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One size doesn’t fit all: democracy is not always the best form of government



The Intelligence Squared democracy debate took place at just the right time for Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Democracy. Held in London’s Cadogan Hall in front of a sold out audience, the debate explored whether democracy is always the best form of government. 

This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Democracy 2014.

Accepted wisdom in the developed world is that democracy is best. But there are those that argue that democracy can lead to illiberal outcomes such as the oppression of minorities, economic stagnation and inaction on global issues such as climate change.

Hosted by Nik Gowing of BBC World News, speaking for the motion (“One size doesn’t fit all: democracy is not always the best form of government”), was Martin Jacques, senior fellow of the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge and author of When China Rules the World. Accompanying him was Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East policy studies at City University and author of No friend of Democratisation: Europe’s role in the genesis of the ‘Arab Spring’.

Meanwhile, speaking against the motion was Ian Bremmer, an American political scientist and author of The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations. Accompanying him was Andriy Shevchenko a member of Ukrainian parliament and an active participant in the pro-European protests.

Martin Jacques, senior fellow of the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge, spoke for the motion. Photo: Intelligence Squared

At the outset, 44% of the audience didn’t know their view on the motion. Thirty-eight per cent were for the motion and only 18% against. This was clearly an open-minded gathering and it promised to be a lively debate.

Jacques led the debate, arguing that the developed world’s democratic impulse followed our economic growth. During the Industrial Revolution, only a tiny fraction of the population had any power. Economic wealth created the conditions for a democracy to flourish. Imposing democracy on countries that are at a different stage developmentally will not work, for example Iraq and Egypt. Conversely, China has prospered for 35 years without democracy, demonstrating that prosperity does not depend on democracy.

Without a prepared speech, Bremmer countered this perspective passionately and amusingly by extolling the virtues of government by the people and of the people. He said we shouldn’t be ashamed to support what feels good and right in that sentiment, which is freedom under the rule of law and the right to choose our leaders.

Declining democratic engagement in the US and elsewhere is more down to the capture of the state by corporate and vested interests and an alienation of the people. Russia, which is essentially undemocratic, has seen a flight of capital and talent due to the instability of non-democratic nations.

Speaking against the motion, Andriy Shevchenko held a helmet worn by protesters in Kiev to show the debate affected real people today. Photo: Intelligence Squared

Hollis accused Bremmer of demagoguery as an example of one the flaws in democracy. She returned to the Jacques theme that we attribute our good fortune to our hard work, liberal capitalism and democratic system, when in fact our democratic system evolved because of our wealth. The developed world extolling the values of democracy while restraining it elsewhere means your view on democracy depends on where you stand in the global pecking order.

Shevchenko held a helmet worn by protesters in Kiev to show us that this wasn’t some abstract debate, but affected real people today. He made the point that only six of the top 30 countries by gross domestic product (GDP) are not democracies. He pointed out that only three of the top 47 countries by the human development index (HDI) are not democracies. He argued that is easier to correct errors in a democracy. The values of rule of law, free speech, human rights and respect of the individual should not be so easily abandoned.

The first contribution from the floor argued that the real debate is about freedom, not democracy. The mobile phone will do more than anything to liberate people. One audience member argued that we live in a sham democracy with an unelected House of Lords and monarchy.

Those speaking for the motion returned to the theme that the first step towards democracy is economic growth. Bremmer countered that we need resilience, not just growth, and that autocracies are not resilient. He cited Canada and the Scandinavian countries as exemplars of democracy. Hollis countered that an ideal system in developing countries was a benign dictatorship, with Bremmer responding that the benign aspect of dictatorship was impossible to achieve with nepotism and unelected succession.

At the end of the debate, only 3% of the audience didn’t know their view on the motion - compared to 44% at the beginning. Photo: Intelligence Squared

Bremmer was the first to cite Churchill’s famous quote: “Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

He pointed out that, as in Russia, in China we have seen those who have done well move their money out of the country and into the developed world as they understand the fragility of their system of government.

Hollis made the point that we speak with a forked tongue, extolling the virtues of democracy at home and in public while propping up dictatorship abroad. She argued that we actually wouldn’t want the world to be democratic as they would disagree with us.

Jacques echoed this theme, arguing that for the last 200 years the developed nations had ruled the world allowing countries with 15% of the population to dominate the rest. Economic growth in the developing world will lead to greater democracy but it won’t be our kind of democracy.

At the end of the debate, democracy won. Only 3% of the audience didn’t know their view on the motion by the end; 39% were for the motion and 58% against. This house didn’t agree that ‘democracy is not always the best form of government’.

And so, in light of Tony Benn’s tragic death in March, we will leave the final words to him: “If one meets a powerful person – Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates – ask them five questions: ‘What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?’ If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”

To watch the full Intelligence Squared debate, click here.

Photos: Intelligence Squared

Further reading:

‘Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?’

Functioning markets, functional democracy, sustainable economics and the rule of law

Labour urged to take ‘equal and sustainable society’ vision to next election

Osborne’s omission heralds escalating emissions

The Guide to Sustainable Democracy 2014

Simon Leadbetter is the founder and publisher of Blue & Green Tomorrow. He has held senior roles at Northcliffe, The Daily Telegraph, Santander, Barclaycard, AXA, Prudential and Fidelity. In 2004, he founded a marketing agency that worked amongst others with The Guardian, Vodafone, E.On and Liverpool Victoria. He sold this agency in 2006 and as Chief Marketing Officer for two VC-backed start-ups launched the online platform Cleantech Intelligence (which underpinned the The Guardian’s Cleantech 100) and StrategyEye Cleantech. Most recently, he was Marketing Director of Emap, the UK’s largest B2B publisher, and the founder of Blue & Green Communications Limited.


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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