April 29, 2003

Enter Democracy

I ended last night with a thought experiment to meant to twist your brain regarding the kinds of policies we will need to develop if we are going to move toward something like sustainability (which is another idea we will need to come back to). Implicit in whatever sustainability is the notion/objective that all of Earth’s (human?) inhabitants have an improving quality of life (what ever that means). I proposed that we imagine the kinds of infrastructure and processes we will need to manage Earth systems that have century time scales.

The best example, that I am aware of anyway, of a policy document that has the requisite time scale to manage things like the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is the Constitution of the United States. Roughly that document sets out a set of over arching objectives (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) and an infrastructure and procedural frame to facilitate moving toward those objectives. It leaves tremendous flexibility regarding exactly how those objectives will be reached. That flexibility allows us to learn-by-doing.

While there is flexibility in the details of implementation, the framework laid out by the Constitution is difficulty to modify. Thus in the language of time scales, the framework of the Constitution has a longer time scale than the processes it guides.

So what is the point with respect to the title of this entry? The point is that if we are going to move toward some set of objectives, we not only have to figure out how to move, but we also have to figure out where we hope to end up and how to know if we are moving in the right direction. Democracy is related to identifying where we want to end up.

Our early framers had a bit of an advantage over our current situation. They could reasonably focus on fairly restricted geographic locale. They could reasonably assume unlimited natural resources. And perhaps most importantly, while their ideas about who exactly was "created equal" were pretty expansive for the time, it was still a pretty homogeneous set. These things made it fairly straight forward for them to agree on a set of "self-evident" postulates and a set of related objectives for their new society.

Shear numbers ensure that no such homogeneous, representative decision making body can be assembled today over the space and time scales I am talking about. Thus one of the great challenges we face as we move forward is how to deal with heterogeneity in our populations and in our geography.

Let me be clear, I am not calling for a single Planetary Constitution that is a simple metaphor to the US version. I am (at least for the moment) arguing that we need to invent or identify some set of processes that will provide a framework to guide democratic processes on scales larger than the nation state. This infrastructure will need to rooted in some evolved form of democratic principles and have time scales that are long compared to many of the natural and social processes we are trying to protect.