracy will be yet another sacrifice on the cold stone altars of political strife.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.