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Don Wooten

Catching up on the news ...

It has to be frustrating for our president to be elbowed out of the headlines by two commanding stories: the destruction wrought by Hurricane Dorian and the apparent collapse of democratic government in Great Britain.

Dorian’s material damage can be replaced at length and great expense; dislocated families and businesses may be largely restored, if never again quite the same; but the deaths resulting from the onslaught of wind and water are brutally final.

We understand that natural disasters are part of life on earth. We are also beginning to become dimly aware of our role in increasing their frequency and ferocity. The web of life is complex, intricate, and delicate. Once it begins to tip out of balance, such hazards will only increase in number and scope. They are accelerating and we may have dithered about it too long to slow them down.

The political situation in the United Kingdom is, in a way, building up to be a social storm of unpredictable scale. The country’s democratic institutions, based, not on a constitution but on agreed norms, seem to be collapsing before a tide of reckless behavior. Thought and passion are colliding like weather systems.

The decision to hold a referendum on leaving the European Union was a needless gesture to appease a few embittered Tory nationalists. It quickly unleashed England’s old insular instincts, feelings that were inflamed by a cynical campaign of lies.

The whole idea of a referendum went against the nation’s system of governance: such decisions are to be made by parliament, not by popular vote. The narrow victory for Brexit was not legally binding, as the British Courts decided, but the fact of that close win unnerved members of Parliament.

To leave the EU was to undercut 70 years of consensus building across what was once a constantly warring continent. Britain had prospered as a member of the union. London was rapidly becoming its financial center. But rural voters were persuaded that their country was no longer truly independent.

Both Labour and Tory parties were split on the issue and a two-year stalemate resulted, destroying the public’s confidence in Parliament’s ability to act.

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It was a situation ripe for exploitation and into it stepped the usual opportunists, notably Boris Johnson, an amusing slacker with a disordered mop of yellow hair and a penchant for making things up.

Simply put, voters in the United Kingdom elect members of parliament who are members of political parties. There are customarily two principal groups: usually the Tories and one other; over the years, Whigs, Liberal Democrats, Labour, etc. The dominant party selects a prime minister who then sets up a cabinet which functions as the executive branch.

What we have seen over the past weeks is the ascendancy of Johnson, a man few trusted, as prime minister. He was not elected by popular vote but by 66% of Tory Party members. In this role he appears to have tried taking personal control, counting on party loyalty to give him cover.

It didn’t work. In a rare show of independence, a significant number of establishment Tories put country above party and, in four straight votes, frustrated his obvious plan to effect a no-deal Brexit.

Now parliament is in a forced recess and Boris is working to regroup. It isn’t over yet, but actions thus far have given Britain’s system of parliamentary government its biggest jolt in two centuries and citizens are alarmed.

What is one to make of this? How to account for the rise of would-be dictators in one democracy after another, ours included? Is it the failure of capitalism to deliver its benefits equitably? The pressure of rising populations on the move? A human inability to accept diversity?

Or is it an unnerving awareness that we are well into the Anthropocene, a period in which humans are altering every aspect of life on earth: one that scientists suspect may amount to the world’s Sixth Extinction?

Is the pressure of our burgeoning population having an adverse effect on other life forms: steadily eliminating most species, destroying vegetation, raising ocean levels, and, as we have observed recently, messing up the weather?

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