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“De-Democratization Is No Solution” – An Interview With Thomas Saretzki

Thomas Saretzki; © Leuphana Universität LüneburgThomas Saretzki; © Leuphana Universität LüneburgThe ecological crisis is plunging the constitutional democracy into a growing legitimacy crisis. Scholars are already discussing the advantages of authoritarian problem-solving approaches. An interview with political scientist Thomas Saretzki, who sees this as the wrong way to tackle the problem.

History has taught us that crises rapidly end in calls for a strong state. Professor Saretzki, are there grounds for serious concern for democracy, given the inability of the international community to overcome climate change rapidly and by concerted agreement.

Besides democratic nations, non-democratic states like China also played a role in the failure of the climate summit in Copenhagen. Investigations into the consequences of this failure for climate policy and democracy must take the various political levels into account: potential risks for democracy in one of the countries concerned cannot necessarily be deduced from the inability or reluctance of a number of states to agree on binding regulations.

Climate researchers like James Hansen, David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith lament the total failure of the democratic decision-making process on the national and international level and already see an authoritarian regime as essential for creating a scientific consensus; Joachim Schellnhuber seeks the cure in Plato's rule of philosopher-kings and the socio-psychologist Harald Welzer is impressed by the efficiency of the green revolution in China. What is your opinion on the subject?

It is and always has been tempting to bank on strong leaders with authoritative powers, whenever one was at a loss, and also easier to believe in the reputedly superior views of decisive leaders instead of embarking on the arduous and time-consuming path to opinion and decision making in a democratic citizenry. The call for “leadership” undoubtedly reflects what is currently a widespread attitude, not only in the media.

At universities, too, behavioural science students, for instances, are being familiarized with “dictator games” within the scope of laboratory experiments. Here in Germany, however, we have had catastrophic experiences with political experiments relying on strong leaders with allegedly superior views and unlimited powers of enforcement. One of the deceits practised by leadership-centred philosophies consists in suppressing the question of the extent to which self-interest plays a role with such allegedly more clear-sighted leaders. A suitable solution to the complex problems connected with climate change cannot be found via this route.

You participated in the conference entitled “The Great Transformation” as a champion of our political system. What is, in fact, meant by 'The Great Transformation' and did you succeed in convincing the democracy sceptics?

Within the context of the climate debate, 'The Great Transformation' signifies the technical, economic, social, political and cultural changes that are considered necessary in each case to transform modern societies into ‘low carbon societies’, that is to say into societies whose material reproduction is accompanied by clearly reduced emissions of climate-changing gases.

Within this context, discussions centre, on the one hand, on the extent and speed of such reductions in green house gases – how low is low enough? –, and on the other, on the direction and extent of the social changes required to allow climate change to be curbed in time. From my point of view, there are no good reasons in favour of seeking such changes via de-democratization, let alone via the establishment of autocratic structures. Whether I managed to convince any democracy sceptics or the public at large with my arguments is a question you would have to ask there.

As a political scientist, do you consider scientists even competent to 'stick their necks out' in issues such as this?

In public debates, academically trained scientists always run the risk of unduly exceeding the limits of their special scientific competence. There is a growing tendency in such public controversies to neglect the maxim of intellectual honesty and claim, for one's own statements, the authority of the scientific expert even in matters in which one's answers are not backed by one's specific area of scientific competence. There is no discipline that is not immune to this temptation to obtain advantages for oneself in public debates through this undeclared “transfer of expertise”.

Belief in the power of argument

LEUPHANA-Logo; © LEUPHANA Universität LüneburgHow important do you consider socio-cultural change is for climate protection and how can it be brought about without force?

If we see socio-cultural change as a change in attitudes and interpretive patterns, values and standards, world views and self-perceptions, then such a change is directly and indirectly relevant for the perception and assessment of climate change and climate policy. In today's societies, the best way of bringing about socio-cultural change without force – in climate policy as in other political fields – is by the power of superior argument, through good reasons and striking models embodying convincing solutions to problems.

Critics often see environmental-policy reforms and strategies as symbol politics and part of election tactics. How can democracy be rehabilitated?

Citizens must learn to differentiate between 'show politics' motivated by election tactics and committed problem-solving strategies and they should convey the message to office holders and elected representatives that they are genuinely interested in serious political attention being paid to solving climate problems. The political representatives themselves must be told that they can no longer defer assuming responsibility and that other things are in fact expected of them and not election tactics, symbolic stagings and client politics that attempt to avoid being seen as such.

Thomas Saretzki, born in 1955, studied biology, political science and philosophy, received his doctorate (Dr. phil) and was awarded a professorship in political science. He has made a name for himself as an expert on questions of political ecology. In 2001, he was called to the Chair of Environmental Policy at the University of Lüneburg, where he has been employed in the Centre for the Study of Democracy since 2007.

Roland Detsch
was the interviewer. He is a political scientist and works as a freelance editor, journalist and author in Landshut and Munich.

Translation: Mary-Lou Eisenberger
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
April 2010

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