Global Climate Action II:
The Power of Direct Democracy

Otto Scharmer
Feb 2 · 10 min read

In October of 2018, a small group of activists in Bavaria, Germany’s most conservative state, submitted a petition called “Save the Bees” to the state government. The petition called for 30% of agricultural land in Bavaria to meet organic standards by 2030, for 10% of green spaces to be turned into wildflower meadows, and for land and streams to be more stringently protected from pesticides and fertilizers. Bavaria is home to various German industry leaders, as well as the largest surface area of farmed land in any German state.

Figure 5 — The Power of Dialogue and Direct Democracy

The conservative government was strongly opposed, and representatives of the agro-industrial complex were outraged. But to no avail. Just four months later, the petition received support from 1.75 million Bavarians — about a fifth of the state electorate. Five months after that, in July 2019, the petition was passed into law, under the same conservative governor who a few months earlier had been leading the opposition. What happened?

Something very simple: the power of dialogue and direct democracy. Had the Bavarian government and parliament not put the petition’s demands into law, the state constitution would have automatically triggered a referendum. With that knowledge, and given that according to polls approximately 75% of Bavarians supported the petition, the conservative governor chose to champion the petition, rather than fighting it.

Figure 6 — People’s Petition “Save the Bees”, Bavaria, 2019

At the root of this small story is a fundamental insight about collective climate action today. In countries like Germany, where the consciousness around social and environmental challenges is much more developed in the general population than it is among political decision-makers, direct democracy can be a powerful mechanism for countering the influence of dominant special interest groups, such as the agro-industrial complex. If you ask people whether they want to degrade the soil, pollute the groundwater, poison their children and themselves, and destroy the livelihood for future generations, they will respond with “Of course not”. Nobody wants that. Yet that is exactly what we are doing collectively today; what we are supporting with $700 billion to $1 trillion dollars per year in agricultural subsidies. And the reason we are still doing so is the fog obscuring the bigger picture: we cannot see the whole system. The moment people see the whole system — through an informed democratic dialogue — is the moment opinions shift, just as we witnessed in Bavaria, the rural conservative heartland of Germany.

On the Power of Dialogic and Direct Democracy

The petition and referendum process in Bavaria is not the only example that demonstrates the power of direct and dialogic democracy. It’s a worldwide movement in the making. Several other countries have started using citizens’ assemblies recently. A citizens’ assembly is a body made up of the citizens of a state to deliberate on an issue of national importance. The membership of a citizens’ assembly is randomly selected. The citizens’ assemblies are moderated by professional facilitators and consider input from various expert groups and stakeholders. The purpose is to study key challenges and then to propose solutions that are discussed and voted on either by the parliament or in a referendum.

Thus, the citizens’ assembly aims to reinstate trust in the democratic process by taking direct ownership of decision-making. Ireland used this approach to tackle controversies over abortion laws and other topics, for which the parliament had failed to find satisfactory solutions. Canada used it to deliberate and reform the system used to elect politicians in those countries. France is now using the same approach (citizens’ assembly plus referendum) on climate action. Other countries that now establish national citizens’ assemblies on climate include Scotland, England, and Spain. Germany also just completed its first citizens’ assembly on democracy and is preparing a second one on climate. Claudine Nierth, who was one of the initiators of the first citizens’ assembly in Germany, reflected on her experience: “At first I was a bit skeptical how it would work out. But once we got into it, I was really touched by how much effort almost all members of the assembly put in. Everyone felt a great deal of responsibility. Everyone tried to rise to the occasion.”

Figure 7 — Democracy For Future, Berlin, 2019 (picture: Mehr Demokratie)

To sum it up with the words of Tobias Bandel, founder of the agriculture consultancy Soil and More: “The shift from industrial to regenerative agriculture is coming anyway. The choice we have is whether it will be forced upon us through catastrophic changes in the decades ahead, which would come with massive amounts of unnecessary suffering, or whether we can take this step proactively now.”

What mechanism could help us to take this choice proactively now, to accelerate the transition to a regenerative agriculture and economy? The mechanism of making democracy more direct, distributed, and dialogic.

Surveillance Capitalism and the Death of Democracy

But, wait, isn’t there a real danger that extreme populists will misuse direct democracy? Isn’t the rise of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi — the list goes on — proof that we cannot trust popular feelings and populist majorities? Couldn’t these tools easily be weaponized and misused by extreme groups? Doesn’t the Brexit referendum prove that you cannot put highly complex questions, like EU membership, to a simple yes-no vote by the citizenry? Moreover, aren’t we seeing a profound crisis in Western democracy, which so far has been unable to meet the climate and social justice challenges of this century? Even in mere economic terms, the Western model seems to be increasingly inferior to the Chinese model of more centralized governance, as evidenced by China’s unparalleled economic success over the past 40 years. Hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens have been lifted out of poverty, while the country has overtaken the US in many areas of high-tech development. Maybe, some pundits argue, we don’t need more but less democratic decision-making in order to deal effectively with the major challenges of our time.

These are important concerns. Let me address them one by one to make three points. First, yes, the rise of politicians like Trump and Bolsonaro is a troubling symptom of the current state of affairs. But does it prove that we can’t deepen the democratic process through more direct and dialogic approaches? All of the far-right strongmen mentioned above came into power through parliamentary elections. Yet nobody is using this fact to suggest closing down those countries’ parliaments. Why, then, are the same events used to suggest that we shouldn’t deepen our democratic process? One might indeed argue that these events resulted from the very lack of a deeper democratic and dialogic process (for example, the lack of accurate information and dialogue prior to the Brexit vote in 2016).

Second, in many countries with parliamentary democracies, democratically elected politicians are implementing policies that run counter to the common will. Examples range from not requiring background checks for firearms transactions in the US (where 80–90% of American voters support background checks), to the passing of weak policies on climate change in countries like Germany (where more than two-thirds of the citizens favor much stricter climate change policies). Yet these majorities don’t matter when it comes to actual policymaking. This pattern even applies to Brexit: when the UK national election in late 2019 gave Boris Johnson a decisive majority to “get [Brexit] done,” the actual majority of voters supported remaining in the EU (53%). But the mechanics of the ancient majority-vote election system in the UK diluted the votes of the “remain” supporters across several parties, while the Brexit supporters effectively organized around a single party. All of these examples exhibit the same larger pattern: elected politicians, who spend more time with lobbyists than they do with citizens, adopt policies that tend to reflect the interests of Big Banks, Big Tech, Big Pharma, Big Ag, and Big Oil.

Which brings me to my third and final point. Why is it that we have seen such an uptick not only in far-right populism, but also in hate, fear, and ignorance across the board over the past decade, especially in America? The answer can be summarized in four words: dark money & surveillance capitalism.

Dark money — that is, money that influences the political process without revealing its sources — has multiplied since the US Supreme Court, in a 2010 landmark decision, removed the barriers against unrestricted amounts of dark-money spending in politics. What’s even more important, though, is the issue known as surveillance capitalism. It’s a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff, professor at Harvard Business School and author of the book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Zuboff describes how what started in the early 2000s at Google, was then replicated by Facebook, and now is being used by virtually all big data-based tech companies worldwide, amounts to nothing less than a profound mutation of capitalism itself. While at the heart of 19th- and 20th-century capitalism we saw a conflict between labor and capital, at the heart of this 21st-century mutation we see a conflict between the watchers and the watched.

Just look up the highest-valued companies on the planet and ask yourself what exactly puts them atop the list? It’s not their capacity to serve real customer needs. Countless companies do that. It’s their capacity to turn the human experience (of their users) into data (appropriated by the corporation) and to blend that data with analytics in order to accurately predict individual and collective behavior — and to then sell these targeted predictions to clients who use micro-targeting to modify user behavior, both individually and collectively. Thus, the real products are not the apps that customers see on their devices. The real product is the collective behavior modification that is sold to major corporations (for the purpose of commercial advertising) or to political campaigns (as exemplified in the Cambridge Analytica scandal).

Figure 8 — Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Watch the Netflix documentary The Great Hack if you’re interested in some of the specifics of surveillance capitalism. It works successfully as an enterprise strategy; Facebook is expected to be the next trillion-dollar company. At the same time, because micro-targeting focuses on activating the emotions of anger, hate, and fear (to maximize user engagement) it also tends to make people depressed and unhappy while, on a collective level, undermining the foundations of democracy.

Co-Creation and Destruction

Figure 9 exhibits two fundamentally different ways that human systems respond to disruption. One is by turning backward in order to “make X great again” — with “again” being the most telling word in the phrase — that is, by orienting ourselves to the past, to a time that once was. The other response is by leaning into the emerging future — toward sensing something that hasn’t manifested as of yet.

Fig. 9 — Two Responses to Disruption: Cycle of Destruction (Absencing); Cycle of Co-Creation (Presencencing)

Figure 9 exhibits these two responses: turning back (upper half) and leaning into the emerging future (lower half). While the turning backward basically operates through a freeze reaction of the mind, heart, and will — aka, ignorance, hate, and fear— the leaning forward operates through an opening of the mind, heart, and will — in other words, through accessing the inner states of curiosity, compassion, and courage.

Admittedly, it’s not easy to tap into those inner states if you are facing disruption. If you are not able to access these capacities, then disruption can throw you into the space of absencing, that is, a cycle fueled by the amplification of ignorance, hate, and fear (see upper half of figure 9).

The reason we have seen such an uptick in the phenomenon of absencing over the past few years is based on the big data business model. Social media companies like Facebook tend to maximize their advertising revenue by maximizing user engagement. And the maximization of user engagement is predominantly driven by activating anger, hate, and fear. So that’s why Mark Zuckerberg’s soon-to-be-trillion-dollar company, even though it aspires to connecting people, in economic terms operates on a business model of mostly dividing people through algorithms that tend to amplify anger, hate, and fear.

The underlying structural problem here is what Zuboff calls epistemic inequality. Big data companies use knowledge architectures that, in the words of Zuboff, work like “a one-way mirror.” You, as the user, see only a tiny portion of the real data that is being collected, while the big data companies on the other side of the mirror see everything about you and your behavior, and then sell that knowledge to third parties who use it to modify your behavior. Epistemic inequality between the watchers and the watched is at the heart of the new capitalism today. It works because we have never attended to these issues in public discourse. If we were to have a public dialogue and then a referendum on these issues, the megapower of big data companies would almost immediately collapse. Then citizens would have a true voice in co-shaping how big data could be in service of the whole community.

Summing up: In the first part, I suggested that soil and regenerative agriculture are the biggest leverage points for rapidly taking us to an annual negative emissions scenario (i.e., to reverse global warming). But how could such a transition work? By upgrading, as argued above, our democratic infrastructures in order to make them more dialogic, distributed, and direct.

The third part of this column will discuss how this upgrade of democratic infrastructures needs to be embedded in an upgrade of economic infrastructures and of learning infrastructures (figure 10).

Figure 10 — Innovations in Infrastructures

Combined, these three types of innovations in infrastructures (depicted in figure 10) could effectively respond to and transform the growing toxic influence of dark money and surveillance capitalism on society today. How? That’s the topic of Part III.

Go back to Part I
Continue reading Part III

I want to thank my colleagues Zoë Ackerman, Sarina Bouwhuis and Rachel Hentsch for commenting on and editing the draft, and Kelvy Bird for creating the title image (figure 5) for this column!

Field of the Future Blog

We believe it’s possible to create results that serve the wellbeing of all

Otto Scharmer

Written by

Senior Lecturer, MIT. Co-founder, Presencing Institute. www.ottoscharmer.com

Field of the Future Blog

We believe it’s possible to create results that serve the wellbeing of all

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