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Intergenerational Democracy:
Environmental Insecurity as Intergenerational Domination

James Bohman
Saint Louis University

Most citizens in existing democracies assume that their polity will remain

democratic, if not for centuries, at least for the foreseeable future. Most framers of

constitutions assume that the framework that they formulate will be inherited by future

generations, even as they very often make it possible for future generations of citizens to

respond to any imperfections and change the constitution through the amendment

process. Except in these moments of revision, the workings of democracy are often

thought of in remarkably atemporal ways. We the “People,” or more often our

representatives, are able to decide authoritatively for present and the future. So

conceived, the democratic political community is doubly bounded: spatially by the

borders of the demos and temporally by those who now are now assembled. Such a

narrow temporal interpretation implies that democracies are a succession of independent

generations. While any generation may know some of the their predecessors and their

successors, more distant past and future generations are often thought to lie outside of the

political community. While we have concerns for the lives of our children and their

children, the temporally narrow scope of the political community makes it possible and

under certain circumstances (such as global warming) very likely that the current

generation dominates future generations. Such domination may even make it difficult for

future generations not only to live well but also to inherit the democratic constitution.

It might be thought that intergenerational democracy falls directly out of the idea

of self-rule. However, an adequate treatment of the problem of intergenerational

domination demands a transformation of many current understandings of self rule,

including concepts such as popular sovereignty. These difficulties are structural in two

respects. First, democracy, especially majoritarian democracy, is inherently biased

toward the present. Given this bias, the greater the temporal distance between present and

future generations, the less likely it is that the interests of the latter will be taken into

account. Furthermore, simply because of the arrow of time is directional, an enormous

asymmetry of power exists between present generations on the one hand and past and

future generations on the other. When coupled with myopia and other institutional

failures, this temporal bias of democracy can result in the tyranny of the present, a

problem that is only exacerbated by the preeminence of aggregative decision making.

This bias is not merely a version of the tyranny of the (present) majority, which always

disadvantages a segment of the present political community and potentially leads to the

domination of some citizens over others, but also the lives and well being of people in the

future political community. If they are dominated, then the overall prospects of fulfilling

the democratic ideal are greatly diminished. Rawls, for example, argues that any

democratic conception of justice must include “a provision for the just claims of future

generations” precisely because of the peculiar features of democracy and majority rule.1

Any argument for an intergenerational conception of democracy must consider at

least four main issues, each of which comprises a step in my overall argument. First, the

protective effects of democracy from domination seem limited, even in existing

democracies, to those who are citizens. When this status is defined in a temporally and

spatially restrictive way, citizens may come to dominate noncitizens both inside and

outside their borders and generations. Second, in light of the possibility that democracies

can dominate future generations as they do noncitizens, some version of Burke’s view of

a political community as a partnership across generations should be extended in a variety

of ways; for example, popular sovereignty can only be made intergenerational if each

generation regards itself, in Burke’s terms, as the “temporary possessor” of democratic

power and thus will not act “as its entire master.” Against various objections, I argue that

such a partnership is not metaphysically impossible. Third, when this limitation of

temporary possession of democratic power is violated, not only are future generations

subjected to domination by those who are supposed to be trustees of democratic

institutions so too are many living citizens. They are insecure in their nondomination, and

this lack of security extends, most importantly for our purposes, to rights and entitlements

to natural resources that can only be attained in practices of intergenerational

management that see the inherent relationship between the natural environment and

human well being. The insecurity of democratic nondomination can be avoided only if

each generation has both forward- and backward- looking rights and obligations to other

generations (and not simply to past and future individuals). As a shared form of freedom,

environmental security is that no spatial or temporal demos assert some final authority

over the past, the present and the future. Next I consider the more minimal claim that

security is an instrumental benefit of democratic nondomination, including environmental

security from the effects of climate change.

Democracy, Nondomination, and Security

I have argued that certain forms of democracy are temporally biased, such as

those with the provision that the electorate should have the final say about the choice of

the current regime who in turn may or may not be able to enact just and effective

legislation to deal with long term social problems. As Rawls puts it, the choice here is

simply that such a regime is as a practical matter “more likely to be right than a

government empowered to override its wishes.”2 The reason why in a democracy must

take just claims of future generations into account is that democracy is an imperfect

procedure. For example, they may enact laws the cause irreversible harms and thereby

perpetuate grave injustices to future generations that may not have occurred in other

forms of government. We could call such harms intergenerational domination, and it is

important to know that without principles of intergenerational justice democratic

procedures cannot rule out this possibility.

We can add to this assessment of democracy if we go beyond its decision

procedure and examine its many benefits, both instrumental and constitutive. The

constitutive benefits are tied to the status of citizenship as a way to realize freedom and

equality. Prominent among the instrumental benefits of democracy related to citizenship

are many of the basic forms of security, which, among other things, result from

possessing the ability to avoid the great ills of domination. Indeed, two of the most well-

known social scientific generalizations about democracy concern the absence of two such

evils: war and famine.3 The relative absence of these two great causes of human suffering

can be tied to the operation of distinctive features of democracy. Without some fine-

grained explanation of the mechanisms that produce these benefits, there is no reason to

believe that these generalizations have always held or will always hold in the future.

When considering famines Sen argues that behind these positive generalizations is the

“protective reach of democracy,” 4 and thus a kind of security that is directly tied to the

unique workings of democratic institutions. The rule of law might be an alternative

explanation, but, as Sen argues, “starvation deaths can reflect legality with a vengeance.”5

Famine prevention could then be gained through fairly simple democratic mechanisms of

accountability such as competitive elections and a free press that distribute effective

agency among citizens more widely than in their absence. Environmental security, or the

security of entitlements and rights related to the contributions of natural resources to

human well being, might also be part of instrumental benefits the protective reach of

familiar democratic institutions of free and open communication and a robust public

sphere in which the awareness of the consequences of various policies and laws can

shape the opinions of citizens. Do this form of security and the protective reach of

democracy extend across generations?

The single clearest contemporary example of harming future generations and

doing irreversible damage is global warming, the consequences of which are likely to be

very bad and very difficult to reverse given how long such gases remain in the

atmosphere. The interglacial period has lasted for roughly ten thousand years, with

temperature fluctuations of only about one degree Celsius. Given economic growth and

business as usual, the expected rise in temperature are 2.7 by 2050 and as much as 4.7 by

2100 even without taking into account feedback effects from warming itself. Although

predictions of this sort are fraught with uncertainly, “within a few decades the global

average temperature will be higher than at any time since Homo Sapiens first evolved.”6

Among the predicted consequences will be the rise in sea levels, causing massive

flooding in unprotected river deltas such as in Bangladesh, mass migrations of people,

summer drying in central areas of food production, increase incidence of various

diseases. We can expect then that global warming will kill large numbers of people,

shorten the lives of many others, and cause large scale displacement of people over the

next century. Even given uncertainty, prudence alone would suggest policies to reduce

greenhouse gases for much the same reasons that we buy flood and earthquake insurance.

While our children and our children’s children will likely be affected, the most serious

consequences emerge for even later generations. On what basis do we have an obligation

to prevent these harms from happening? Certainly, if these predictions are even close to

being accurate, there is at least the very least strong moral obligation to prevent them

from happening. Since public goods and bads are at stake, political institutions must be

the primary actors. Given that every increment of greenhouse gases is bad for the

atmosphere as a whole, these are not just public bads, but also global bads and so require

transnational coordination in order to mitigate and limit global warming.

The guiding idea that most people who have not read Derek Parfit have about

these obligation is that we owe it to all those people who will suffer great harms if we

continue to pollute the atmosphere, who plausibly have a right to a safe environment, not

to suffer premature morbidity, and so on. Such a justification is problematic not merely

because there may or may not be such rights, but because it misstates the harm that is

involved: it is not the violation of any particular right, however intuitively plausible that

may seem, but rather that the present generation in this instance dominates future

generations and in so doing disregards their interests in continuing their just and

democratic institutions. The claim that there are some putative rights for future

individuals also raises the nonidentity problem, the force of which is that we cannot owe

this obligation to particular future individuals.

The nonidentity problem is often thought to show a contradiction in the very

idea of obligations to future people. To use an example from John Broome, suppose we

accept that we have an obligation to curb travel in richer countries. That would mean that

a generation of people would marry different people and then have different children. In

this and similar cases, after some decades “nearly all the people living would be different

individuals from those who will be living if we continue to pollute in our present

profligate way.” It would seem then that we do not have an obligation to control pollution

because of obligations to particular persons. For some the argument entails, falsely, that

we have no obligations to future generations at all. However, it does not follow, since to

lack one kind of obligation does not mean we have no obligations. With respect to

climate change we have obligations to future generations. Thus, the rights that are at

stake are not to individuals but generations in either of the two scenarios. Similarly, the

point of a just savings rate across generations is not merely to increase wealth or well-

being, but to make it possible for the next generation to have just and democratic

institutions. The harm in this case is the harm of intergenerational domination; the

generation that does nothing in the face of global warming dominates future generations

by disregarding their interests as a future, temporary possessor of power in democratic


In the context of democracy, the obligations are intergenerational, and the present

generation, if it fails to act, arbitrarily shifts the costs and burdens of global warming to

future generations. It is more than mere unfairness; it is usurping the powers and choices

of future citizens. In the same way, France imposed huge costs on Haiti after its

successful slave revolt, and in this way continued its domination of Haiti for generations

through institutional failures. It is because of the structural possibility of such

intergenerational nondomination that the current generation must act in such a way to

enable future generations to sustain just and democratic institutions. This means that the

current generation share sovereignty with future generation, primarily by refraining from

injustices that undermine the inheritance of democratic institutions. This right applies

collectively to any future generation as such, whoever they are, to have the status of a self

governing demos that is able to exercise their non-exclusive sovereignty by extending to

future generations the same protective reach of democratic institutions that they enjoy.

Rawls is thus fundamentally correct, not because there is a right to democracy as such but

because of the unique character of democratic institutions the rule through imperfect

procedures such as majority rule. Just as we cannot allow that the sacrifices of a few can

be outweighed by the advantages enjoyed by others, we cannot say that the benefits to the

present generation can outweigh the loss of freedom of those in the future. Or, we might

think of it as Aristotle did as refraining from pleonexia, that each generation must refrain

from denying the next that which is due to them.

The typical democratic solution to the general problem of domination--political

inclusion--does not easily extend the protections of democracy temporally, since

democracies are now clearly among those who harm and dominate past and future

generations. Because of intergenerational domination, many of those democracies are

now insecure in many different ways, leaving both transition and future generations

vulnerable to domination by the past, by our generation, whose degradation of the

environment violated the stricture that it must regard itself as the temporary possessor of

democratic power. But how can past, present and future generations be brought into a

partnership in democratic decision making?

On the Supposed Impossibility of Intergenerational Democracy

For many, the idea of an intergenerational democracy is a nonstarter. It asks us to

think the impossible. There are two main objections. The first we may call metaphysical.

Whatever the causal influences and normative inheritances of other generations, the

democratic community exists only in the present, among those who are citizens now.

Even if we regard them as part of our community (say because they are in some way

immortal), it is said, neither the past nor the future are part of the electorate, nor can they

participate in decisions made at a time when they do not exist. The second set of

objections is more practical. Given the lack of possible reciprocity between generations

as they become more and more remote, it is difficult to imagine that people will sacrifice

in the present for benefits which will only be experienced in the future. It would be

rational, they say, to discount the value of such benefits, especially if there are pressing

concerns that need to be addressed in the current generation. Or, as Al Gore has put it,

“The past whispers, while the present shouts.”7 This argument is the temporal equivalent

of a common objection to cosmopolitanism: our obligations are always to those near and

dear. Both of these arguments miss the real issue, since they fail too address those

asymmetries of power that make it possible for the present to dominate past and future

citizens. They ignore other temporal facts: all generations are vulnerable to domination,

since every generation is a future to some past and a past to some future.

Others argue against giving the natural environment such a prominent place

within democratic deliberation. This bias is pervasive in economics, particularly when it

is concerned with issues and policies related to well being. The problem is not simply that

measures of wealth focus on production and consumption indices, but that even to

broader measures of well being, such as the UN Human Development Index, focus

entirely on current well being. However much such indices represent improvements over

previous measures, such as GDP, their emphasis on the present leaves out the important

contributions of the natural environment to human well being. The environment

contributes most directly to long term processes of change and development, so that its

degradation directly affects the security of democratic institutions and individual well

being. There is a high correlation between poverty and environment degradation,

particularly in areas where people depend on the natural provision of many valuable

goods, such as fertile soil, drinkable water, and other basic necessities, which Parttha

Dasgupta aptly calls “ecological services.” Indeed, large migration from the countrywide

to urban areas most often occurs “when local common-property resources degrade to the

point where life at home is impossible.”8 According to Dasgupta, when forests and

watersheds suffer degradation and the environment loses biodiversity and resilience, the

poorest in a society suffer the most due to their more direct dependence on such

environmental services. Because of these blind spots in our understanding of the role of

nature in human well being and because our tendency to discount future well being due to

the assumption that economic growth always increases rather than decreases over long

time spans, democracy does not necessarily ensure environmental security in the same

way that it is to security from war and forms of political indifference such as famines.

How might we solve this more general problem of intergenerational domination?

One possibility is a partnership among generations to be created constitutionally, as when

the constitution binds each generation to respect the well being of the future. Just as

Ulysses allows himself to be bound to the mast, democracy might seek to require that

each generation not to dominate the future by temporally limiting its effective political

power. Such worries may lead them to adopt the Stephen Holmes and Jon Elster’s view

that constitutions act as precommitments, so that “the constitution is Peter sober, while

the electorate is Peter drunk.”9 This precommitment, however, is not a stable a device of

political self-limitation, since subsequent generations may as Thomas Jefferson did, reject

these commitments as domination of the past. Because a constitution is not a suicide pact,

such shackles can be undone for republican reasons. When self-limitation is thought of

involving longer time scales and past and future actors, precommitments create an

intergenerational game of competing interests, in which asymmetries between past and

future assure that there is no credible mechanism to ensure compliance. The present wins,

since future benefits may be discounted relative to present costs.

Domination can also extend from the present to the past, effectively breaking the

intergenerational partnership of a continuous democracy. Past injustices may be regarded

as closed by the current generation, since those who suffered these injustices, in virtue of

being dead, are no longer considered true members of the democratic community and

thus unable to demand recourse. Similarly, future injustices can be justified in the same

way, since such injustices only affect potential people whose very existence depends on

our actions. This might lead citizens to delay sacrifices to halt global warming, the worst

impacts of which will be felt only by future generations who as a result will be limited in

their range of choices and in their well-being freedom. Thus, precommitments do little to

change the conflicts among generations by trying to remove them from the purview of

democratic decision-making. If such conflicts are taken to be part of democracy that

requires of itself that future generations as such can make legitimate claims, then the

structural difficulties of generational temporality must be addressed head on: popular

sovereignty must be practically realized in a different way, as pooled or shared across

generations, in order that the manifest injustices of intergenerational domination be


It is instructive to turn first to the intergenerational significance of the past,

perhaps because interaction between past and future generations seems unavoidably

mediated by the present. In fact, the past often has political claims upon the present,

usually related to past injustices and harms. But such claims are always intergenerational,

in the sense that they are as much about the future as the past. Intergenerational

democracy requires that the past is not closed, at least in the sense that those living in the

present can make legitimate claims based on ongoing domination in the present. This

means that dealing with claims of past generation can change the polity in the present.

Indeed, the very attempt to close the past inevitably reopens it democratically and

potentially creates a novel past from which new claims of justice may emerge. This has

been the case in New Zealand, where treaty violations are not merely matters of the past,

but now seen as ongoing into the future. Intergenerational democracy thus resists closure

and finality within the democratic community, leaving it open to change in both temporal

directions as deliberators construct the ongoing relations between past, present and

future. The atemporal character of current democracy is actually a form of temporal bias

which entrenches enormous asymmetries of power among generations. If the past of a

democracy is closed in cases of intergenerational domination, then so is its future.

I have already discussed the need for majoritarian democracy to accept legitimate

intergenerational claims to justice, particularly those which have to do with

intergenerational domination. decide as the sovereign, each with final authority. This

might be justified by a particular conception of self-rule, in which the people “are the

authors and subjects of the laws.” This interpretation might be thought to be sufficient for

the nondomination of each generation because of its final authority. But this kind of

independence is rather narrow and limited in scope. However admirably political equality

is expressed by this idea of the self-legislating People, an atemporal understanding of the

subjects of the law cannot be sufficient for nondomination. As Dennis Thompson puts it,

“even if no values except popular sovereignty were at stake, the principle cannot give any

particular majority final authority.”10 Since the claims of future sovereigns are

undervalued in current, it is not surprising that they are left to fend for themselves,

despite the fact that many decisions not only pose significant constraints on the future but

are may last for many generations or even be irreversible.

The democratic bias in favor of the current generation might simply be reversed

by appealing to some intertemporal majority principle. But since future generations will

inevitably outnumber the present generation, then over the course of the democratic

processes taken as a whole, the bias would simply shift to the future, imposing undue

burdens on the present. In order to overcome these epistemic difficulties, Thompson

proposes that citizens see themselves as part of a temporal series of sovereigns, in which

the form of future democracy is left open. Nonetheless, given the ways that the present

generation can still affect future democratic sovereigns, each generation should

institutionally “represent future sovereigns by acting as trustees of the democratic

process.”11 Each generation is thus entrusted to hand democracy on to the future

sovereign people, allowing them to exercise “competent control.” The notion that the

present generation is a trustee holding past, present and future sovereignty in trust, is an

appropriate development of Burke’s idea of an intergenerational polity. However, this is

not captured by a representational device, particularly in the form of a third party

representation (or “Tribunate for Posterity” on the Roman model of the protector of the

plebs) which seeks to protect the general interests of the future.12 This Tribunate is not an

intergenerational solution at all, but a way of dividing power among the current

generation and hoping that it makes some difference to the future. Instead, each

generation as a whole is a trustee for future generations in their deliberation. Rather than

some proxy, the future is part of the indefinite audience to which the public addresses its

justifications, giving them a similar political status in present deliberation.

Thompson’s approach recognizes all the metaphysical difficulties in representing

the future and accepts that third party representation (or a variety of some such offices,

devices and strategies) is the only feasible proposal. While the epistemic limits he

discusses certainly hold for representatives of the future who simply cannot know the

interests of those whom they represent, the proper solution should aim to give statuses to

the present which can be incorporated in a variety of institutions; as has already been

done with respect to claims made for past injustices. It should be similarly possible in the

present to make basic claims in light of manifest future injustices, as I am trying to for

forms of domination that undermine basic environmental security and well being

freedom. The public availability of many such claims made on behalf of the past and the

future is not anything mysterious. While our political community has a stronger sense of

the reality of the future than the past, the Maori and others are more genuinely

intergenerational political communities, which could see sovereignty as always de facto

in the present, but regard it normatively as essentially shared across time. The presentist

bias of current democracy is thus a social rather than a metaphysical fact, and many

democracies now are seeking to rectify past wrongs. But the recognition of claims to

justice is not the only way in which sovereignty ought to be shared. There are also

instrumental benefits of democracy that cannot be achieved without recognizing the inter-

temporal character of sovereignty. This aspect of democracy should also serve to develop

a fuller account of intergenerational domination.

Insecure Democracy and Intergenerational Domination

In order to understand intergenerational domination, we might first examine

Philip Pettit’s notion of domination as the dominator’s “capacity to interfere” on an

arbitrary basis in the choices of another. Pettit includes among these capacities “financial

clout, political authority, social connections, communal standing, informational access,

ideological positions, cultural legitimation and the like.”13 But the capacity to interfere is

not a necessary condition for domination, precisely because such a capacity can be

exercised by a “nonmastering interferer” (55), such as a government that acts in

accordance to the rule of law and also “tracks” the opinions and interests of those who are

interfered with. In order to avoid domination, I must enjoy a “secure and resilient form of

noninterference,” and thus must “be in a position where no one has that power of

arbitrary interference and I am correspondingly powerful” (69). These powers derive

from the status of being a citizen, the great benefit of which is the possession of “the

power to prevent certain ills from happening” (69). Given the myriad sources of

domination, agents must be very powerful indeed. The ability to plan one’s life and to

live it is impossible when one is dominated, so that not to be free in this way is to live

without the security that we associate with a worthwhile human life. Nondomination is a

condition for such security. In this section, I discuss the idea of environmental security as

a necessary condition possessing the power to prevent great ills from happening across

borders and generations. Environmental insecurity is a clear indicator of intergenerational


Pettit’s conception of domination is thought of primarily in terms of the relations

among individuals. This runs afoul of the non-identity problem. What is needed is a more

institutional understanding of domination, and a nonmastering interferer is a good

definition of pooled sovereignty. In the context of democracy, I propose that domination

is the use of authoritative normative powers to impose obligations and change

entitlements without recourse or remedy. In light of this requirement, Pettit argues that “a

suitable legal regime” (35) is necessary for nondomination in the sense that these rights

and duties, or normative statuses more generally, do not depend on the good will of

others. Democracy itself is then the joint exercise of these powers and capacities, so that

no one is under the control of any given individual or group of citizens. Such powers

must be redefined jointly and creatively when the circumstances of domination change.

While current citizens can by use of the normative powers of citizenship resist the

imposition of obligations, the suitable legal regime that would be necessary for

intergenerational nondomination would permit agents such as judges or representatives,

to act on behalf of future generations just as they have acted on behalf of the present

generations who still suffer under past harms. What is the legal equivalent for the future


The clearest analogy for the legal recognition of the valid claims for future

generations is international law, broadly understood. The key to the analogy is that the

sovereign accepts obligations to others outside of the political community, and not

merely for strategic reasons but precisely for the sake of justice and to create conditions

of mutual recognition and nondomination. But this often means that the agreement to

such laws demands restrictions on sovereignty and the acceptance of the valid claims of

others that are not members of the sovereign people but are extraterritorial and thus

outside the current political community. The acceptance of these claims is not based

merely on contingent benefits, but on the recognition of valid claims outside the political

community is a requirement of justice. It is also because of a concern for justice that there

ought to be an explicit recognition of legal claims and status both outside and inside the

community. Among the people who have no status and thus cannot prevent being

dominated include illegal immigrants and squatters, prisoners and “illegal enemy

combatants,” and all others who can make no claims to justice or right because there is no

one to whom they may appeal their appeal. Even if they do not have the authorial status

of democratic citizenship, their legal status as persons give them an important editorial

capacity to revise decisions and policies that deny their rights and the worth of their

freedom. But if we consider the possibility of the domination of noncitizens by citizens

that is now a pervasive fact of modern societies, then it is clear that many of these powers

and liberties must be shared by all within a republican polity. Without shared liberties,

both citizens and noncitizens are insecure in their own nondomination qua persons.

Without this legal dimension, freedom from domination remains irreducibly contingent

across important spatial boundaries. This kind of extraterritorial legal protection could

also recognize the temporal contingencies of nondomination.

The problem of insecurity crosses borders in a similar sort of way. Environmental

security is now a global public good, so that conceptualizing security in terms of

sovereign states no longer illuminates the scope of the issues. Environmental security

with regard to global warming is shared, in the sense that it is achievable only if all

possess it. Thus, from the perspective of shared freedom the natural environment

contributes to well being in the same way that a safe epidemiological environment

contributes to health. In the case of global warming, environmental security applies

across political communities, and thus is worsened because of the lack of effective

collective action. Issues of environmental security are truly global problems that cannot

easily be solved by the current state system that seeks to protect the sovereignty of its

members. It is not clear that the exercise of authority by a global sovereign would be any

more effective.

It is easy to see the effects of the absence of such security: there is a strong

negative correlation at work between environmental degradation on the one hand and

poverty on the other hand. One explanation offered by economists is that the poor

degrade their resource base, since they discount the future at high rates for the sake of

current income. But the alternative explanation is based on the failure of current

institutions to supply the needed security of the rights and entitlements for poor citizens

to secure their commonly held natural resources, such as water and grazing land that they

have often managed sustainably for centuries. As Partha Dasgupta argues, the loss of

such entitlements and rights is most often due to “political instability,” a direct cause of

environmental degradation.14 The entitlements here are not rights to ownership, but the

rights of access to and to the intergenerational management of environmental resources,

in the absence of which there is no assurance that more powerful actors will not

expropriate the commons and deny existing rights to their use by local communities.

With the degradation of the local resource base, local people then lack the well being

freedom that enabled them to sustainably use these resources and preserve them for

future generations.

The insecurity of the well-being freedom of local groups is directly related to the

domination of future generation through the shift in the long run away from the commons

to more industrial, resource-intensive technologies of resource management. Such

substitutions prove very costly, in comparison to other solutions, as the large financial

difference between the preservation of the watershed for New York City and the the

otherwise necessary filtration systems shows.15 These institutional shifts no longer

provide environmental security to the worst off. They also permit the domination of the

these groups for the indefinite future by denying the inheritance of property rights based

on sharing a resource (rights of use) as opposed to practices based on private ownership.

They dominate the future to the extent that these resources are further degraded by new

practices that employ industrial extraction of natural resources and the substitution of

resource intensive technologies that restrict the options and opportunities of future

generations. The self-defeating negative feedback relationships exist in this case as they

did with regard to other temporary forms of security that are achieved through

domination. Attempts to control the Mississippi river watershed industrially, for example,

have led to less, rather than more, environmental security.

Given the kinds of ecological effects that human beings are now capable of

wreaking on their shared environment, the potential for domination with the resultant

insecurities exists at many different levels. Environmental security crosses borders, and

the state system has not been effective in creating the capacity to regulate climate change

and other long term processes across borders. Most of all, among the many problems of

environmental security as a public good follow upon processes of global warming, the

effects of which will surely produce more domination, even as the states and the current

state system are unable to control them. It is also true that the greatest insecurity will be

felt several generations in the future as they worsen and become irreversible as the

atmosphere is not longer able to regenerate itself. As Barry Holden correctly argues,

global warming requires extending democracy and popular control both spatially and

temporally, since it “affects all the people of the world.”16 Here we must remember that

popular control can be dominating, and hence its expansion must be aimed at making

well being freedom more robust across generations and institutional levels. Robustness

here is here a measure of the security of right and entitlements, and their multiple

realizations across various levels makes them more secure; in the example of resource

degradation discussed above, rights and entitlements at the state and the local levels often

work against each other. Rather than positively making each more secure, rights of use

are undermined by legally rights of ownership. Environmental security is a global public

good, in which none have the freedom to live in a secure environment unless all have it,

so that the global people is a community of sharing the same fate and atmosphere.

Given that security in republican terms is a shared freedom analogous to a public

good, how should we think of the new framework for global popular control? One way to

share freedom is to think of the global demos as the basis for a new framework for

nondomination, supported by the emerging human political community that is established

in global institutions of security, whether they are concerned with war, the environment

or grave violations of human rights. But such a spatially global demos does not

necessarily expand the temporal dimensions of democratic sovereignty, and thus they

leaves intergenerational domination unresolved. In the case of environmental security we

see numerous intersecting and interacting futures, all of which have claims to make upon

those global institutions that pool sovereignty in order to gain security. As the case of

those dependent on the local commons shows, what is needed is something more like a

conception of demoi rather than a global demos, so that global democracy, too, will not

act as an intergenerational dominator. In the face of global warming, a democracy of a

singular demos may well make us less rather than more secure. In order to overcome

insecure democracy, a democracy of demoi is required more than a global demos,

however important global level institutions are for environmental insecurity.

Even if it is clear that sovereignty must be pooled and that security is a public

good held across generations, it is not clear how to institutionalize these relationships

temporally. It seems clear that some form of trusteeship in both temporal directions is

necessary; at the same time, the presentist bias of current democracy seems to undermine

such a possibility. The issue is as much structural as it is epistemic. Thompson’s

conception of a Tribunate does not fundamentally address the structural causes for the

presentist bias of democracy that undermine trusteeship. Nor does it make much sense to

have biased institutions and expect some representative of the past or future to be able to

effectively make claims on their behalf, or even to know what their interests are. Here the

focus should be on nondomination; we can assume that domination is a cause of great ills

experienced by future generations. Thus we might think of transnational institutions as

providing a certain analogy. The European Union establishes a transnational polity, rather

than a system of representation; and thus, a transgenerational democracy cannot simply

establish an embassy for future generations. The EU offers a political order that allows

for a positive feedback relationship of pooled sovereignty that enables democratization to

occur, in which it is precisely the transnational-level institutions that enhance democracy

at the lower levels. With such mutual interaction across levels and locations, a highly

differentiated polity works not merely in policy areas, but also in creating a regime of

human rights that can multiply realize the powers of citizenship and make them more

rather than less robust.

The founding moment of the EU, as articulated by Spinelli and others, was

intergenerational, in which the experience of the war by multiple generations demanded

the transformation of democracy beyond individual states. Thus present can be a trustee

for democracy, ensuring not merely that democracy is possible in the future, but that it

rule itself in such a way so as not to dominate the past or the future, so that it cannot

envisage a future in which it is the past dominating the present. The transnational public

must see itself as communicating across time with the future, who form part of the

indefinite audience to whom the present owes justifications, with whom it shares basic

liberties. Thus we can see security as a kind of primary good, as that public good that any

generation at any temporal location would seek if it attempts to realize self rule. Or, to

use Rawls’ first principle, each generation must see to it that the future is able to make

use of the fair value of its liberty.

Two objections can be made against such a conception. One might think that

simple guardianship is superior to pooled intergenerational democratic control over the

environment. One might also argue that a world divided into many separate

intergenerational communities or peoples is superior to a global democracy of demoi.

Both alternatives simply reinforce existing patters of democratic domination. The

alternative that I am advocating here is temporal as well as spatial cosmopolitanism in the

consideration legitimate claims to the protective reach of democracy.

One might argue that actual democratic control over decisions that make such

security possible is not necessary. Sen argues that the people do not need to exercise

democratic control over such decisions as whether to live in an epidemic-free

environment, so long as “the levers of control are systematically exercised in line with

what we would choose and for that exact reason.”17 Once we introduce the possibility of

generational conflicts, it is doubtful that generations would choose a policy for the exact

same reason. Similarly, Pettit does not require that people actually deliberate when

decisions are made for just those reasons that all could accept. In many democracies, he

argues, some decisions are “depoliticized” to the extent that control over them is handed

over to independent commissions so long as the conditions of hypothetical mutuality and

simultaneity can reasonably be expected to be met.18 In addition, Thompson and Holden

think that independent commissions and other such bodies can often best represent the

interests of future generation, who cannot themselves vote or in any way exercise control

over who will represent them and their interests. For all of these arguments, such

commissions are antimajoritarian devices that are not necessarily democratic; they give

democratic control over to an independent body precisely to omit democratic power.

This argument for the limitation of democracy fills an obvious gap in representation, but

without correcting the presentist bias of current democracy and ignores the benefits of

actual deliberation in testing alternative and novel futures. Such forms of depoliticized

deliberation would ultimately reinforce current biases, since it does not necessarily see its

task as the achievement of environmental security for all demoi.

Actual deliberation in the present about global warming has many undeniable

benefits over guardian checks on the system of representation. By participating in public

deliberation, citizens could better assess the threats to environmental security, the need

for immediate and long term actions, and the degree to which sacrifices in the well being

of the present generation are involved. Because policies related to the means to achieve

the reduction of greenhouse gases require deliberation by citizens themselves to confer

legitimacy, a better form of trusteeship would be the use of minipublics that cut across

various demoi. In this way, actual transnational deliberation has the further benefits of

diversity, so that the gains, losses, and sacrifices are put in a longer context in which the

future is anticipated.

The second objection raises the issue of the nature of an intergenerational political

community. Avner de Shalit argues that communities must meet three main conditions:

“interaction among people in everyday life, cultural interaction, and moral similarity.”19

While the first of these conditions cannot be met except in the present, the future people

can meet the second condition of community. Much as traditional conceptions of

democracy are rooted in the state, this conception of community is based on the nation as

a cultural entity. This allows us to see the future generations as consisting of those born

into similar cultural and moral circumstances as we are in the present. But this conception

of community only recreates the current problem of environmental security, which these

communities must share without the help of de Shalit’s two conditions. That all human

beings are affected by global warming, the moral similarities with the future are not

based on a shared tradition or culture. A recurrent feature of democracy is the idea that

democracy will be better and more extensive in the future. For this reason, Burke’s idea

of an intergenerational partnership is much richer, to the extent that it makes explicit the

relations to the past and future that are constitutive of any just political community.

However, his conception of an intergenerational community is often too backward-

looking, to the extent to which it emphasizes continuity with the past. But if democracy

requires that no generation has final authority, then both the past and the future must be

seen as in a partnership subject to continuous change and renegotiation in both directions.

Without this openness, temporal bias is reintroduced and the potential for domination by

the past over succeeding generations is a real possibility.


Unless modified to become a global and intergenerational democracy based on

pooled sovereignty and shared freedom from domination, modern democracy suffers two

deficits with respect to its own sustainability. The first is that the asymmetries of power

between the present and future and past generations are endemic to its bounded forms and

lead unavoidably to domination. This domination undermines the continued existence of

democracy over time, since the future generations may not be able to exercise their

capacities for political freedom and well being freedom. I have discussed various biases

built into current democratic practice that lead to deficits in problem solving and in the

capability of democracies to see their own tendency toward domination. Some devices of

trusteeship are better than others in helping to achieve intergenerational democracy

without the costs of guardianship. Trusteeship requires the broadening of the temporal

horizon of decision making so as to exclude costs and obligations that future generations

could reasonably reject. However, without being guided by a larger conception of pooled

sovereignty and intergenerational partnership, representation by itself is insufficient to

overcome pervasive biases and potential for domination. The European Union would not

achieve security from war simply by having each Member State represent foreigners in

some particular office or body.

Many have remarked that environmental problems such as global warming

demand extending the scope of democracy across both space and time: given that these

problems are truly global; and they are also intergenerational. Understood in terms of the

requirements of nondomination, these extensions of democracy are quite similar, if in

different registers. Both are solved only if democracies understand and overcome their

potential to be dominators of their own citizens, of other democracies and of past and

future generations. Along with sovereignty, the capacity to initiate deliberation about the

terms of democracy itself must also be distributed among various units, levels and

generations. Without this sort of institutional structure, current circumstances make

democracies insecure and subject to temporary possessors of democratic power that act as

their entire master. Political inclusion has worked to make visible the claims of the past to

justice. With respect to the future, we, the temporary possessors of pooled democratic

sovereignty, are the greatest threat to their well being freedom and environmental

security. To achieve the security that comes from nondomination, the current generation

of any democracy should not view itself as a final authority or master of the whole.

These arguments concerning the intergenerational public good of security do not

exhaust the possible justifications for intergenerational and transnational democracy. It

could also be thought to be instrumentally valuable to the extent that intergenerational

democracy is a necessary means to achieve particular valuable ends or to avoid terrible

evils. Some of the worst evils can be addressed by new forms of political and

environmental security, both of which may be the result of domination. In the case of

such forms of domination, the case for intergenerational democracy is much clearer even

than for transnational democracy. The metaphysical impossibility arguments can be given

a positive, practical twist: even in a fully intergenerational democracy, the generations

cannot for obvious metaphysical reasons be mutually and simultaneously together in an

act of self-constitution. Given that in both cases there are many valuable intersecting and

overlapping forms of political order for promoting nondomination, a democracy of demoi

makes sense spatially and temporally. When a democracy declares itself to be the final

sovereign authority, it cannot as a dominator realize unavoidably shared goods such as

freedom and security. The first step in any argument for intergenerational democracy is to

abandon the assumption that democracies cannot be dominators. In the temporal case,

this domination begins at home, in this generation that has produced insecure and

unsustainable democracy. A secure and sustainable democracy is on my account a matter

of achieving intergenerational nondomination.


Rawls, Theory of Justice, 296.
Rawls, Ibid.

As Russett puts it: “Depending on precise criteria, only twelve to fifteen states qualified as democracies at the

end of the nineteenth century. The empirical significance of the rarity of war between democracies emerges only

in the first half of the twentieth century, with at least twice the number of democracies as earlier, and especially

with the existence of perhaps sixty democracies by the mid-1980s.” See Bruce Russett, Grasping the

Democratic Peace (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 20.

Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Knopf, 1999), 184.
Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famine (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1986), p. 165-166.
See John Broome, Counting the Cost of Global Warming (Cambridge: The White Horse Press, 1993), 13.

Barry Holden, Democracy and Global Warming (London: Continuum, 2004), 59.
Partha Dasgupta, Human Well Being and the Natural Environment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001),

See Barry Holden. Democracy and Global Warming, 67; Holden thinks introducing policies to curb global

warming is a form of self-limitation and hence precommitment. See Stephen Holmes, “Precommitment and the

Paradox of Democracy,” in Constitutionalism and Democracy, ed. J. Elster and R. Slagstad (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1993), 199.
Dennis Thompson, “Democracy in Time: Popular Sovereignty and Temporal Representation,” Constellations

12 (2005), 246.
Thompson, 248.
Thompson, 256-257.
Philip Pettit, Republicanism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 52. All references in this paragraph are

to this work.
Dasgupta, Human Well Being and the Natural Environment, 113.
See G. Chinchilnisky and G.M. Heal, “Economic Returns from the Biosphere,” Social Choice and Welfare 13

(2996), 231-257. The difference in cost is large, with $8 billion for technologies of filtration and only 300
million for watershed preservation.
Holden, 117.
Amartya Sen, Inequality Reexamined (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 65.
Philip Pettit, “Depoliticizing Democracy,” in Deliberative Democracy and its Discontents, ed. S. Besson and J.

Marti (London: Ashgate, 2006), 96.
Avner De Shalit, Why Posterity Matters (London: Routledge, 1995), 22