Wednesday, September 28, 2016

When did you discover that there is something badly wrong with democracy?

For me, it was in 2009. I had been invited to speak at a meeting called "The Festival of Energy;" a thinly disguised public relation stunt for the fossil fuel lobby, designed to show that renewable energy is a cute thing and that, surely, someday in a remote future, it might be really used.

At the meeting, I found myself sitting in the audience in a debate about nuclear energy. The year before, Silvio Berlusconi's party, "the people of freedom," had won the national elections. Almost immediately afterward, the new government had announced that Italy was going to return to nuclear energy after a moratorium that had started in 1987, and that four new nuclear plants would be built. So, the debate was supposed to be about that.

The experts on the panel were divided between those who were enthusiastically favorable to nuclear energy and those who were mildly favorable. The audience listened in silence, somewhat awed. Then, there came the time for questions and answers. Someone rose up and expressed the opinion that the government should have promoted a national debate before taking a decision on nuclear energy.

The answer came from a functionary of the newly elected government and it provided for me a new understanding of the concept of "glee." Wearing an elegant double-breasted suit, this man addressed the person in the audience more or less as a Medieval lord would address one of the peasants of his feud.

"My good man," the functionary said, "there will be no national debate on nuclear energy. We have been elected by the people on a program that said that we would have Italy return to nuclear energy and that gives us the authority to do just that. So, we decided to start building the new plants and that's what we will do. There is no need for any debate. At most, the government will explain to the citizens the advantages that they will obtain from nuclear energy."

After such a treatment of verbal shock and awe for the audience, the debate veered on irrelevant questions. I thought that I could have risen up and challenged the double-breasted Lord on his rather extreme interpretation of "democracy". But I didn't do that. Maybe someone else did, but I can't say because I left before the end of the debate, in a rather dark mood.

In the following period, the government didn't really succeed in forcing a "non-debate" on nuclear energy; but they kept forging onward with their plans; hammering over and over the concept that they were doing what the people had empowered them to do and that no one had the right of stopping them. For sure, the ragtag group of historical relics, Greens and Reds, who tried to oppose them never seemed to very effective.

Then the Fukushima disaster came in March 2011, the government was badly defeated in June in a national referendum on nuclear energy, and Berlusconi was forced to resign in November. Possibly it was the result of not having been able to deliver the nuclear promises he had made to some higher powers.

What's interesting about this old debate (if we want to call it in this way) is that the double-breasted person at the meeting had lied; just as many of his colleagues had been doing at that time. He had said that the new government had been elected on a program that included a return to nuclear power. Well, I went to check that document and I found that it said nothing like that. The only statement about nuclear energy it contained said, "participating in European research projects on the latest generation nuclear power".

Of course, I was not the only one who noticed that. Many other people did, and several of them tried to use this concept in the debate. But the meme didn't stick; it was drowned in the great noise of the national media and the opposition made no attempt of using it. At that time, I was surprised but, rethinking about this story, I think I shouldn't have been. Apparently, in democracy you can get away with anything, especially if it is lies. That's something that you can see very well with the ongoing American presidential elections.

So, maybe it is true that getting swords from women lying in ponds is a better way to choose a government.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)