Sunday, July 27, 2008

Is it Moral to Promote Democracy?

I just received another one of those letters. A concerned peacenik friend of mine is suddenly feeling uncertain about whether it is okay for us to be helping to spread democracy. As it happens, this is the issue that I went to Russia to investigate, and I’ll write the final chapter of my book about it. For now, let me try to state my position.

We are in a period now that is aptly called a “backlash against .” I ran into these misgivings everywhere in — and, much to my distress, I hear it expressed among my progressive Canadian friends too.

There are two very different narratives about the spread of democracy that apparently clash. The positive narrative had been accepted almost everywhere in the world until recently, especially among left liberals, but obviously there is no longer any consensus about it.

Let me back up a bit and start with , who famously charted the course of democratization in 1991. He found that democracy has became established in the modern world in three successive waves, each one followed by a reverse wave or slump as some of the democratic countries regressed to authoritarian rule.

The first wave began in Western Europe and North America and lasted from 1826 to 1926. A second, shorter wave occurred after World War II, largely reflecting the end of colonialism. This was followed by another decline of democracy in the 1960s and early 1970s. The third wave — the largest of all — began in 1974 when the Portuguese dictatorship ended and became even stronger after the 1989 collapse of Communism. Only during the past few years have we entered the current post-third-wave reversal of democracy.

The most meticulous counting of democratic states is carried on by , an organization that (see photo) and Wendell Willkie founded in 1941 to advocate democracy, freedom, and human rights. It supports much research and, for the past 36 years has surveyed all countries, rating each state on two scales — political rights and civil liberties — with 1 representing the most and 7 representing the least freedom. Each country’s score is based on about 200 items, many referring to the , and is assigned by dozens of analysts and consultants, some in the New York headquarters and some overseas. As a summary measure, it classifies these countries as “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.”

The historic trend is definitely encouraging. In 1900 one could have counted fewer than a dozen democratic countries in the world. In 2007, however, Freedom House rated 92 countries as “free,” while deeming 60 “partly free” and 43 as “not free.”

However, the short term trend is disappointing. According to a report that Freedom House released on July 2, “the year 2007 was marked by a notable setback for global freedom. Furthermore, results for 2007 marked the second consecutive year in which the survey registered a decline in freedom, representing the first two-year setback in the past 15 years.”

Moreover, these numerical changes are matched by an ideological shift; democracy is simply not as popular today as fifteen years ago, when Francis Fukuyama announced that it had become the only form of government that is recognized as legitimate world-wide. In those post-Communist years, even the most wretched regimes were calling themselves democratic and hoping no one would notice their violations.

The Case for Democracy

I am a democrat. I will neither disguise my political commitments nor pretend to be neutral when presenting the two contrasting analyses of democracy. The positive narrative is far easier for me to tell than the critical one.

Yet I’ll admit readily that decisions made through democratic procedures are not necessarily wiser than the judgments that dictators make. The United States, for example, has a deservedly bad reputation in the world now because of the ghastly policies of its duly-elected government. (Okay, so Bush Jr. wasn’t really elected democratically. I take back that example. But you will agree that other legitimately elected governments often make mistakes. I’m thinking of the current Canadian government, for instance, which has done little to prevent climate change.)

The reason for preferring is not that the policy outcomes are reliably superior, but rather that it allows for maximum freedom and greatest scope for human rights and political equality. Participating in even an imperfect democracy is better than being subordinate to an authoritarian ruler.

And all democracies are imperfect, to some degree or other. The creation of democratic institutions is a work in progress. The possibilities for improvement are infinite, even in those states that now score 1 on Freedom House’s seven-point rating scheme. Democratization is like going East. If you travel East forever, there will still remain plenty of East ahead of you. Nevertheless, some countries are east of others and some countries are more democratic than others. Such comparative differences matter.

Democracy has not always been admired. Indeed, as points out, “for most of recorded history, even including much of the history that followed the French Revolution liberty and popular sovereignty were widely seen not only as separate, but as incompatible.” ’s famous travelogue, Democracy in America, was a search for ways to protect liberty from the “,” an issue that still becomes worrisome at times. Today we recognize that proper democracy must include, as a defining trait, measures that protect the rights of minorities from rule by the majority. Free and fair elections are not sufficient to qualify a state as democratic.

With the aforementioned caveats, I insist — and probably most people around the world agree today — that democracy is the only acceptable approach to governance, and that nothing less should be tolerated by any population. I can think of no higher calling than the work of assisting people who live under a dictatorship to gain maximum control over the conditions of their own lives.

To be sure, cultural relativists of all types argue that only arrogant Western imperialists prize democracy, but this is not the case. There are other excellent grounds for preferring accountable, representative democratic governance over other systems.

For one thing, democracy goes hand in hand with A higher GDP per capita correlates with democracy. Indeed, as Adam Przeworski has shown, not one of the richest democracies has ever been observed to fall into authoritarianism. This association is so strong that many scholars believe that as economic development progresses, democratization becomes inevitable — if we support a country’s economic growth, political liberalization will necessarily follow.

However, correlation does not prove causality. For one thing, you also need to know which variable is supposedly the cause and which the effect. Does democracy cause capitalism, or does capitalism increase the prospects for democracy? In attempting to answer this question, one 1998 study used Freedom House’s longitudinal data and found that the answer is the latter. A high GDP/capital increases political freedom, but not the converse. Political freedom (democracy) does not increase GDP/capita. If your country gets rich, it has a good chance of becoming democratic. But if it becomes democratic first (as occasionally occurs) you should not necessarily expect it to become rich as a result — though it may.

Still there is another advantage that you will almost certainly gain if your oppressed country becomes democratic: greater opportunity for peace. Probably the best-established connection that I have ever observed as a social scientist between two variables is that fully-established democracies do not go to war against other democracies. Violence may occur in a fledgling democracy, but rarely in a well-established one. Democracies go to war against authoritarian governments, and authoritarian government go to war against each other, but democracies do not go to war against other democracies. Imagine this: If all countries became democracies, that would put an end to international warfare! There still might be internal (“civil”) wars, but even those are less severe than in un-democratic regimes. And, as Rudolph Rummel has shown, the incidence of “” (the killing by a government of its own citizens) is exceedingly high in dictatorships, but vastly reduced in democracies. Hence democratization is an immensely valuable peace-building measure. It is probably the most promising project for peace activists to undertake.

One might even assume — and I do — that helping the repressed inhabitants of an or totalitarian country to gain democracy through nonviolent means would be a magnificent gift to humankind. But that view is not shared everywhere, either in liberal democracies such as Canada or in authoritarian systems such as Russia. There are many misgivings now in this “” period, on several different grounds.

Is There a Case Against Democracy?

Quite often I find myself speechless when I hear some of my good friends talking about democracy. I am a left-liberal on the political spectrum and most of my friends have similar sentiments, so it stuns me to hear their dismissive attitude toward democracy. Some of them are democratic socialists whose values can be traced back to their youthful affairs with Marxism. Others seem to be animated by worthy aspirations toward tolerance. They regard the affirmation of democracy as akin to some kind of religious fundamentalism, whereas any broad-minded person should, in their opinion, regard all other political systems as equally valid, much as a tolerant person regards other religions as equal to her own.

Certainly the main basis for their misgivings about democracy consists of the deplorable behavior of several democratic countries internationally. Since international law is under-developed, the leaders of states don't have to be responsive to foreign opinion. Regrettably, therefore, some countries that Freedom House would rate as excellent democracies internally are not necessarily good citizens of the world. The most egregious example of illegal and immoral behavior nowadays clearly is the Bush administration in the US. It portrayed its cruel, selfish war in Iraq as a generous effort to bring democracy to the Iraqi people oppressed by Saddam Hussein. Others, more plausibly seeing Bush's policies as plain military aggression, insist that democracy cannot be imposed on another people. The debate in the West nowadays is framed as a dispute over the morality of “democracy promotion,” with the right wing claiming that their military actions represent the moral high road, and with many left-wingers sputtering in confusion, no longer even defending the assistance to nonviolent pro-democracy movements abroad.

But there is a strong case against “imposing democracy” on other people. To be sure, the victorious Allied armies did impose democracy on Germany, Italy, and Japan after World War II, but no sane person would choose military force today as an ideal way of spreading democratic institutions. Indeed, the ongoing war against Iraq has tainted the very notion of democracy, even to many Americans themselves.

Nevertheless, people living under an authoritarian regime almost always do long for freedom. What is our moral responsibility toward them?

This is not the same challenge as the situation of a powerful country forcing democracy upon another people who do not want it. Instead, this is the offer of assistance to a population that is eager to use nonviolent means of freeing itself from a dictator. Is such assistance right or wrong?

Surely no one would have objected morally to helping people in occupied Europe resist Nazi orders. Surely today no one would object morally to helping the Burmese liberate their elected president, Aung San Suu Kyi, and put her in office. Surely!

Accordingly, most liberal democracies in Europe and North America maintain organizations that are funded (but not directed) by the state, and which assist the development of democracy in authoritarian countries. There are also private foundations, such as the Soros Open Society Fund and the MacArthur Foundation, which assist pro-democracy movements, but the main controversies concern the role of democratic governments in doing so.

And many do. To mention only couple of examples, Norway supports a radio station that broadcasts accurate news in all the Burmese languages into Burma, against the wishes of the dictatorial junta. Also, the American organization, (NED), funds training in election monitoring, exit polling, and the organizing of civil society groups. Several Canadian organizations support civil society organizations in a number of countries. The first president of the main Canadian group, Rights and Democracy, was , who told me that its only restriction of grants was that applicants must be committed to nonviolence.

These opposition movements do not seek to oust every illegitimate ruler but only to pressure them to follow basic principles of democratic governance. Only if such reasonable demands for reform are rejected do the movements seek to bring down the dictators. However, when such decisive struggles become inevitable, the local movements often receive training and funding from foreign foundations to prepare for their grassroots campaigns. Thus the popular movement in Serbia that brought down Milosevic was funded by several foreign organizations, as also were the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia.

Although I admire them, such pro-democracy movements are not necessarily very successful. For example, Serbia’s post-Milosevic regime has hardly been an illustrious democracy, nor are those regimes now governing Ukraine or Georgia, though most people living in those societies evidently consider themselves better off than before. NED allegedly supported the monks’ protests in Burma, which was crushed, and also a nonviolent movement in Belarus that never made any headway against the dictator Lukashenka.

Nevertheless, I have no ethical ambivalence whatever about assisting a pro-democracy movement. In fact, I consider it morally obligatory; I could no more ignore the plight of a population trapped in a dictatorship than I could walk past a fellow human being caught in a bear trap. My support, however, comes with four obvious qualifications.

First, the movement should be absolutely nonviolent. Second, it should clearly represent the wishes of a large part, normally a majority, of the population. It would be foolish, for example, to support a group in Russia that was trying to oust Putin, because he was extremely popular. After all, a pro-democracy movement must represent the people themselves, not some foreign government or foundation. Fortunately, it is usually obvious who is in charge, for when a million people surround the parliament, demanding that the dictator resign, it is never because some foreign institution paid them to show up.

Third, I do not believe it is ever legitimate to finance one political party in a country, even if it is gravely handicapped in an electoral contest. This would constitute interference in the democratic process itself, which would surely violate the very principles that the movement seeks to institutionalize. Although it is sometimes a difficult distinction, the outside funders should limit themselves to funding campaigns and political education, not specific parties.

Fourth, there are certain preconditions for the success of a new democratic regime and these should influence decisions about when to support movements abroad. It may be necessary to work on the preconditions before supporting direct demands for fair elections or other reforms. For example, certain Iraqi expatriates wanted to organize a movement to oust Saddam Hussein, but the US pre-empted this move by invading their country. However, even if they had succeeded (which probably would have taken several years) the long-suppressed tension among Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds probably would have erupted afterward, just as it did after the US invasion of Iraq. It would have been necessary to hold meetings among these groups far in advance, to resolve the problems before they could arise.

Likewise, in a democratic government will have to address tensions among the numerous ethnic groups, which ideally should be worked through before such a democratic government takes office. Every new democracy will encounter difficulties, but it is sometimes possible to forestall them.

Bearing in mind these three caveats, the value of supporting grassroots movements for human freedom seems incontestable. Indeed, a study, “How Freedom is Won” by Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman adds weight to this conclusion. These authors used data on transitions to democracy collected by Freedom House over a 33-year period. They found that 67 countries (over one-third of the world’s countries) had undergone a transition from a closed or tyrannical system toward democracy. Of those, civic resistance had been a key factor in 50 cases – i.e. 70 percent of the transition countries. The most important discovery, in my opinion, is that the new democracies that had emerged from grassroots, were more likely to be still democratic, five or more years later, than those whose democracy had been conferred upon them by their leaders without any civic movement. Conclusion: people should take charge of winning democracy for themselves if they want it to last. Outsiders can help only help.

Russia is a case in point because the people did not demand democracy; Gorbachev gave it to them. Then they failed to keep it. Soon the presidents of three of the Soviet republics staged a coup, removing their countries from the Soviet Union and thereby forcing it to collapse. Within two years, Boris Yeltsin shelled the parliament of his country, became an “elected monarch,” rigged the elections, and chose his own successor, while nevertheless calling himself a champion of democracy. At no time did the Russian people object to his actual abrogation of democracy. On the contrary, they now say that they don’t want democracy, since they believe they experienced it under Yeltsin and want no more of it. They prefer the order and stability that has prevailed under Putin’s authoritarian presidency.

Moreover, their negative attitude toward democracy is colored by the hostility between Russia and the United States. My Russian friends are keenly aware of the geopolitical competition between countries. They point out that the US administration has strategic reasons for supporting each of the opposition movements against other governments. For example, Russians see the “” in Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia as instigated by a US administration that simply wants to harm Russia. Some of them (including individuals who have previously supported nonviolent “people power“ movements in India, the Philippines, and even in Russia) now refer to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine as an instance of “mob rule.”

The same goes for all the other places where the NED is supporting grassroots activists; thus they see the democracy movement in Burma as supported by the US because Burma has gas fields that the US wants to control. According to this critique, only when a strategic interest is at stake do Western governments offer their support to democratic opposition movements.

So disturbed was Putin by the “color revolutions“ that he instituted a variety of measures designed to prohibit any financial contributions to Russian civil society organizations by outside groups that foster, e.g., education for participatory democracy. Moreover, Russia has organized several other authoritarian regimes to jointly combat such movements. The most vital requirement of grassroots democratic opposition movements consists of technological means of communication; realizing that fact, the autocracies now rely on surveillance and censoring as a means of keeping control. They are becoming quite successful at impeding the work of pro-democracy activists, whom they portray as dangerous, unpatriotic fifth-column subversives.

In Moscow recently I was offended several times when my friends criticized me for being a tool of the US government in fostering nonviolent pro-democracy movements. Yet I do not argue against their interpretation of many US policies. Probably it is true that the Bush administration has ulterior motives, seeking to destabilize and weaken the governments of certain countries by funding opposition movements against them.

Thus, in such cases, both narratives may be true. The majority of the people ruled by a dictator usually want freedom — and in my political activities I will always try to help them get it. At the same time, every government has other motives of its own, which sometimes may surprisingly coincide with mine. If the US government actually craves Burma’s gas and oil and therefore funds the supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi, that’s not my motivation, but nor does it diminish my moral responsibility to help the victims of repression in Burma.

I have told two narratives about democracy, both of which are substantially true. According to the positive narrative (which I accept fully), the world will be better when political rights are guaranteed everywhere. The second narrative says that George W. Bush has his own immoral reasons for trying to bring that about. There is no contradiction between these stories.

It is a rare occasion which such contrasting purposes fit together harmoniously to support the same line of action. This is one of those times. For the sake of all those people living under tyrannies, I intend to make the most of the convergence while it lasts.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Al Gore Did Not Clarify Much

I’ve been reading the big speech that made this past week. Bless him! (See photo.) He’s a wonderful man and without his leadership we’d really be facing almost certain catastrophe. This week he issued a huge new challenge, but without making it clear what would be involved. Below, I will show the entire text of his speech, which is available on You Tube and his own web site, However, before doing so I want to make my own comments, which are based on some facts I recently heard (see first photo) make in an interview with . I transcribed his remarks.

Gore’s plan calls for the United States to (a) reduce its so as to halt global climate change, (b) rebuild its industrial base and create new jobs by (c) getting off and abandoning the use of all fossil fuels, which will require the development of , which in turn will create jobs and save the US economy.

These are all realistic objectives. However, Gore sums it up this way: “Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.”

Actually, that is probably not as hard as most people suppose — but it won’t solve the whole problem. Why? Because electricity in the US is now generated about half from coal, one-fifth from gas, one-fifth from nuclear, and the rest from renewables. Only two percent of America’s electricity comes from oil, even today. Moreover, both coal and nuclear power are so expensive that investors have almost given up developing new plants from these sources.

Instead, the world already is turning to ““ — which consists of renewables and the of heat and electricity together for use in buildings and factories. (Co-generation costs half as much as generating heat and electricity separately.) Even if we met Gore’s stated challenge — which is limited to the production of electricity — that would not reduce our dependence on oil at all.

Still, that does not mean it will be easy. Half of the US electricity comes from coal, and the challenge would be to replace it with renewables and “carbon-free sources.” Does that include ? He doesn’t say. Probably he thinks nuclear is a nasty business, but necessary. However, as Lovins points out,

“...nuclear would displace coal, which is our most abundant fuel. But it turns out that both nuclear and coal, and indeed gas plants, are in real trouble in the market because they cost too much to run or build or both, and their lunch is being eaten by the alternatives, that we are told can never amount to much.

“Take 2006, the last year for which we have full data. In that year, nuclear, world-wide, added less capacity than photovoltaics added, or a tenth what wind power added, or a thirtieth what micropower of all kinds added. ... So that, actually, nuclear, if you built more of it, would make climate change worse. It’s so expensive that it would give you two to ten times less carbon reduction than if you bought efficiency and micro-power instead, and you’d get that result 20 to 40 times slower....

“In 2006, micro-power pulled ahead of nuclear in global electricity production. It’s not a fringe activity anymore. It’s a sixth of the world’s electricity, a third of the new electricity. In China, which has the world’s most ambitious nuclear goals, what you don’t often hear is that their distributed renewables, not counting hydro, are seven times nuclear and growing seven times faster. China is the world leader in this stuff. Take last year, 2007. Renewables, other than big hydro, got $71 billion of private capital invested. Nuclear, as usual, got zero. It’s only bought by public planners with a draw on the public purse. The US, China, and Spain each installed in 2007 more wind capacity than the world installed nuclear capacity. The US in 2007 installed more wind capacity than it has added coal capacity in the past five years put together. Micro power and efficiency now have upwards of half the world market. The central stations – coal, nuclear, and so on -- that we’re told are indispensable, probably have less than half. They cost too much. They have too much financial risks, so capitalists aren’t interested...”

Okay, what I infer from Lovins’s statements is that the trend is already moving in the exact direction that Gore is proposing — at least as far as electricity production is concerned. It’s just a matter of speeding up a process that is going that way anyhow because of market forces. It does not seem terribly daunting, when looked at from that angle.

However, electricity is not the whole issue — not by a long shot. What worries Gore most, he explains this way: “We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet.”

And indeed, oil is the biggest challenge. But oil has nothing to do with electricity. About 70 percent of US oil goes for .

Now, there are solutions to that problem too, as Gore says: , in particular. But it sounds a lot harder to implement them within the ten-year time frame that he proposes. He has one key proposal, to be sure: electric cars. If we switched to electric cars, we’d be using vastly less oil, but more electricity, so we’d have to do better than simply replace coal (and maybe nuclear) sources to generate electricity, but we’d also have to make a lot more of it. Okay, let’s go for that. I'm on board!

But can we make the switch to all-electric vehicles within ten years? Maybe, but that will be hard. It would require something beyond ordinary market forces; we’d presumably have to order people to replace their vehicles within ten years, which would not be a popular move, even if the car companies could switch their production over that soon. I think this is where the biggest obstacles lie. We just need to be aware that electricity and the use of fossil fuels for other purposes (heating, transportation, manufacturing, etc) are two different matters and cannot be solved with the same mechanism.

On the other hand, there is another factor that Gore does not name: . Lovins counts the gains in efficiency as especially important. If we can run our cars, planes, and trucks with one-quarter of the energy now required, we’ll reach the goal easily. And according to Lovins, such efficiency gains are entirely feasible.

Hence I am far from criticizing Gore. What he is proposing may be attainable. I certainly hope so. But it certainly requires a degree of political leadership that has been lacking until now. I’m hoping that Obama may exert that kind of dynamic push.

Here’s Gore’s speech:
There are times in the history of our nation when our very way of life depends upon dispelling illusions and awakening to the challenge of a present danger. In such moments, we are called upon to move quickly and boldly to shake off complacency, throw aside old habits and rise, clear-eyed and alert, to the necessity of big changes. Those who, for whatever reason, refuse to do their part must either be persuaded to join the effort or asked to step aside. This is such a moment. The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk. And even more - if more should be required - the future of human civilization is at stake.

I don't remember a time in our country when so many things seemed to be going so wrong simultaneously. Our economy is in terrible shape and getting worse, gasoline prices are increasing dramatically, and so are electricity rates. Jobs are being outsourced. Home mortgages are in trouble. Banks, automobile companies and other institutions we depend upon are under growing pressure. Distinguished senior business leaders are telling us that this is just the beginning unless we find the courage to make some major changes quickly.

The climate crisis, in particular, is getting a lot worse - much more quickly than predicted. Scientists with access to data from Navy submarines traversing underneath the North polar ice cap have warned that there is now a 75 percent chance that within five years the entire ice cap will completely disappear during the summer months. This will further increase the melting pressure on Greenland. According to experts, the Jakobshavn glacier, one of Greenland's largest, is moving at a faster rate than ever before, losing 20 million tons of ice every day, equivalent to the amount of water used every year by the residents of New York City.

Two major studies from military intelligence experts have warned our leaders about the dangerous national security implications of the climate crisis, including the possibility of hundreds of millions of climate refugees destabilizing nations around the world.

Just two days ago, 27 senior statesmen and retired military leaders warned of the national security threat from an "energy tsunami" that would be triggered by a loss of our access to foreign oil. Meanwhile, the war in Iraq continues, and now the war in Afghanistan appears to be getting worse.

And by the way, our weather sure is getting strange, isn't it? There seem to be more tornadoes than in living memory, longer droughts, bigger downpours and record floods. Unprecedented fires are burning in California and elsewhere in the American West. Higher temperatures lead to drier vegetation that makes kindling for mega-fires of the kind that have been raging in Canada, Greece, Russia, China, South America, Australia and Africa. Scientists in the Department of Geophysics and Planetary Science at Tel Aviv University tell us that for every one degree increase in temperature, lightning strikes will go up another 10 percent. And it is lightning, after all, that is principally responsible for igniting the conflagration in California today.

Like a lot of people, it seems to me that all these problems are bigger than any of the solutions that have thus far been proposed for them, and that's been worrying me.

I'm convinced that one reason we've seemed paralyzed in the face of these crises is our tendency to offer old solutions to each crisis separately - without taking the others into account. And these outdated proposals have not only been ineffective - they almost always make the other crises even worse.

Yet when we look at all three of these seemingly intractable challenges at the same time, we can see the common thread running through them, deeply ironic in its simplicity: our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges - the economic, environmental and national security crises.

We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that's got to change.

But if we grab hold of that common thread and pull it hard, all of these complex problems begin to unravel and we will find that we're holding the answer to all of them right in our hand.
The answer is to end our reliance on carbon-based fuels.

In my search for genuinely effective answers to the climate crisis, I have held a series of "solutions summits" with engineers, scientists, and CEOs. In those discussions, one thing has become abundantly clear: when you connect the dots, it turns out that the real solutions to the climate crisis are the very same measures needed to renew our economy and escape the trap of ever-rising energy prices. Moreover, they are also the very same solutions we need to guarantee our national security without having to go to war in the Persian Gulf.

What if we could use fuels that are not expensive, don't cause pollution and are abundantly available right here at home?

We have such fuels. Scientists have confirmed that enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world's energy needs for a full year. Tapping just a small portion of this solar energy could provide all of the electricity America uses.

And enough wind power blows through the Midwest corridor every day to also meet 100 percent of US electricity demand. Geothermal energy, similarly, is capable of providing enormous supplies of electricity for America.

The quickest, cheapest and best way to start using all this renewable energy is in the production of electricity. In fact, we can start right now using solar power, wind power and geothermal power to make electricity for our homes and businesses.

But to make this exciting potential a reality, and truly solve our nation's problems, we need a new start.

That's why I'm proposing today a strategic initiative designed to free us from the crises that are holding us down and to regain control of our own destiny. It's not the only thing we need to do. But this strategic challenge is the lynchpin of a bold new strategy needed to re-power America.

Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.

This goal is achievable, affordable and transformative. It represents a challenge to all Americans - in every walk of life: to our political leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, engineers, and to every citizen.

A few years ago, it would not have been possible to issue such a challenge. But here's what's changed: the sharp cost reductions now beginning to take place in solar, wind, and geothermal power - coupled with the recent dramatic price increases for oil and coal - have radically changed the economics of energy.

When I first went to Congress 32 years ago, I listened to experts testify that if oil ever got to $35 a barrel, then renewable sources of energy would become competitive. Well, today, the price of oil is over $135 per barrel. And sure enough, billions of dollars of new investment are flowing into the development of concentrated solar thermal, photovoltaics, windmills, geothermal plants, and a variety of ingenious new ways to improve our efficiency and conserve presently wasted energy.

And as the demand for renewable energy grows, the costs will continue to fall. Let me give you one revealing example: the price of the specialized silicon used to make solar cells was recently as high as $300 per kilogram. But the newest contracts have prices as low as $50 a kilogram.

You know, the same thing happened with computer chips - also made out of silicon. The price paid for the same performance came down by 50 percent every 18 months - year after year, and that's what's happened for 40 years in a row.

To those who argue that we do not yet have the technology to accomplish these results with renewable energy: I ask them to come with me to meet the entrepreneurs who will drive this revolution. I've seen what they are doing and I have no doubt that we can meet this challenge.

To those who say the costs are still too high: I ask them to consider whether the costs of oil and coal will ever stop increasing if we keep relying on quickly depleting energy sources to feed a rapidly growing demand all around the world. When demand for oil and coal increases, their price goes up. When demand for solar cells increases, the price often comes down.

When we send money to foreign countries to buy nearly 70 percent of the oil we use every day, they build new skyscrapers and we lose jobs. When we spend that money building solar arrays and windmills, we build competitive industries and gain jobs here at home.

Of course there are those who will tell us this can't be done. Some of the voices we hear are the defenders of the status quo - the ones with a vested interest in perpetuating the current system, no matter how high a price the rest of us will have to pay. But even those who reap the profits of the carbon age have to recognize the inevitability of its demise. As one OPEC oil minister observed, "The Stone Age didn't end because of a shortage of stones."

To those who say 10 years is not enough time, I respectfully ask them to consider what the world's scientists are telling us about the risks we face if we don't act in 10 years. The leading experts predict that we have less than 10 years to make dramatic changes in our global warming pollution lest we lose our ability to ever recover from this environmental crisis. When the use of oil and coal goes up, pollution goes up. When the use of solar, wind and geothermal increases, pollution comes down.

To those who say the challenge is not politically viable: I suggest they go before the American people and try to defend the status quo. Then bear witness to the people's appetite for change.

I for one do not believe our country can withstand 10 more years of the status quo. Our families cannot stand 10 more years of gas price increases. Our workers cannot stand 10 more years of job losses and outsourcing of factories. Our economy cannot stand 10 more years of sending $2 billion every 24 hours to foreign countries for oil. And our soldiers and their families cannot take another 10 years of repeated troop deployments to dangerous regions that just happen to have large oil supplies.

What could we do instead for the next 10 years? What should we do during the next 10 years? Some of our greatest accomplishments as a nation have resulted from commitments to reach a goal that fell well beyond the next election: the Marshall Plan, Social Security, the interstate highway system. But a political promise to do something 40 years from now is universally ignored because everyone knows that it's meaningless. Ten years is about the maximum time that we as a nation can hold a steady aim and hit our target.

When President John F. Kennedy challenged our nation to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely in 10 years, many people doubted we could accomplish that goal. But 8 years and 2 months later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon.

To be sure, reaching the goal of 100 percent renewable and truly clean electricity within 10 years will require us to overcome many obstacles. At present, for example, we do not have a unified national grid that is sufficiently advanced to link the areas where the sun shines and the wind blows to the cities in the East and the West that need the electricity. Our national electric grid is critical infrastructure, as vital to the health and security of our economy as our highways and telecommunication networks. Today, our grids are antiquated, fragile, and vulnerable to cascading failure. Power outages and defects in the current grid system cost US businesses more than $120 billion dollars a year. It has to be upgraded anyway.

We could further increase the value and efficiency of a Unified National Grid by helping our struggling auto giants switch to the manufacture of plug-in electric cars. An electric vehicle fleet would sharply reduce the cost of driving a car, reduce pollution, and increase the flexibility of our electricity grid.

At the same time, of course, we need to greatly improve our commitment to efficiency and conservation. That's the best investment we can make.

America's transition to renewable energy sources must also include adequate provisions to assist those Americans who would unfairly face hardship. For example, we must recognize those who have toiled in dangerous conditions to bring us our present energy supply. We should guarantee good jobs in the fresh air and sunshine for any coal miner displaced by impacts on the coal industry. Every single one of them.

Of course, we could and should speed up this transition by insisting that the price of carbon-based energy include the costs of the environmental damage it causes. I have long supported a sharp reduction in payroll taxes with the difference made up in CO2 taxes. We should tax what we burn, not what we earn. This is the single most important policy change we can make.

In order to foster international cooperation, it is also essential that the United States rejoin the global community and lead efforts to secure an international treaty at Copenhagen in December of next year that includes a cap on CO2 emissions and a global partnership that recognizes the necessity of addressing the threats of extreme poverty and disease as part of the world's agenda for solving the climate crisis.

Of course the greatest obstacle to meeting the challenge of 100 percent renewable electricity in 10 years may be the deep dysfunction of our politics and our self-governing system as it exists today. In recent years, our politics has tended toward incremental proposals made up of small policies designed to avoid offending special interests, alternating with occasional baby steps in the right direction. Our democracy has become sclerotic at a time when these crises require boldness.

It is only a truly dysfunctional system that would buy into the perverse logic that the short-term answer to high gasoline prices is drilling for more oil ten years from now.

Am I the only one who finds it strange that our government so often adopts a so-called solution that has absolutely nothing to do with the problem it is supposed to address? When people rightly complain about higher gasoline prices, we propose to give more money to the oil companies and pretend that they're going to bring gasoline prices down. It will do nothing of the sort, and everyone knows it. If we keep going back to the same policies that have never ever worked in the past and have served only to produce the highest gasoline prices in history alongside the greatest oil company profits in history, nobody should be surprised if we get the same result over and over again. But the Congress may be poised to move in that direction anyway because some of them are being stampeded by lobbyists for special interests that know how to make the system work for them instead of the American people.

If you want to know the truth about gasoline prices, here it is: the exploding demand for oil, especially in places like China, is overwhelming the rate of new discoveries by so much that oil prices are almost certain to continue upward over time no matter what the oil companies promise. And politicians cannot bring gasoline prices down in the short term.

However, there actually is one extremely effective way to bring the costs of driving a car way down within a few short years. The way to bring gas prices down is to end our dependence on oil and use the renewable sources that can give us the equivalent of $1 per gallon gasoline.

Many Americans have begun to wonder whether or not we've simply lost our appetite for bold policy solutions. And folks who claim to know how our system works these days have told us we might as well forget about our political system doing anything bold, especially if it is contrary to the wishes of special interests. And I've got to admit, that sure seems to be the way things have been going. But I've begun to hear different voices in this country from people who are not only tired of baby steps and special interest politics, but are hungry for a new, different and bold approach.

We are on the eve of a presidential election. We are in the midst of an international climate treaty process that will conclude its work before the end of the first year of the new president's term. It is a great error to say that the United States must wait for others to join us in this matter. In fact, we must move first, because that is the key to getting others to follow; and because moving first is in our own national interest.

So I ask you to join with me to call on every candidate, at every level, to accept this challenge - for America to be running on 100 percent zero-carbon electricity in 10 years. It's time for us to move beyond empty rhetoric. We need to act now.

This is a generational moment. A moment when we decide our own path and our collective fate. I'm asking you - each of you - to join me and build this future. Please join the WE campaign at need you. And we need you now. We're committed to changing not just light bulbs, but laws. And laws will only change with leadership.

On July 16, 1969, the United States of America was finally ready to meet President Kennedy's challenge of landing Americans on the moon. I will never forget standing beside my father a few miles from the launch site, waiting for the giant Saturn 5 rocket to lift Apollo 11 into the sky. I was a young man, 21 years old, who had graduated from college a month before and was enlisting in the United States Army three weeks later.

I will never forget the inspiration of those minutes. The power and the vibration of the giant rocket's engines shook my entire body. As I watched the rocket rise, slowly at first and then with great speed, the sound was deafening. We craned our necks to follow its path until we were looking straight up into the air. And then four days later, I watched along with hundreds of millions of others around the world as Neil Armstrong took one small step to the surface of the moon and changed the history of the human race.

We must now lift our nation to reach another goal that will change history. Our entire civilization depends upon us now embarking on a new journey of exploration and discovery. Our success depends on our willingness as a people to undertake this journey and to complete it within 10 years. Once again, we have an opportunity to take a giant leap for humankind.


Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Why They Hate Gorbachev

Imagine that you have been in all your life. The guards feed you but there’s no possibility of freedom. But then along comes a warden who unlocks the door and leads you out of the prison. Do you thank him?

For eighteen years I’ve been contemplating this question. The fact is, of course, that most Russian people hate and are completely baffled when a foreigner expresses immense admiration for him, as I do. (Yes, he’s just human, but his ratio of good to bad decisions is overwhelmingly constructive.)

During my recent stay in Moscow, I interviewed only one admirer of his, the scholar , who regards Gorbachev as the greatest political leader Russia ever had. Or to be more accurate, he thinks Gorbachev may be an even match with someone whose name I didn’t recognize. (I should track that guy down.) In my opinion, MSG is not surpassed by any other political leader in world history; probably he is matched only by Gandhi, who was an altogether different type. So I am always astounded that Russians themselves don’t see that.

The puzzle began for me when I read the memoir of the hydrogen bomb designer and human rights activist . (What a combination of qualifications!) He had been under house arrest in Gorky for years when he was unexpectedly released. One day a telephone man came to the Sakharov house and installed a phone. The next day that phone rang and it was Gorbachev telling him that he was free to move back to Moscow and resume his good work. Sakharov notes, with evident pride, that he hung up on him.

Thereafter, the relationship between Gorbachev and Sakharov was testy, for reasons that I could not fathom. At the end Sakharov was giving a speech in the Congress of People’s Deputies (the new democratic parliament). Though he had used up the time allotted to each speaker, he wanted to keep going but Gorbachev was chairing the meeting and cut him off brusquely. Sakharov went home and died during the night.

That final unpleasant scene is often adduced even today as the basis for disliking Gorbachev. As for myself, I keep wondering why he hung up on Gorbachev and never tried to cooperate with him. One of Gorbachev’s closest associates once explained it to me by referring to a Russian proverb: “Two bears cannot live in one lair.” But that isn’t really an explanation. It’s just another way of phrasing the puzzle. The two men were pursuing similar goals. They both wanted democracy and a government that respected human rights. Gorbachev was extraordinarily democratic and he jettisoned the tyrannical system that had prevailed for seventy years. Yet he and Sakharov never became allies – nor do ordinary Russians even today honor their liberator. How strange!

But now I think I understand. I can see two different explanations for the Russians’ lack of gratitude to Gorbachev for overturning tyranny. One explanation applies to Sakharov and the other workers. The second explanation applies to ordinary Russian citizens.

First, the dissidents believed passionately that their sacrifices were necessary in order to get a free and decent society. Most protesters were sent to prison camps (from which only about half would emerge alive), though Sakharov was kept under house arrest instead. Despite their heroic endurance of abuse, dissidents had no discernable influence whatever on the decisions made in the Kremlin. (One dissident did insist to me that somehow they had “forced” the party leaders to change, but I have never seen any evidence to that effect.) In any case, these protesters were true martyrs; they knew that they would be treated as criminals but they believed that what they were doing was necessary. I call these courageous people “Barking Dogs.” They could not bite, but they courageously made a commotion to stir up the population.

They were not, however, the only people who believed that the communist regime needed to be changed markedly. In fact, there were far more individuals who took a different course of action toward that goal. I call them “Termites” because they worked quietly within the Party, developing ideas for reform that they hoped someday to implement. Gorbachev was a Termite par excellence, just as Sakharov was a Barking Dog par excellence. Gorbachev believed that only the general secretary of the party could institute real reforms, and he was acquainted with many like-minded Termites who shared his values and principles.

Oddly, the Termites and the Barking Dogs were enemies and remained so throughout the turbulent 1980s and even beyond. Theirs was a highly-charged ideological fight about how best to promote social change. One dissident with whom I spoke even referred to the reformers inside the Communist Party as “whores.” Although today, such a controversy sounds abstract and theoretical, the stakes were extraordinarily high. Their whole lives had been constructed on the basis of their opinions on this subject. It was painful for Sakharov to acknowledge that Gorbachev had “given” freedom to the Soviet people, for he believed that he and his fellow dissidents had won it through their noisy protests. Therefore he continued to view Gorbachev as some kind of self-serving opportunist, wholly different from the “barking” moral exemplars such as Sakharov himself and his allies. I can understand their lingering antagonism, though it is only stubborn pride.

But now let us consider the attitude of ordinary Soviet citizens who had not struggled against . Gorbachev had flung open the prison doors and urged everyone to come out and build a new, democratic society together. Why did most people not feel grateful for that? It took me longer to understand them than the disgruntled Barking Dogs. But now I do understand them. This is the second explanation.

The answer finally came to me after I had heard liberals and former dissidents in Moscow predict that it would take between fifteen and fifty years for Russians to be able to live in a democracy. I considered that a terribly insulting thing to say about one’s own society. But explained it to me in our interview. (See her photo, along with the director of the EU-Russia Centre.) She is an old lady now, having struggled as a Soviet dissident for many years. And now she is optimistic, for she believes that the mentality has been developing very quickly. The society is far from being , but it is changing and within fifteen years people will be ready. She told me,

“It’s our way to democracy. It’s a long way, of course because we were a totalitarian country for three generations. It’s not so easy to forget it, you know. For Germany, for example, it was much easier because it was only twelve years. But we were a totalitarian country more than 70 years. We forgot the free way to live. ... Remember the first World War, revolution, civil war, Stalin’s terror, industrialization in Stalin’s time, the Second World War. In the Second World War we lost 26 million people. That’s the official figure; I would believe it’s much more.... We have democratic problems because those who were the best people were destroyed during the terror, during the wars, and so on.”

I started to ask, “The quality of the people around you?” She replied,

“Entirely changed. They are more vulnerable to fear now. Of course! Of course! ... Many features in our characters were formed by our tragic history. ..We will be a democratic country but we cannot do it so quickly. We cannot! Be more patient! ... In fifteen years, I believe we will reach democracy.... People now are very different from those in the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, people couldn’t do anything for themselves. Either the state did something for the people or it wasn’t done at all. For example, I would like to have a good apartment. If the state didn’t give it to me, I could not have it. It was impossible. We lived in such a way for three generations. And when the Soviet Union was crushed, we were like kids. We didn’t know how to do anything.”

We were not speaking about Gorbachev in this conversation, and I doubt that Lyudmilla Alexeeva herself resents him; she is one of the most generous-spirited persons I have ever met. But later I kept recalling her words, which actually provided the second explanation for the widespread hatred of Gorbachev.

Suppose you had been in prison all your life. You would not know how to take care of yourself. If suddenly your jailer unlocked the door for you and your whole society, you would be afraid, knowing that chaos awaited you outside. The institutions were not ready for you to take care of your own needs. Gorbachev was that kind jailer, conferring freedom on people for whom it was unfamiliar. No wonder they hated him! In fact, their fear was well-founded. The was in a shambles, and genuine poverty followed the collapse of communism. This was not entirely the fault of Gorbachev; militarism had already depleted the country’s wealth, and his rapprochement with the West improved their prospects – but only after a terrible transition.

Bill Clinton’s campaign manager was right in ways that apply to Russia too: “It’s the economy, stupid!” A ruler’s popularity is determined, above all, by the financial well-being of his society. The most imminent danger after leaving the prison of totalitarianism was simple hunger. At some points during Gorbachev’s term of office, the world was $7 per barrel. Today it is $143. We should not be surprised that Putin is wildly popular and Gorbachev was not.

Should he have known better? Should he have realized the difficulty of the transition that he launched? Perhaps. And, had he known what lay ahead, should he have kept the prison door locked? Of course not! (I hope you agree with me.)

When I visit Moscow it is with a longer perspective than that of the Russians I meet. They are reacting to the immediate predicaments that they face, day by day, and they are grateful to any ruler who makes their lives more comfortable and prosperous, even if less free. For me, the question is a more general one. I want to know how to oust any totalitarian state, wherever it arises — or, in the case of today’s Russia — an authoritarian state. Political tyranny is far harder to overcome than an economic downturn.

The Russians have learned little about freeing a society from the trap that is totalitarianism. And today this question does not interest them as it interests me. I want democracy for them. They do not wish it for themselves. It’s too difficult. But I think may be a genuine democrat. During his first two months in office, he has been unlocking lots of doors again. And in fifteen years — who knows?