How Much Do Americans Really Know About Democracy? Turns Out We Could Learn a Few Things From Nature

Democracy is not something we have but something we do, together; how we organize ourselves and relate to and behave with each other. And it's not unique to humans.

This post is adapted from LaConte's article in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of the international journalGreen Horizon

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"Our capacity for democracy grows from our connection with nature. As we lose that connection, isolation, fear, and the need to control grow-and democracy inevitably deteriorates. It's easy to forget that a deep connection with nature provides the inspiration for genuine democratic thinking." -- Peter Senge in Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society

In my book Life Rules I make the case that the prognosis for global or even national-level solutions for the syndrome of economic, environmental and political/social crises we presently face is poor. I take the recent debt-ceiling fiasco as further proof of the pudding. Variously inept, corrupt, craven, bought and paid for, ideologically intransigent, and ignorant of or unwilling to face hard realities, our leaders are evidently incapable of comprehending or coping with the complexity of the issues before them. They fail to see, or at least fail to say that they see, the connections between and among these crises. They exhibit an almost pathological inability or refusal to recognize the seriousness of consequences of the convergence of these crises: economic and ecological breakdown and worldwide chaos.

Tackling these crises, or at least seeming to, only one at a time is equivalent to treating AIDS-related cancers without treating the recurrent pneumonia and wasting disease that are also symptomatic of AIDS. Leaders of both major parties have chosen posturing and pandering as alternatives to governing and Greens haven't yet the numbers, leverage or heft to challenge them. For the major media, posturing and pandering are meat, potatoes, trifle and araison d'etre. For the American people they're disastrous. Waiting for politicians and politics as we've known them to cure themselves of this life-threatening condition could prove fatal.

Taking to the streets as larger and larger numbers of Americans are, for a variety of causes ranging from climate change to oligarchy removal, is a start. It signals that a critical mass of Americans are not satisfied. But non-violent protests may meet with little else but dismissal at worst and minor concessions at best. Because, whatever else may be said of the present political "process" and the behaviors of the Powers in Washington, it's not democracy supposed to represent. Genuinely democratic praxis is nowhere to be found inside the beltway. Representative Eric Cantor's description of the Wall Street justice-and-democracy-starved occupiers as a "mob" is indicative of the present batch of Powers' perspective on the people.

It's not that democracy has failed us but our way of thinking about it that has. We might say of democracy what Gandhi said when asked what he thought of civilization: "It would be a very good idea."

What Democracy's Not

So far we've gotten the idea wrong. We are accustomed to thinking of democracy as a noun. "A democracy" is a physical place, a nation with borders defined on a map such that if we are born within those borders we are somehow born into democracy too.

Democracy is a kind of protective covering "under" which we live, such that it will take care of us and keep us from harm. We treat it as if it were a possession. "Having it," we are superior to those who don't. We think of it as a right. Aside from being born within a particular nation's borders and under the protection of that nation's government, police and military, we don't have to do anything to get democracy. In fact, we have very little to do with it. It's just ours, by right. Nonetheless, we go to great lengths to "keep it," including going to war for it or over it. And we've gotten into our minds and political discourse the notion that we ought to try to "give it" to others, as if it were a thing we could give like food or money or weapons.

But what if "democracy" is not a noun? What if, as Frances Moore Lappé and I have proposed in our books Democracy's Edge andLife Rules, it's more like a verb. What if it's not something we have but something we do, together; how we organize ourselves and relate to and behave with each other? And what if, as MIT management innovator Peter Senge suggests, we've been looking for democracy in the wrong places. What if Nature-Life as we know it -- rather than our own history -- provides "the inspiration for genuine democratic thinking"? And what if, as Hopi elders proposed some hundreds of years ago, what Life tells us is that we really are the one's we're waiting for.

Democracy all the Way Up ...

It has long been assumed that most animal societies are organized as we are with Powers and cowerers, doers and done to, top dogs and underdogs, alpha males and dominance everywhere you look. That view is changing.

Larissa Conradt, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Sussex, UK, writes that "In social species many decisions need to be made jointly with other group members because the group will split apart unless a consensus is reached. Consider, for example, a group of primates deciding which direction to travel after a rest period, a flock of birds deciding when to leave a foraging patch, or a swarm of bees choosing a new nest site. Unless all members decide on the same action, some will be left behind and will forfeit the advantages of group living."And if too many are left behind the group would fall apart leaving the members in a state of chaos and confusion and at a survival disadvantage. Accordingly, "group decision-making is a commonplace occurrence in the lives of social animals."

In studies of red deer conducted with her colleague Tim Roper, Conradt found that when it comes to making decisions about moving on from a resting place, feeding ground or watering hole, it's not the sexually dominant alpha male or even a group of sexually-dominant males that make the decision when to go or even necessarily where. Life has taught red deer the hard way that even the most experienced, strong, clever alpha might decide to move the herd based on nothing more than a sudden urge or misinterpreted sign of danger, even though many members of the herd are still thirsty, tired or hungry.

Barring clear and present danger, members of red deer herds, gorilla bands, African buffalo herds and other close-knit animal societies vote their readiness to move by standing up and pointing themselves in the direction they want to go. When a significant majority have stood and/or pointed themselves in the chosen direction, the group moves on in the direction they've chosen together. In a statement that until recently the scientific community would have considered unorthodox or heretical, Roper and Conradt concluded that "democratic behavior is not unique to humans."

Anna Dornhaus of the University of Arizona and Nigel R. Franks at the University of Bristol in the UK have found that some varieties of bees and ants engage in information pooling and consensus decision making. "Democracy is not something that humanity invented," Dornhaus concludes.

Radio personality and author Thom Hartmann has written of this new understanding of animal behavior that "Without exception the natural state of group-living animals is to cooperate, not dominate. Democracy, it turns out, is hardwired into the DNA of species from ants to zebras. And it includes all of the hominids from the great apes to Homo sapiens."

... And all the Way Down

Examples of democratic activity can be found at levels as far down Life's food chain as microbes. "In recent years," Werner Krieglstein wrote inGreen Horizon Magazine, "scientists have documented a remarkable sequence of behavior that might well be suited to serve as a metaphor if not as a lived example for how we human beings can and should behave in times of need...Scientists observed this single cell organism cooperating in a quite extraordinary fashion when the food supply was running short."

Facing a life threatening famine, hordes of single-celled amoeba called dictyostelium gather from every direction and every part of famine territory and turn themselves collectively into a new creature: slime mold. "They group together, forming a community, to achieve goals they could not achieve by themselves."

Microbiologist Mahlon Hoagland explains how this works: Recognizing pending catastrophe, "a single amoeba, apparently self-appointed, begins to emit a chemical signal. Near-by neighbors, irresistibly drawn to the signal 'ooze' over and attach themselves to the signaler. Each new member of the cluster amplifies the signal by releasing its own signal. More amoeba arrive." It's sort of like a grassroots flash mob at this point. "Then a startling transformation occurs: The aggregate shapes itself into a slug and begins to migrate to a new location, leaving a trail of slime behind it. As the slug moves the cells differentiate into three distinct types," each type taking up a task vital to the group's survival.

They form a creature that looks like a tiny futuristic floor lamp with a base, a post and a round, covered bulb. The base roots the slime mold in its new food-rich environment. The post raises the bulb high so that its equivalent of light will cover as large an area as possible. And what's the equivalent of light in this amoebic democracy analogy? Spores, like tiny eggs. Dispersed like photons in their new space when the bulb "turns on" and emits them, they become new single-celled amoebae. "And then the cycle begins anew." Individuals do their own thing until collective-democratic-action is required again to deal with another shared crisis.

Dog, Meet Dog

Dog-eat-dog is, after all, an anomaly. It is not the state of nature. Something closer to democracy is. Red in tooth and claw is a human projection based on incomplete and inaccurate science and biased observation. Carnivores for the most part turn on each other-the weakened, wasting, wounded or recently deceased-only when there's not enough else to eat. And that happens for the most part only when we or natural forces dramatically reduce their territory and/or sources of food. In other words when our activities and presence or natural cycles or cataclysms have caused Critical Mass. Think urban feral dogs and cats, gorillas when the mist has gone away with the forests, wolves when wildfire or volcanic eruption clears the landscape of herds and small prey. But even in desperate times, most other-than-human species continue to cooperate more like those amoeba than like rabid packs of dogs.

Why? Democracy is key to species survival.

We are about to learn that. If the protests in the American street bear down hard on the Wall Street occupiers intent that Americans work together to "create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone" rather than assuming any elected official or group of them will do these things for us, then we might gather to ourselves the courage and conviction necessary for a Second American revolution, this time not just to topple oligarchs but to declare independence from the Global Economic Order.  

Ellen LaConte's book is 'Life Rules: Why So Much Is Going Wrong Everywhere At Once and How Life Teaches Us To Fix It' (Green Horizon/iUniverse, 2010). She will be guiding workshops at the Brave New Planet: Imagining Ecological Societies conference in Claremont CA, Oct. 27-29.