From Technocracy to a Practical Politics

For the environmental movement to succeed, it needs to convert its ideas, science, theories, and activism into practical politics that can win votes on a large scale.

I was recently involved in an email discussion that highlighted what I feel is a fundamental block to achieving meaningful change around environmental policies. It started with someone asking why it is that people—in fact, society in general—just doesn’t seem to “get it” regarding climate change: “What if I'm delusional rather than everybody else? And if I am, what are the more realistic truths held by the majority?” Predictably, the person went on to lament the “lack of political leadership” in achieving change.

My response to the email was that those of us interested in achieving change related to environmental issues are indeed delusional—at least partly. I remarked that thankfully many of us live in functioning democracies. We must be capable of turning our ideas into a practical politics—and by that I mean we need a political platform that can win votes and thus, the power needed to effect real change. So far, we have not been successful. Environmentalist election platforms as currently structured don't win enough votes to make a difference. It's no good blaming poor leadership, or the power and money of the fossil fuel industry, or a million other things to make ourselves comfortable.

Personally, I believe that many politicians would like to do something about climate change and other sustainability issues, but they haven't yet figured out a way to do it and still get re-elected. How much have we helped them in that quest? A common answer seems to be that “if they were ‘real leaders’ they would just do it and not worry about getting re-elected”—this position is hardly helpful in the real world.

Later, a friend added to the email discussion with this question: “What if it is impossible to develop a set of clear, politically workable policy options that can command significant public support under the current cultural, political, and ideological circumstances? That would not be ‘our’ fault, would it?”

Well, if it’s not our fault, whose fault is it? This reasoning seems to get us right back to the same problematic attitude—we are the few who are “right” and the rest of society is wrong or deluded, or has its head in the sand. This way of thinking contributes to what I call the technocrat-activist mindset. In a previous Stanford Social Innovation Review post, I addressed activist issues; this discussion exemplifies the technocrat problem, and it lies at the heart of why many with an expert technical background feel frustrated with the political class.

The technocrat often takes the view that scientists and experts "know the answer" and are content that it's the right answer—technically—even if there's no hope in hell of it ever being politically viable. That doesn't bother the technocrat, who is convinced that there is a right answer and that he knows it. The politician on the other hand sees the issue from exactly the opposite angle. You cannot achieve change unless you can first achieve power and then hang on to it. So achieving power is the primary objective, and political platforms have to focus first and foremost on achieving power, not just being technically right—if such a thing even exists.

The environmental movement is fundamentally a technocratic-activist movement. It combines outrage with scientific and technical analyses that generate a lot of good ideas and creative approaches. But I don't see many initiatives that are focused on turning these ideas into a practical politics. And by practical politics, I don't mean throwing lobbying money at Washington, as with the cap-and-trade bill. I mean the slow, painstaking development of a political platform capable of winning real-world votes on a large scale and thereby gaining the power it needs.

At the end of the day, all the research, the science, the theories, and the outrage have to be turned into on-the-ground politics. We need to divert more of the significant existing resources to that end.

Tracker Pixel for Entry


  • BY Joseph Bute

    ON May 29, 2013 06:09 AM

    Oddly enough, the environmental movement has largely won on so many fronts that the focus on the “big picture” of climate change makes it look like we have lost.  Toiday, most major business organizations have full-time engineering and operations teams that work on “sustainability” initiatives.  The declaration of the higher CAFE standard revealed that the auto industry had been working for years on engine efficiencies, increasing the sustainability of the cars they make and reducing weight.  Nearly every business today - and everyone who invests or lends to businesses - pay attention to the environmental risks or impacts.  The shift toward sustainable agriculture isn’t a narrow fad any more.  Objectively, US demand for fossil fuels has been declining steadily while economic growth has continued.  Renewable energy is now a legitimate and growing part of the energy production landscape.  So we find ourselves in a funk about “climate change” while all around us more of the mainstream economic players are quietly adding it to their list of issues without a lot of fanfare.  This may have more to do with perception than fact.  Don’t get me wrong - there are big issues and tall hurdles around the environment yet to be taken on - but we seem to have almost no ability to recognize where we started in the 1970’s and where we are today.  Just a thought.

  • Joe Zammit-Lucia's avatar

    BY Joe Zammit-Lucia,

    ON May 29, 2013 03:39 PM

    Dear Joseph

    Thanks for your comments. You are right. Much has been achieved. As I said in a previous post on this site (see “To date, the success of the environmental movement has been astounding, bringing with it improvements in health, well-being, quality of life, and future prospects for vast numbers of people.” Yet, in big picture terms, things are not all rosy. Biodiversity and species continue to decline, deforestation proceeds apace, emissions continue to rise on a global level, our consumption of energy and resources continues to rise. It’s not much good having a 20% improvement in car fuel efficiency if people then have two or three cars and drive twice as many miles. We have had a shift towards organic agriculture (still in very small proportions) but very little towards truly sustainable agriculture with true soil replenishment, etc, etc.. The reality is that if we are to accelerate progress, we need effective political action. That cannot be achieved to any significant extent except through the development of solid political platforms that integrate environmental issues with other socio-political issues. My view is that, looking forward, we need to devote much more time and resources to that if we are to build on the successes already achieved to date.

  • Lawrence Winans's avatar

    BY Lawrence Winans

    ON July 23, 2013 09:46 AM

    Do you really think society is changed by the preparation and promotion of political platforms?

    I’ve been a political activist since the age of 11 and I am now 65. I’ve participated at every level of political campaigning from that of a volunteer laboriously entering data into microfiche files (that was the old days B.C. “before computer”) to serving as paid professional staff as “Issues Coordinator” for a mayoral candidate in a major city.

    When I was younger I devoted a great deal of time to party platforms and position statements. However, nothing I ever did was ever translated into policy even when my side won. About halfway through my career I gave up on platforms and dedicated my efforts to winning elections for people not philosophies.

    I at first thought I was more successful, my candidates won. But then it became apparent that there was no benefit in winning. Once in office the winner had very little concern with any substantive policy change. The “purpose” fulfilled was winning not doing anything.

    Whatever direction the environmental movement should take I am sure that so-called practical politics isn’t one of them

Leave a Comment


Please enter the word you see in the image below:


SSIR reserves the right to remove comments it deems offensive or inappropriate.