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Can Democracy Save America?

Homer, playwrights, eloquent political writers, historians and philosophers left comments, speeches and books about how Greeks governed themselves. In addition, thousands of inscriptions mention or describe persons, decisions, and institutions of political importance.  Most of the surviving evidence, including that from ostracism, the ten-year banishment of politicians voters perceived dangerous, comes from Athens.

Tradition has it that in late sixth century BCE, a man named Kleisthenes, grandson of the tyrant Kleisthenes of Sicyon, a polis in Peloponnesos, founded Athenian democracy. He defeated the Athenian tyrant and disbanded the parties supporting monarchy, oligarchy, and plutocracy.

Furthermore, Kleisthenes reorganized Attica and Athens to give a governing role to the majority. That way freedom, justice and equality would become the pillars of democracy, rule by the people. He made certain that all citizens gathering together in the ecclesia or assembly had the supreme authority.

However, the archons, the nine highest state magistrates, were elected from the ranks of the wealthiest Athenians and the Eupatridae, (well-born Athenians), had more chances being elected to priesthoods serving a variety of gods.

Kleisthenes established direct democracy in Athens because the few powerful men of his time had brought Athens to the brink of civil war. Rich farmers had enslaved so many indebted peasants that the polis was headed for violent class conflict.

Athens had a democratic constitution and government for about a century and a half, down to its defeat by Macedonia. Athenians had their ups and downs with this most difficult but enormously satisfying form of government. In the 330s BCE, they even invented a goddess of democracy.

In his Suppliant Women (Hiketides), Euripides has Theseus, one of the earliest kings of Athens, praise democracy. He tells the Herald from monarchical Thebes that “Athens is free; the people reign, refusing to give power to the rich. Poor Athenians, no less that rich Athenians, share political power” (405-408).

And in the Funeral Oration, Thucydides records Pericles honoring the war dead with his eloquent and stirring defense and praise of democratic Athens, the School of Hellas:

“Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands of all people, not the few. Athenian citizens, rich and poor, are equal before the law. When we choose public servants, it’s the personal ability that matters, not membership to a particular class…. Just because we love the beautiful, we don’t go overboard. And neither our love of the things of the mind makes as soft. Wealth is for the benefit of the polis, not for boasting. Poor people need not be ashamed to admit they are poor. The real shame is not taking practical steps to escape from poverty. Each Athenian is interested not merely in his own affairs, but the affairs of the polis… We don’t say a man who cares less about public affairs is merely minding his own business. We say he has no business here at all,” he wrote (The Peloponnesian War 2.37, 40).

Athenians picked their civil servants by lot or vote: all serving for a year and, with few exceptions, not reelected to the same office. They taxed the rich and, in fact, they obliged them to fund certain state functions like festivals of military construction. Elected civilians (strategoi) headed the military.

Athenians also exercised oversight over high officials: how did they spend public money and exercise powers under their authority? Those officials who made a profit from selling favors or came under the influence of merchants, politicians or foreign agents were accused and tried in court for sycophancy.

This democratic virtue gave Athens a leading role in Greek politics and civilization. Yet forces inside and outside of Greece weakened democracy.

Alexander the Great and his vast empire had something to do with the decline of democracy in Greece: invigorating the old regimes of oligarchy, plutocracy and monarchy. Then the Romans formalized the arbitrary rule of the powerful. Democracy had its glorious time. It became a dream.

Democracy in America

That dream was resurrected millennia later in modern Europe and America. Like in the Athens of Kleisthenes, democracy in the modern world came to life because of the excesses of the rulers: oligarchs, plutocrats, and tyrants all.

The United States fought the king of England and his authoritarian representatives and armies in America. Yet the country did not embrace real democracy. Instead, it continued the slave regime of the British and modeled its government after that of England. The king was now named president and the houses of lords and commons became the Senate and the House  of Representatives.

Now, in 2019, in the United States, we have an entire government that may be suspect of corruption primarily because the head of the government, president Donald Trump, practices corruption: he has willfully lowered standards for environmental and public health protection, risking the health of America in order to benefit polluters.

This is a businessman who takes excessive pride in being a “billionaire.” He has spent his life solely to benefit himself and his family. Everything else, including the well-being of his country, is secondary. In early May 2019, more than 450 former federal prosecutors, Republican and Democrat, said they are convinced that had Trump not be the president, he would have been charged with a multitude of felony crimes for obstructing justice.

The House Judiciary Committee voted May 8, 2019 to urge the full House to charge the Attorney General William Barr with contempt of Congress. The reason for such serious action is Trump’s refusal to work with Democrats in the House investigating his suspicious activities concerning the 2016 election and influence while president.

The Athenians would have impeached and imprisoned Trump, charging him with crimes against the people and the natural world. Nature was sacred to the Greeks.

The natural world at risk

I value humans and the natural world equally. The natural world can do without humans. But humans, being one of countless species, cannot. We need clean, unpolluted air, water and food. They exist only when the natural world is clean and healthy.

Thus, it seems to me, it is imperative to have a clean and healthy natural world by eliminating those human products and enterprises  threatening the integrity of nature.

Among the most dangerous products, I would include: fossil fuels (responsible for warming the planet), plastics (responsible for filling the natural world with pollutants destined to cause harm for centuries), carcinogenic and neurotoxic pesticides (useless for growing food but profitable to a handful of corporations) and other dangerous chemicals.

Dangerous enterprises: nuclear power plants and factories producing nuclear weapons (threatening all life), chemical companies, conventional electricity power plants, companies manufacturing non-electric cars and buses, industrialized agriculture, commercial logging, fishing and hunting.

I would also forbid Indonesia (and any other country) from converting its forests to palm oil plantations and Brazil and Argentine from destroying their forests for growing soybeans for the fattening of cattle in China, Europe and America.

Abolishing nukes would require verifiable international disarmament treaties because humans are extremely dangerous political animals. Such treaties should leave no chance for cheating and hiding nuclear bombs.

Indeed, since environmental health is a condition required all over the world, international verifiable agreements are necessary for abandoning the poison systems (in energy, agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing and military affairs) for ecosystems and sustainable societies.

Putting immediately in effect these proposals, especially forbidding the extraction and use of fossil fuels, would probably shut down America and other countries attempting to imitate America. However, in a few years, these things must be done or face catastrophe and extinction.

The Sun is forever

Alternatives to toxic products and businesses exist. The Sun is forever: capable of giving us unlimited energy with no impact on Earth temperatures or pollution. Organic farming (producing a small amount of food in the United States) and peasant agriculture (producing two-thirds of world food) need no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetic engineering.

Plastics serve no purpose save for enriching the chemical industry by fouling the planet. Plastic bottles can easily be replaced by glass and metal bottles; plastic bags by cloth bags.

Solar energy can fuel homes, electric cars, trains, trams and buses. I would charge no fees for public transport. I would also build and install electric fast trains in the middle of all major highways.

Where would the money come from for this modest proposal?

Rich people in ancient Athens almost destroyed the state and society. Democracy came to their rescue.

Rich Americans – let’s say those with more than five million dollars in assets – have more than enough funds for the creation of a clean and healthy natural world: precondition for the survival and flourishing of the American people. Considering the emergency of our condition now in 2019, I would tax rich Americans at the rates of taxation during WWII. After all, the mega crises threatening us and the rest of the world: climate change, extinction of species, unlivable cities, and toxic agriculture, are far more deadly than any war, even WWII. Embarking on solutions to these festering ills promises to make us better people.

Facing a global ecocide

The question is: do we have a Kleisthenes-like American in our midst? Even among the twenty or so Democratic candidates for president? Demands for a Green New Deal are good, but insufficient to change America from cannibalism to civilization and democracy. I am not exaggerating.

We are the only country on Earth with a government that denies global warming. The deniers of global warming include more that Trump: the entire Republican Party and the largest American corporations. We taught the rest of the world how to make money out of mechanizing and industrializing everything, including farming and fishing and logging.

No wonder the rest of the world are lock and step with America. Their deadly impacts and that of America are written in blood and ecocide all over the planet. A May 6, 2019 UN report announced that about a million species of plants and animals are on the verge of extinction.

What does “extinction” mean? It means that humanity, doubling its numbers in the last 50 years, has become a cancer.

Almost the entire planet is undergoing changes: mostly violent: warmer and polluted oceans, tsunami-like overfishing, logging, hunting, animal slaughtering in industrial facilities of unimaginable size, complexity, and cruelty. It’s as if humans have become themselves machines without the slightest feelings for the poisoning of wildlife and even the extinction-like pressures against beneficial insects like beautiful butterflies and honeybees.

More than a third of the terrestrial land of the planet is growing crops (for people) and feeds for cattle. The non-peasant part of this territory is a colossal factory swimming in poisons, high tech, and few species of crops and animals. The result of such foolish but hazardous business is endless catastrophes.

For example, in the last decade or so, France used so much of poisonous pesticides that it nearly wiped out the insects in the countryside. Birds starved, and if they ate anything other than insects, that something was probably poisoned. France lost a third to half of all its birds.

Like in France, the cumulative effects of industrialized “farming” by poisoning the natural world are almost cataclysmic. Sprayed crops in thousands upon thousands of acres look normal to us and wildlife. But they are not normal. In fact, some crops are pesticides: all the way poisonous from seed to fruit. They are killers of birds, honeybees, and all other animals. Their excess poisons seep into the land and groundwater and creeks and rivers, spreading their deadly touch to ecosystems and the planet.

Then we have the equally gigantic effects of mega cities: their vast infrastructure for transportation, water, sewage and pollution is a perpetual poison factory that has been having adverse, cancer-like effects on humans, rivers, oceans, birds, and insects.

Demands of democracy

Are political candidates (and members of Congress) even aware of this moving disaster? Are they shedding tears over so much mayhem? Do they propose to do something about it?

Have these ambitious men and women even heard the name Kleisthenes or read the latest UN global ecocide report?

The real Kleisthenes turned Athens upside down to make room for democracy. Embracing my modest proposals might just do the same thing for America: not because the proposals are bad, but because the entrenched classes of a petrodollars economy and industry – headed by billionaires – in all certainty will rather fight than switch for the public good. No slave owner gives up his slaves voluntarily.

Democracy saved Athens from tyranny. Can it save America (and the world) from catastrophes and extinction?

More articles by:

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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