This article explores how dreams of an eco-dictatorship have arisen out of a context of declining faith in liberal democracy and liberal capitalism to cope with environmental crisis.
In academic literature and political thought, Senegal is often heralded as being “exceptional” in terms of its democratic style of governance. Imagine the surprise, then, of encountering Senegalese environmentalists who, though often taking advantage of the democratic process to protest state infringements on land and forest resources, ironically praised the stricter codes and stronger regulations of forestry under the authoritarian government of The Gambia.
During one interview, an official in the Senegalese Ministry of the Environment referenced then-President of The Gambia Yahya Jammeh with a mixture of contempt and admiration, wistfully noting the dictator’s ability to enact stronger environmental protection there than is possible in Senegal. Meanwhile, he said, the forests of Casamance had been cut and the wood taken across the border to The Gambia, where it was then sold to the Chinese in exchange for motorcycles.
According to the argument made by this official, other environmentalists, and many villagers in the Casamance region of Senegal, the differential political conditions in the two neighboring countries allowed The Gambia to continue earning revenues from the sale of timber—but from trees felled in Casamance’s forests.
These two related discourses — that dictatorship allows for greater environmental protection, and that more powerful countries can displace environmentally destructive activities to less powerful or less stable regions — circulate not only among discouraged environmentalists, however. In academic literature, they can be found in theorizations of eco-authoritarianism and the ecological shadow, respectively. Through an examination of these discourses in first the academic literature and then the popular discourse in Senegal, this article explores how dreams of an eco-dictatorship have arisen out of a context of declining faith in liberal democracy and liberal capitalism to cope with environmental crisis.
In the 1970s, observations of mounting environmental challenges led some to doubt the efficacy of Western liberal democracy in forcing individuals to sacrifice personal liberties to avoid overconsumption of scarce resources. This generated proposals for an eco-authoritarian alternative, in which individual protests and liberties could be sidestepped in favor of more aggressive action for environmental protection. The valorization of authoritarianism as a better alternative faded in the 1980s, even among the model’s strongest proponents, with the collapse of Communist regimes in the USSR and Eastern Europe and the realization that these authoritarian regimes had atrocious environmental records.
However, eco-authoritarianism has not entirely disappeared within the academic literature, and has gained new traction due to concerns about climate change. Among those most strongly advocating for the eco-authoritarian solution to global climate challenges, David Shearman has suggested that the interlinked forces of the market economy and liberal democracy, both based on the cornerstone of individual freedom, have been environmentally destructive; they cannot, he argues, be capable of solving the problems they themselves have created…
In particular, China’s response to environmental degradation and climate change has compelled a reconsideration of the desirability and possibility of eco-authoritarianism. As Gilley states, “China’s great advantage is its relatively strong institutions that could, if directed, manage the participatory process so as to ensure complementarities of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms, a widely-noted feature of successful democratic environmentalism. Thus China had a potential advantage over more democratic regimes with weak states, such as the Philippines or Thailand, as well as over more authoritarian regimes with weak states, such as Myanmar.”
This view of China as a potential model for an eco-authoritarian counterpoint to Western democracy is also informed by increasing recognition that forms of illiberal democracy and capitalism generated rapid economic growth in China and other countries in East and Southeast Asia. As Beeson suggests, “the prospects for an authoritarian response become more likely as the material base of existence becomes less capable of sustaining life, let alone the ‘good life’ upon which the legitimacy of democratic regimes hinges.”
Beeson and others thus take to an extreme conclusion the observation that Western liberal democracy and liberal capitalism have historically depended on a rampant exploitation of the earth’s resources in a way that is unsustainable and unattainable for the rest of the world. Given that many countries no longer have the option of exploiting resources in such a way, suggests Beeson, “forms of ‘good’ authoritarianism, in which environmentally unsustainable behavior are simply forbidden, may become not only justifiable, but essential for the survival of humanity in anything approaching a civilised form.” However, the use of strong states such as China as a basis for theorizations of the impending hegemony of the eco-authoritarian state leaves very little space for the theorization of what smaller and less powerful authoritarian governments would be able to accomplish.