We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Sunday, July 27, 2008

Switzerland: Direct Democracy and the Environment

As this article illustrates, environmental groups have been able to implement conservation measures using Swiss direct democracy. Initiative and referendum allow the populus to protect their environment and ecology when higher powers in government and industry may have no incentive or desire to do so. - Editor

Switzerland ranks No. 1 in the green index, scoring near-perfect marks.


For a glimpse of primeval Europe, head for the high mountains of eastern Switzerland. In the wild scenery of the Swiss National Park, the authorities have sought to re-create the conditions that prevailed 5,000 years ago. No trees are felled, no meadows mown and no animals hunted. The ibex and the bearded vulture, once driven to near extinction, now flourish again after their reintroduction in the last century. Wolves have returned to the region, and so has the occasional bear.

A rare gesture to nature conservation from a nation famously devoted to commerce? Not so. When it comes to environmental protection, the Swiss can point to tradition. As far back as 1914, the nation created the oldest national park in the Alps or anywhere in Central Europe. And the tradition persists with a heap of legislation that establishes more than 20 new national parks. Small wonder that the country took first place in Yale and Columbia's Environmental Performance Index with a set of near-perfect marks.

It's an achievement that few would challenge. More than half the forests that cover 30 percent of the country have gotten Forest Stewardship Council certification, the international hallmark of good practice. In the EPI, Switzerland scored 65 in the effectiveness of its conservation measures, compared with an average of 25 for its neighbors and 51 for others of similar wealth. This is all the more impressive considering its population density—176 people per square kilometer, more than twice the figure for Greece, largely concentrated in the valleys and lowlands. The country has managed to juggle the needs of people with the needs of its wildlife, earning it more than double the average European score for biodiversity. "You can swim in any of our lakes, and turn on any tap and drink the water with pleasure," says Hans-Peter Fricker, head of the Swiss office of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Why such dedication? One explanation begins with history and the importance of the Alpine landscape in the national psyche. The four original cantons that came together to form the nucleus of the Swiss nation in the 13th century encompass spectacular mountain landscapes. "The Alps are part of the whole Swiss mythology," says Reto Soler, Swiss representative of the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps. "It is where Switzerland was born."

Environmentalists have taken advantage of Swiss direct democracy, which allows citizens to demand a referendum on the issues of their choosing. The current construction of the world's longest and deepest rail tunnel beneath the St. Gotthard massif in the Alps—to divert heavy freight traffic off the roads—follows a national vote. So, too, did moves to ban heavy foreign trucks.

More than 40 years ago Parliament passed laws to protect wetlands, meadows and Alpine streams and glaciers. Care for the environment is now written into the Constitution. An article added in 1996 explicitly obliges the government to promote sustainable farming and the upkeep of the rural landscape. New parks, seen as a boost for tourism and conservation, will be scattered across the country.

On the environment, this nation isn't standing still.

© 2008

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