The Death of Democracy: A Problem of Scale

washingtonBy Steven Saint Thomas

There’s a lot of talk about elections these days and the talk will continue until Nov. 8. From my observations, that’s what elections are – talk. I’d say voting is a convenient way for people to feel like they did something without actually taking any action. You vote with the hope that the president or other politician will go out and solve the world’s problems for you.

My own opinion is that democracy is not what you do on Election Day, it’s what you’re busy doing the other 364 days of the year. Government isn’t going to bring us the change we hope for – we will have to be the change!

Democracy in the United States has failed for a number of reasons, but one fundamental flaw rarely talked about is scale. Big Government has become another large, centralized system right up there with the other Biggies – Big Business, Big Ag, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Box. These large, centralized systems created the problems we now face and certainly aren’t the ones we should look to for solutions.

The vision of democracy held by the country’s founders was based on a United States with fewer than 4 million people in 11 states. The first Congress, convened on April 1, 1789, featured a House of Representatives with 59 members. Based on population, Massachusetts had a whopping eight members. Delaware had one. There were only 21 Senators.

There were no political parties then and George Washington won the presidential election unanimously in the Electoral College (he received 43,782 votes in the six states that held popular elections).

In 1789, the United States had the kind of scale that would allow people to dream about democracy. George Washington was undeniably a household name, the most popular man in America. Members of the Senate and House were likewise known to their constituents. Ballots had names that most voters would recognize.

But the scale of things changed quickly. By the end of the Civil War, roughly a century later, the population had reached 38.6 million. The House had 243 members, each representing about 159,000 people. In 1911, Congress set its own limit at 435 seats – each member representing about 212,000 of the country’s 92 million people.

The U.S. population has tripled since then, but the 435-seat limit remains. Currently, every House member represents at least 710,000 people.

I can’t say in what year it happened, but scale killed democracy. We went from a country where voters were familiar with the names on their ballots to one where most of the candidates were absolute strangers. People could no longer cast votes based on firsthand knowledge of candidate character and qualifications. They would cast votes based on secondhand information: the endorsements of political parties or other centralized groups.

Large newspapers and other mass communications brought the rise of mass marketing. Things got so big you had to rely on mass media to make decisions. Mass marketing requires money, and in 1971, Congress began regulating how money could be raised and spent in the pursuit of selling candidates to the American public.

Once money became the dominating factor in elections, democracy died. Access to the ballot and elected officials became limited to those with the money. I witnessed this firsthand during my summer as a congressional intern in Washington, D.C. The word “constituent” took on a whole new meaning. The member of Congress for whom I worked regularly checked in with his constituents – the privileged few who donated faithfully to his campaign.

It didn’t matter how many letters he got from people back home in the district. Only correspondence that included a check really mattered in terms of policy decisions.

The kind of democracy guys like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton argued about by candlelight in the 1770s is long gone because of scale. The only place it really works is where you can run a campaign without money. Small solutions.

In a place like Manitou Springs, Colorado, for example, you can experience democracy. This town, just west of Colorado Springs, has about 5,000 residents. The city council has seven members. In the recent 2015 election, about 1,750 people voted. Permaculturist Nicole Nicoletta won the mayor’s race with 878 votes. (Click here to listen to an interview with Nicole and her colleague, Councilwoman Becky Elder.)

Unfortunately, mass marketing lures our eyes away from the small places where we could really have impact to the large systems that manipulate us and keep us spectators. I submit that the reason many Americans don’t vote is not apathy, but the growing sense that it won’t make a difference.

Democracy is dead as long as we keep talking about big elections and stop making the difference we seek right in our own homes and neighborhoods.

The Collapse of 2040


By Steven Saint Thomas

In 25 years, food riots will break out all over the world as the demand for food outpaces our ability to produce it – at least according to recent computer models run by the Global Sustainability Institute in Cambridge, U.K.

On the demand side, human population continues to rise. On the supply side, industrial agriculture is slowly depleting the soil quality of the planet.

Throw in climate change impacts to fresh water and declining reserves of cheap petroleum, and you’ve got the Collapse of 2040 looming a couple short decades away.

“We’ve maximized our productivity in agriculture and our consumption trends are speeding up,” says Global Sustainability Institute Director Aled Jones. “We’re putting more and more strain on the food system. About the year 2040, production won’t meet consumption going forward.”

Jones and his colleagues say there is still time for a course correction, but what changes need to be made now to avert the crash?

Experts are saying what permaculturists have been saying for some time: build a resilient local-food system to replace the large dinosaur about to keel over.

Smallholder farmers could be the catalyst for a “transformation of the way the world manages the supply of food,” says Achim Steiner of the UN Environment Program regarding a 2013 study by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

The paradigm shift indicated in these studies is moving away from a global system where wealthier regions help feed poorer ones to a system where each region can feed its own people.

Know your foodshed

The word “foodshed” has come to describe the area where food is produced and consumed. A local or regional foodshed has been defined in numerous ways (e.g. within a 400-mile radius).

In the arid western United States, a foodshed is often defined by its watershed. I live in the city of Colorado Springs – located in the Arkansas Valley watershed and Fountain Creek tributary.

In the past year, our region’s Local Food Working Group organized an action-oriented, strategic assembly of local food leaders and enthusiasts called Pikes Peak Foodshed Forum II. It was the logical follow-up to a food system forum held in 2010.

The question tackled by some 70 people at the forum was how to move our region away from almost complete reliance on the global food system to 10-25 percent self-reliance.

Several strategic themes emerged from the forum: train a body of local food ambassadors and leaders to build community around food access and knowledge; advocate for food policy priorities; develop a local food resource hub; and protect and enhance regional food production in the Arkansas Valley.

It Takes a Village

Food leaders are now developing tactical plans to achieve tangible goals. For example, we’re imagining our county of 655,000 people broken down into neighborhood-size chunks we’re calling “villages.” Ideally, these villages would develop their own capacities to produce food and trade with adjacent villages.

One ready-made way to identify village-size areas is to map the region’s elementary school attendance boundaries. The school districts have already done the work of drawing lines to create neighborhoods of relatively equal population.

Each village already has at least one institutional hub – a school! Many schools have parks, gardens and kitchens. They are connection points for families with children.

There are approximately 100 elementary schools in El Paso County. We are now recruiting ambassadors or mentors willing to represent and serve their villages in the cause of increasing food production and access.

The ambassadors are plotted on a map of the city that highlights the elementary schools. At a glance, we can see where ambassadors cluster and where they are sparse.

For starters, our ambassadors are making a catalog of existing food-related assets in their villages. A simple “Village Asset Assessment” form outlines the principle assets they see:

  1. People (civic leaders, community organizations, churches, master gardeners, permaculturists)
  2. Public Property (schools, parks, libraries, community centers)
  3. Gardens (schools, community, backyard)
  4. Kitchens (schools, churches, commercial)
  5. Other (farmers markets, local restaurants, vacant lots)

After the assets are mapped, the ambassadors are convening village Local Food Working Groups or teams for further planning at the village level. The village teams will develop a food-shift road show – in Transition terminology, a “Great Unleashing” – that we can take to all the villages as part of a educational campaign around the importance of local food.

Our hope is that decentralized but coordinated efforts can localize our region’s food system towards a different future than the one computers gave Cambridge researcher Jones, the future with food riots and wars for water.

“Local production of food is incredibly important,” says Jones. “We can’t solve the problem with the same thinking that caused the problem.”

Click here to listen to a 25-minute interview with Aled Jones of the Global Sustainability Institute in Cambridge, U.K.