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The future of governance

Forum for the Future Humanity 3000 Symposium, Seattle, 2000-08-12


You have given me an impossible but most enjoyable task. To look forward even fifty years is ridiculously difficult, but to look forward a thousand years is to enter the realm of fantasy.

I illustrate this point by looking back a thousand years. In my country at that time there were mostly small unhygienic agricultural communities with poor communications between them; life expectancy was around 40: but people's height was about the same as our own (in other words before the population explosion and deterioration in general health two centuries later); intellectual horizons were crowded with saints, devils, angels, hobgoblins, spirits, and folk magic mixed with rudimentary Christianity; clothes were loose fitting woollen tunics: no buttons had yet been introduced. Anything like our present society would have been unimaginable:

I once found this out for myself. I had a long discussion with a monk from Mount Athos. For him the world had been created only a few thousand years ago. God intervened in human activity at every point. Hell was waiting round the corner for believers in false religions, heretics and even schismatics. People who knew nothing of Christianity were excused, as ignorance was not their fault. The apocalypse was coming soon, when the Emperor John would rise from his tomb and slay the enemies of God, beginning with the Jews. After a few minutes genuine debate between us became impossible. I suspect it would almost be the same for a discussion with many people living only 150 years ago. Since then there has been a mind-boggling stretching of time and space in all directions. Even seventy years ago most astronomers believed there was no galaxy but our own.

Meanwhile the stretching process is ever increasing. Prediction is becoming more rather than less hazardous. In 1963 I was involved in an attempt to look forward just 10 years. We got some things right, but our forecast was fatally flawed by our failure to guess the rise in oil prices. Forecasts for demand for nuclear energy at the same time turned out to be wildly wrong. As always it was the unexpected which dominated and so it will in the future.

In the last decade the rise of information technology as part of the broad process of globalization has changed all outlooks and calculations. If we cannot even guess ten years ahead, how can we try to look forward thousand?


I think that at least we can look at broad trends over a long time scale of millennia. As Winston Churchill once said "the further backward you look the further forward you can see." Human history falls into ever shortening phases.

It begins with hunter gatherers using primitive tools. They lived in small bands, sometimes operating from tiny clusters of dwellings. Governance was by elders and family within a strong culture of self sufficiency. This phase lasted with many vicissitudes from the first identifiable people of our kind over hundreds of thousands of years to the end of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago. The next phase was much quicker. Land had already begun to be cleared for certain crops (notably rye) and animals. There was rapid population increase. Communities became villages, and villages became towns, each with more complicated systems of governance. This led to increasing division of labour and elaboration of tools. By around 5,500 years ago language began to be written down, and towns were turning into cities. From this came development of nation states with difference political complexions and elaborate hierarchies and bureaucracy. Population continued to increase. With big fluctuations, cities became bigger still. Civilizations of increasing complexity rose and fell.

In the meantime time there were drastic changes in the surface of the earth as conditions changed and resources were used up. Forests were cleared both for agriculture and fuel. Water, then coal, then oil and gas, then nuclear sources of energy were used. Recently improvements in medicine which frustrated the usual restraints of natural selection again help boost population increase. Problems began to have a global as well as regional and local character. Then came the speeding up of communications worldwide, with increasingly common elements in every culture. Memes (or units of information) became a bigger factor for change than genes. Most recently computers have progressively enlarged human capacities.

The most important lesson is that humans have tried to remake the environment to suit their own needs, and to do so in the tiny framework of a few generations. Even today very few ever look further ahead.

In 1972 a prophetic book was published entitled The Limits to Growth. Many people poured scorn on it as an extrapolation of existing trends. This was mostly unfair as the authors were simply trying to warn about what might happen if such trends continued. Twenty years later the same authors published Beyond the Limits. In it they showed that on current models with expanding human population and continuing economic growth, the world economy as it is now known would eventually be unable to function: not for the obvious reasons, but because governments and communities would simply be unable to cope. There would be a creeping contagion of breakdown in different countries at different times. We can see this happening already in various parts of the world, notably Africa and south east Asia, including Indonesia. Some cities are virtually unmanageable.

Complex urban societies have broken down some thirty times in the past. The costs of maintaining them in human as well as economic terms can simply become too much. They gradually create more problems than they can solve. Indeed it can be argued that their collapse is a necessary corrective in Darwinian terms, and that we should not lament their passing overmuch, however painful it may be for those involved. Already we see something of a three way movement of power away from the old nation states with which we are familiar. Power is moving upwards to international institutions and corporations, still poorly equipped to cope with their responsibilities and generally unaccountable; it is moving downwards to local communities seeking to recover a sense of identity; and it is moving sideways as citizens communicate directly by electronic and other such means as radio, television, the internet and the world wide web.

Issues for 3000

I want now to leap ahead a thousand years, not to make extrapolations or predictions but to isolate what could be the issues which could then be affecting humans and their governance. Let us make the generous assumption that humans still exist.

First come factors affecting the natural environment over which humans have not even thought about exercising any control until very recently. No one can foresee the state of the world's climate and the height of sea levels thousand years from now. Global warming could well be accelerated. But this could bring about changes which could induce cooling. What is certain is that the climate could be drastically different from today. Its character will drastically affect distribution of fresh water and other renewable resources, and the character and distribution of ecosystems, including micro-organisms. Nor can we assess extra planetary influences, whether in the form of asteroid or other meteoric impacts, or variations in the earth's relationship with the sun. Within the earth's system there could be important volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and small changes with big consequences in tectonic plate movement.

Next there are the human factors, some visible today, but all changeable beyond recognition in a thousand years, with each having its impact on the condition of the earth. For example we cannot now assess the size, distribution and condition of the human population, including its health, longevity and employment. Nor can we judge its effects on other organisms, including micro-organisms, and on the course of evolution generally. The same goes for its use of resources, including agriculture and energy generation, and disposal of wastes. Still less do we know about future communications systems, including personal transport, and the uses of information technology in all its aspects: nano technology; robotics; and genetic engineering. The best we can do is to make a few guesses. Only then can we look at the future shape of governance.

The Possibilities

The first guess relates to the human population. It is hard to believe that there will be anything like current or future human numbers in their present urban concentrations or elsewhere. Whether weeded out by warfare, disease, deteriorating conditions of life, or other disasters, numbers are likely to fall drastically. We must, I believe, expect serious breakdowns in human society in this and the next century with unforeseeable outcomes.

We see a widening gap, both within countries and between them, between the rich and sophisticated on one side, and the poor and uneducated on the other. We also see the possibility of the differentiation of the human species into distinct varieties and subspecies through genetic manipulation. It could lead to biological emancipation for some, and relative servitude for others. This has long been a subject for speculation. There were the Eloi and Morlocks in H G Wells's Time Machine of 1898; there was the classification according to the Greek alphabet in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World of 1932; and there was the division of humans into GenRich and Naturals on the principles of reprogenic technology in Lee Silver's Remaking Eden of 1997. There are also the possibilities of human cloning opened up by the cloning of Dolly the sheep a couple of years ago.

Such a division of humanity could be geographical by region. Or it could be hierarchical within a region or society. The GenRich could prolong their own lives, manage their own health, and secure access to resources in ways they could deny to the Naturals. It would be a profoundly unstable but not impossible scenario. No society can live for long in conditions of gross inequity.

Next use of resources. We must, I think assume that by the year 3000 current debates over genetically modified, chemically driven and organic agriculture will have been resolved, and that in one way or another humans will have found stable ways of feeding themselves within prevailing conditions. We can also assume that they will have eliminated their current dependence on fossil fuels, and will have developed renewable technologies ranging from hydrogen to fuel cells. The bonanza of resource exploitation and depletion which characterizes current industrial society will have been over long ago. I suspect that the disposal of wastes from these and other times will remain a major problem. Some high level radio active wastes will be dangerous for tens of thousands of years.

I think we must also assume that better understanding of - and care for - the environment will long have overtaken our current obsessions about free market economics and the tyranny of the consumer. As has been well said: "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment"; and "markets are marvellous at determining prices but incapable of recognizing costs". These lessons often have to be learned the hard way. But in the next thousand years it is hard to believe that they will not have been learned, and that some sustainable balance between supply and demand on the one hand, and the public interest on the other, will not have been established.

From today's perspective, the biggest range of changes will flow from the development of information technology. Without looking into the ever accelerating changes in any detail, three central points stand out. By 3000 humans will have become still more dependent on information technology to run their personal as well as their collective lives. This could on one hand enlarge their freedom and capabilities, and reduce drudgery; but on the other render them vulnerable to such major hazards as breakdown, sabotage, malevolent viruses and externalities. In short they will lose a measure of self sufficiency. But they will not as now be obliged to live or work in cities. There will be new patterns of human relationships.

Next there will be a globalization of human knowledge on the analogy of a world brain. H G Wells once forecast "a widespread world intelligence conscious of itself".

Such a system would evolve by natural selection in the same way as organic beings evolve. It might even include some direct linkage with humans, for example through chips inserted into the brain. As George Dyson recently wrote:

"We have mapped, tamed and dismembered the physical wilderness of our earth. But at the same time we have created a digital wilderness, whose evolution may embody a collective wisdom greater than our own…. our destiny and our sanity as human beings depend on our ability to serve a nature whose intelligence we can glimpse all around us, but never quite comprehend."

But I am not expecting fundamental changes in human nature. Old Adam and old Eve will be with us still, as competitive, arbitrary, difficult, various, peaceful, violent, disciplined and undisciplined as ever. The ethical system may change as it changes from society to society. But what makes ethical systems work, or not work, will remain the same, even if they now enjoy a global reach. They evolve all the time.


Last I come to the applications for governance. How will humans organize themselves? I have already spoken of the collapse of complex urban societies in the past. I have also referred to the current movement of power away from the nation state: upwards to global institutions and corporations to cope with global issues; downwards to communities of manageable human dimensions; and sideways to citizens everywhere. Let us look at some of the implications for the world of 3000.

There are several possible extremes. Perhaps I should call them nightmares, but they are nonetheless real: one is of a global dictatorship of the mind in which power is exercised, without democracy or accountability, through the mechanisms of information technology. It would be an extreme consequence of current processes of globalization, which anyway reduces differences between cultures, traditions and languages. Such a dictatorship would be as much cultural, spread by memes, as it would be political, maintained by global institutions, business corporations and other vested interests, concentrated media direction, and supplies of raw materials, food and energy. There would be few checks and balances. Big Brother or Big Brothers, possibly identifiable with the GenRich, would simply control access to the effective levers of power and influence.

Another disagreeable possibility, much favoured in science fiction, is that some of our inventions become not only self-perpetuating, but also out of our control. This had already come up in current debates on genetic engineering, nano-technology and robotics.

The other extreme is fragmentation of human society following some global catastrophe. As after the collapse of other societies in the past, people would revert to small relatively closed communities. The classic example is what happened to Easter Island. It was discovered by a small group of Polynesians around 400 AD. The population grew to around 7000 in small principalities by 1500 AD, with resources gravely damaged and with no trees, nor means of escape from the island. It was followed by social collapse into internecine warfare and cannibalism. When rediscovered by Rogeveen in 1722, the population was down to 300, living in primitive conditions in ruins which had become incomprehensible to the inhabitants. There are other happier examples of societies simply returning to subsistence. Some can be seen in Africa today. In few of them does information technology play much of a role.

There are many intermediate possibilities. We can all think of them. In my view the most likely and in some respects the most promising prospect is a disaggregation of global society such as it is, and a return to clusters of communities of a size and character which enable them to live with population, resources and the environment in broad balance. Cities would become more like towns, towns like villages, and villages like clumps of dwellings, relatively self sufficient in food and energy. All would be linked by information technology as well as other means of communication, and the ethos of a unified human society would remain intact. Whether it would simply be a repository of wisdom by network, or become a brain of its own remains to be seen.

The problem of how to run such a society in unresolved. At local level, or even at national level (assuming there are still nations), the difficulties are familiar. We must assume some dispersal of power and authority, and increasing identification of citizens with their local institutions. Here the lessons of history are not encouraging. We are all too close to petty nationalism, terrorism, conflicts over resources, competing ideologies and ethnic intolerance. But such is humanity and such is life. There is no magic formula.

The biggest issue is governance at global level. As a former British ambassador to the United Nations in New York, I have struggled with these problems for years. They become more acute, and certainly more interesting, with the advance of information technology. At present the United Nations is fundamentally an association of sovereign states, even if real sovereignty is leaking away from them all the time. The element of democratic accountability goes back to those nation states which have to answer to their citizens, at least in theory. Beyond and above the babble of the General Assembly are the Specialized Agencies and Associated Bodies with poor co-ordination between them; the Security Council whereby the key nations of the world try to regulate issues of peace and war; the multilateral corporations, the banks, the media controllers, the drug empires, the criminal syndicates and others, essentially outside the system; the non governmental organizations which, though unaccountable except to their members, try to represent the citizens' interest, particularly in the field of the environment and human rights; and now increasingly the information systems of the internet and the world wide web, also outside the system.

In conclusion where do we go from here to pull it altogether? Somehow we have to establish greater citizen participation at all levels of political structure without creating chaos. Somehow we have to establish forms of accountability, and ensure that government, whether through nation states or not, is by broad consent. Somehow we have to establish checks and balances to protect the public interest, and ensure enforcement without abuse. These are the ancient and abiding problems of politics, and they have not changed in essence for thousands of years. They will be with us in the year 3000 as they are today, and as they were 1000, 2000 or 3000 years ago. Perhaps the only new factor is doubt over the future viability of our own animal species as we know it.

In so far as we can peer a thousand years ahead, we can wish our successors well, and hope that they will enjoy more of an equilibrium than is possible in our own unsustainable and crowded but creative society. By then they may have worked out and will practice an ethical system in which the natural world has value not only for human welfare but also for and in itself. They may also be involved in spreading life beyond the earth and colonizing Mars or other planets. I suspect that they will look back on us as a messy, short-sighted, wasteful, crude, and aggressive lot.

I go neither for optimism nor pessimism. But as a philosopher once remarked, "cheerfulness will keep breaking in".


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