Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

We are at the threshold of irreversible and irrevocable global changes that will jeopardize civilization," writes Orr. "No one in previous generations could say that with the authenticity and urgency with which we assuredly can." Key questions remain. How will we respond? And will it be in time? (Image: Ms Tech/Getty)

We are at the threshold of irreversible and irrevocable global changes that will jeopardize civilization," writes Orr. "No one in previous generations could say that with the authenticity and urgency with which we assuredly can." Key questions remain. How will we respond? And will it be in time? (Image: Ms Tech/Getty)

Politics and Consequences: From Climate Emergency to Coronavirus

After a forty-year waged on both science and government, the dangers that face us now are no surprise at all.

David Orr

As the coronavirus sweeps across the country, we have good reasons to ask why we were so unprepared. Why warnings went unheeded, scientists ignored, and budgets cut at the Centers for Disease Control. We should ask the same questions about the climate crisis. In both cases the causes are political, the result of a forty-year war waged against government and science. That war explains a great deal about why we had no plan to deal with COVID-19 and why we have no plan to deal with the growing climate emergency. Collective foresight and preventive action requires both an alert, transparent, and effective government and an engaged and accurately informed citizenry.

Whoever wins the 2020 election, we the people must begin now to repair and strengthen democratic institutions. The timing, however, could hardly be worse. It will occur as the COVID-19 pandemic still rages and the effects of climate change become more severe. These are only the most urgent challenges ahead but there are others. We face not just a single crisis, but a convergence of crises and not just an emergency but “a long emergency” that will persist through this century and beyond.  

"The coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency combine to make this a teachable moment—a good time to ask larger question and challenge outworn assumptions."

As the situation becomes clearer, demands for action could take either of two forms: one authoritarian and, frankly, fascist, the other for a stronger and improved democracy. The first promises quick, simple, fake solutions to complex problems and appeal to our worst tribal instincts, mostly by scapegoating vulnerable minorities. On the other hand, building a stronger democracy would allow us to address the roots of our problems that go back to deceit, secrecy, corruption, demagoguery, voter suppression, gerrymandering, inequality, and invertebrate leadership. 

The democracy we need, in other words, is not a slightly improved version of the status quo, but one that is more just, inclusive, stronger, competent, transparent, and accountable. It also requires us to understand our history.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution laid the foundation for a limited democracy. That system has been reinvented twice since, once to end slavery and again in the 1930s to avoid economic collapse. Neither was entirely successful. Jim Crow laws undid most of the gains of emancipation and the hijacking of the 14th Amendment by corporate lawyers did the rest. In the second instance, the patchwork reforms of the New Deal, worked well enough for a time, but inequality is now about what it was in 1929 and the system is otherwise failing in potentially catastrophic ways.

The differences from the reconstruction era to the present are striking. We are at the threshold of irreversible and irrevocable global changes that will jeopardize civilization. No one in previous generations could say that with the authenticity and urgency with which we assuredly can. No change in consumer behavior or market response alone will be effective unless they occur as a part of changes in the larger structures of governance, politics, economics, and values. This is a systemic crisis and must be met with systems-level changes not haphazard, piecemeal reforms conjured by anti-government ideologues.

"The democracy we need, in other words, is not a slightly improved version of the status quo, but one that is more just, inclusive, stronger, competent, transparent, and accountable."

The upshot is that we must create a coordinated set of policies to counter the forty-year assault on governance and the underlying institutions of democracy. The goals include:

  • reforming our democracy by protecting the right to vote in fairly drawn electoral districts, and curtailing dark money in our politics;
  • educating and empowering a public committed to defend the rules of accountability, transparency, and fair play that allow democracy to exist;
  • building the capacity of government to protect public health and the global commons of air, oceans, biological diversity, forests, soils, and waters;
  • creating a fair economy in which “prices tell the truth” about the full ecological and social costs of what we buy; and
  • ensuring justice for all, including future generations.

The coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency combine to make this a teachable moment—a good time to ask larger question and challenge outworn assumptions.

For example: If the founders knew in 1787 what we know now about how the earth works as a physical and biological system, how would they have written a Constitution for a complex world of leads and lags, positive and negative feedbacks, and long delays between action and consequence—all governed by biology, ecology, and thermodynamics not by simple Newtonian mechanics?

Calibrating our political system with how the Earth works as a physical system will be difficult, but much easier than contending with the consequences of a dysfunctional democracy on a planet with a biosphere and lots of viruses.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
David W. Orr

David Orr

David W. Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College. He is the author of numerous books, including "Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse" (Oxford, 2009). And is co-editor of "Democracy Unchained" (The New Press, 2020).

... We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'Reckless Misuse of Resources': House Approves $778 Billion Military Budget

"There was no CBO score needed. No concern about the deficit. No mention of inflation," said Rep. Jamaal Bowman.

Jake Johnson ·


Senate Dems Help Torpedo Resolution That Would Have Blocked $650 Million Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia

"My simple question is, why in the world would the United States reward a regime that has caused such pain in Yemen with more weapons," Sanders asked after the vote. "The answer is we should not."

Brett Wilkins ·


Amnesty Scorecard Finds Twitter Failing to Protect Women From Online Abuse

"As our world has become increasingly dependent on digital spaces during the Covid-19 pandemic, it's critical that Twitter meet this moment with demonstrated commitment to improving the online experiences of all users, regardless of their identity."

Jessica Corbett ·


Filibuster Reform for Debt Ceiling Fight But Not Voting Rights or Reproductive Freedom?

"If our senators are willing to suspend the filibuster to protect our economy, they should be willing to suspend it to protect our democracy and our freedom to vote."

Jessica Corbett ·


As Senate Holds Guantánamo Hearing, Biden Urged to 'Finally End This Chapter of Injustice'

"Guantánamo is a centerpiece of the forever wars. It is a shameful symbol of racial injustice, torture, and violations of the Constitution and international law."

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo