A Democratic Future

Greece claims to be the birthplace of democracy. Democracy is a governing method whereby everyone chooses policies to define their civilization and thus set the future. Ours is a representative democracy whereby one elected person represents many others. In this way, representatives make and vote on choices that (should) lead to better livelihoods.

While democracy seems optimal for shaping a society’s future, it has weaknesses. Principle among these is that a policy choice must be of immediate or near-immediate benefit to the majority. There’s no appetite for a choice that begins by incurring detriments and then delivers benefits much later. Another weakness is that a representative only considers their region of responsibility. Thus, even though a choice may inconvenience people outside an electoral region, the representative does not consider their inconvenience. These weaknesses ensure that democracies can, at best, maintain the status quo. Democracies might have a 4 or 5 year plan, to the next election, but not any further into the future.

Assuming we want better than the status quo, then where do we look to define and to progress toward a planned future? Is there such a thing as a benevolent dictator? Could corporations consider more than maximizing their shareholder’s compensation? Or do we simply stumble forward and react to whatever arises? What do you want in your civilization’s future in 10 years? In a hundred years? In a thousand years?



Humans utilize natural resources in myriads of beneficial ways. For example, we see a swamp or bog and, instead of avoiding it, we learn to use its contents for agriculture, pharmaceuticals and even energy production. In particular, we’ve learned to use the peat that’s typically found in bogs.

Peat bogs exist throughout the world, though principally in the north of the northern hemisphere. Peat accumulates but at the very slow rate of about 1 mm depth per year; and only when conditions are perfect. If we leave the peat undisturbed, then it would transition to coal, but over a time of perhaps millions of years. We aren’t that patient. Today, we directly or indirectly consume peat at a much faster rate than its accumulation.

For simplicity, let’s say peat is a fossil fuel. That is, it’s non-renewable and to access its energy, we release its carbon into the atmosphere. We’ve discovered that the world’s peat reserves hold more carbon than all the land vegetation. If we burn all the peat, all its 24×1021Joules of stored energy, we’d also release vast quantities of carbon as greenhouse gases.

Instead, we have promulgated a Wise Use of Mires and Peatlands “to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The aim is to sustain the benefits of peat. Any chance we could do the same for all fossil fuels?

Us or Them?

Satellites can’t see national borders as they cruise silently through their orbit about Earth. Often, even on Earth, there’s little distinguishing one side of a national border from another. Sadly, there’s an ongoing tendency to erect barriers and fences to separate “us from them”. And so, with great expenditures of energy, we have divided up the Earth’s land surface into “mine and theirs”.

We use even more energy to maintain these artificial divisions. For one, sum the energy used to conscript armies, to purchase state-of-the-art equipment and to maintain militaries while waiting for “just in case“. For another, sum the net energy loss when we replace vegetation with physical barriers such as fences and walls all across the world’s continents. These show that the need to identify and maintain differing group identities is strong within us.

While it’s often been said and often sung, “why can’t we just get along?“ There is no simple answer. Likely, we will continue to expend great amounts of energy upon national defence. What will happen when we run out of energy? Will national borders become irrelevant and peace break out? Or will we consume every last joule of available energy to continually separate “us from them“? Do we wait and find out or do we challenge this portent by trying peace beforehand?


Energy to Survive

We’ve already noted that we live on a finite world. When people use its resources, regardless of whether renewable, the resources are not available for anything else. Our current use of energy enables both our numbers and our technology to flourish. A growth economy assumes this approach is without end. It assumes we live on an infinite world.

As you can well imagine, eventually the energy supply will not meet the energy demand, as our world is finite. How do we address this? In a market economy, if a product or technology is unsustainable, then it disappears. Will we hold the same principle to life? When the energy supply to support life proves inadequate, then people disappear. Perhaps we let people choose for themselves. They may choose between either technology such as a cellphone or food such as bread. Those who choose badly will disappear and, eventually, energy demand will equal supply.

Should we extend this same logic to all life? Wildlife needs both energy / food and space to flourish. Sometimes numbers explode as for mammals after the Cretaceous-tertiary extinction event. And we see numbers crash as with reindeer on St Matthew Island. Logically, if people consume most of Earth’s energy resources then wildlife numbers will crash. With the continual rise in our energy consumption, are we unknowingly planning a future Earth that will sustain life only for some humans together with their chosen support creatures?

Peak Population

We’ve all seen the curve showing human population growth over time. Some suggest it looks like a hockey stick. Pundits say the population will exceed 8 billion by the end of this year. But they say also that we are approaching peak population. With this, the population will peak near about 10billion people some time later this century and decline. This population decline may be the first in over 10,000 years.

I don’t expect to be around to see this decline, but it is relatively soon. In fewer than 80 years or within the lifetime of a human in developed countries, this decline will occur.

What does this decline say about world economics? Perhaps with the shrinking population, we will have less need to add infrastructure. Though perhaps there will be a greater need to maintain existing infrastructure. And, with less emphasis on production, then there will be a greater emphasis on the service economy. In any case, we can expect and probably demand a change in the world economics of the future.

As 80 years is not that far away, what type of Earth do you plan for your children and grandchildren? Or, what will remain of Earth for them to enjoy?