Democracy and Extinction

Posted: August 12, 2012 in Environment, Philosophy, psychology

Democracy might be the means to extinction of the human race.

In order to deal with the environmental crisis we face, the governments of the world need to come to some sort of agreement about how to address the crisis. It does not work if only a few participate. It requires the cooperation of all the major sources of environmental contamination, in particular adding CO2 to the atmosphere.

I recall a discussion with a family member about the wisdom of groups as opposed to that of individuals. I recall reading how groups involved in decision making can reach superior outcomes. But, somehow, with regard to the environment, that does not seem to work, I think because the majority is uninformed and confused by counter forces who see no responsibility to the future residents of our planet. Who can we trust?

I include myself in this group in the sense that I frequently choose a short term comfort rather than personal discipline to sustaining a commons for all to enjoy. Since I have few resources, my impact is smaller than some, but it is this very rationale utilized by billions of earth’s inhabitants that collectively make it difficult to solve environmental problems. There are just too few people with too little power to protect the commons, the natural resources of the planet.

In personal relationships, it is sometimes easier to be accountable. Shame can be a powerful motivator. Almost all of us prefer to be held in good report with the people we know, especially those we love. But we feel little pressure from others who, because we are evolved to survive and protect ourselves, we feel must be cheating on their accountability.

So, I argue that democratic systems that involve large collections of people who have little chance of interpersonal relationships is prone to degenerate into short term decisions that are self serving, not in the interest of the whole. We may want justice, especially for ourselves, but those other cheaters don’t deserve mercy– at least that is the way democracy tends to go. The “other” is not to be trusted.

I have been involved in community organizing activities that are grounded in gaining power through seeking out the informed self-interest of groups of people and turning that self-interest (not selfish interest) into actions for change. That can work in small collective actions. But there is so much selfish interest by the larger group we don’t know, that we don’t have a relationship with, we just can’t trust others. There is plenty of evidence of mis-doings to confirm our beliefs.

So, I come to the conclusion that democratic decisions are not likely to solve environmental crisis because it is too hard to have an informed, agreeable, trust-able majority to set the direction while there are many with short term views that ignore any future consequence to their own short term goals and satisfaction. Sad to say the consequences may just lead to the end of the human species along with many others. Presently I don’t see a hopeful conclusion.   Fortunately, I don’t need hope to fight the good fight anyway.

  1. Doug says:

    The “environmental crisis” is not a failure of democracy, education, large collectives, or lack of shame, but instead a long recognized problem often referred to as “the Tragedy of the Commons.” ( The Tragedy of the Commons was a story of market failure in the case of a shared resource or what is referred to as a public good. The example was meant to demonstrate how under certain circumstances individuals acting rationally, in their own interest would take actions that were not in the public interest. The problem is that individuals have a tendency to overuse a shared resource because they derived the benefit from overuse, but the cost is spread among all individuals sharing the resource. Unfortunately this is human nature and perhaps even the nature of most living things. The solution, depending on which side of the political fence you sit on, is to either regulate the public good (air quality standards in the case of air pollution) or find a way to eliminate the public good (assign property rights to the air – the idea behind cap and trade). By the way, Coase won the Nobel Prize in economics for theories behind the latter idea.

    Both of these solutions can work at the local level, but both break down at the global level. The problem we face at the global level is that each solution relies upon a government (or a collection of governments) willing to enforce either the regulation of the public good, or the protection (regulation) of the property rights. The collection of governments often behaves as individuals and each government has the incentive to overuse the public good for the benefit if its citizens, just as individuals have the incentive to over use for their own benefit.

    Another problem associated with the idea of assigning property rights to the air is that governments are unlikely to agree on who should get the property rights. Coase demonstrated that it didn’t matter in order to achieve the desired outcome, but it certainly matters to those who have or do not have the rights. Countries in a position to take advantage of pollution certainly don’t want the rights transferred to others as that would mean a flow of wealth from polluting countries to non-polluting countries. Countries that are low on the pollution certainly don’t want the rights given to the high polluters, as that would curtail future development for the low polluting countries.

    Finally there is the problem of enforcement. Don’t let anyone fool you that the debate is between a government and private market solution. Both are governmental solutions and require governmental enforcement. Private markets don’t exist without government; in fact, they exist best where strong governments exist with the ability to enforce property rights.

    Democracy may be the solution to the problem as collections of individuals have shown the willingness to vote for government action on public goods (think property taxes and fire stations). However, the votes would have to be on a stage more grand than individual countries. In order to solve the Tragedy of the Commons you need all (or nearly all) of the individuals in agreement over a “governmental” solution.

    • The Wiki reference referenced by reads in part:

      “The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. This dilemma was described in an influential article titled “The Tragedy of the Commons”, written by ecologist Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968.[1]”

      Essentially, it defines a relationship in which individuals “act independently” with respect to a “shared limited resource.” It is in this context that I refer to “democracy.” I am using that term in the sense that it means people individually make (in theory rational) decisions about the shared resources that constitute their living environment. In a democracy, one assumes that people can act independently within the constraints of agreed to behaviors (regulations and laws) so I would argue that the Tragedy of the Commons while informative, does not perfectly apply. Also to quote from the article,

      “Hardin’s work has been criticised on the grounds of historical inaccuracy, and for failing to distinguish between common propertyand open access resources.”

      So, I would point out that his work is not without detractors. I do not intend my thoughts to be contrary. I simply take a different point of view in how people act in their long term self-interest. The point I am making is not that people are not acting in their long term self-interest, but about the concept of “long term” itself.

      If one’s long-term view is me, my children, my progeny, then ones rational decisions may in fact be quite different than one that only looks ahead to the rest of the day, week, year, or even life time. I am contending that most of us, me included, make our supposedly “rational decisions” based on a much shorter time horizon than environmental changes take. We like our current convenience, detest our limited access to everything we want, seek a more comfortable, not more a sacrificial life style. We have created a culture and living environment that depends on things not necessarily healthy for a sustainable future for generations to come, much less for our own children and grandchildren.

      I don’t see this as a global versus local issue either. It takes a majority or very vocal minority to change the course of history, especially in a democratic environment. I hear the voices of profits, scientists and people like me raising the issue, but I fear that in a democratic state, short term self-interest is more likely to win out, election by election, than long, long, long term interests.

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