books sustainability

The Charter of the Deep Future

A few weeks ago I reviewed Samuel Alexander’s book Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilization, which is a thought provoking exploration of a fictional sustainable society. The key messages in the book are summed up in the Charter of the Deep Future, drawn up by the residents of Alexander’s imagined island community.

There are a couple of things I really like about it – ‘enough, for everyone, forever’ is about as pithy a summary of what the economy ought to be about as you’re likely to find anywhere. There are a couple of points I’m not so sure about, but I’ll let you read it without prejudice.

Charter of the Deep Future

Enough, For Everyone, Forever

We affirm that providing ‘enough, for everyone, forever’ is the defining objective of our economy, which we seek to achieve by working together in free association.  

We affirm that everyone is free to create as an aesthetic project the meaning of their own lives, while acknowledging that this freedom legitimately extends only so far as others can have the same freedom. Freedom thus implies restraint.

We affirm that our inclusive democracy does not discriminate on such grounds as race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, politics, or faith.

We affirm that generations into the deep future are entitled to the same freedoms as present generations 

We affirm that respecting the deep future requires maintaining a healthy environment.

We affirm that technology can help to protect our environment only if it is governed by an ethics of sufficiency, not an ethics of growth. Efficiency without sufficiency is lost.

We affirm that maintaining a healthy environment requires creating a stationary state economy that operates within environmental and energy limits.

We affirm that a stationary state means stabilising consumption and population, transitioning to renewable sources of energy, and adapting to reduced energy supply. 

We affirm that strict limits on material accumulation are required if a stationary state is to maintain a just distribution of resources and avoid corrosive inequalities. 

We affirm that property rights are justifiable only to the extent they serve the common good, including the overriding interests of humanitarian and ecological justice.

We affirm that a stationary state economy depends on a culture that embraces lifestyles of material sufficiency and rejects lifestyles of material affluence 

We affirm that material sufficiency in a free society provides the conditions for an infinite variety of meaningful, happy, and fulfilling lives.


Re-published with permission. To read more about Entropia or get yourself a copy, click here.


    1. Devonchap, I appreciate the brevity with which you raise an issue that ought to be taken seriously. If I unpack your point a little (leaving rhetoric aside), you are suggesting, I think, that there should not be regulations about consumption, on the basis the world will end up like Big Brother watching over us. You seem to have fallen into the trap of thinking that consumption is a purely private matter that should not be regulated by the state / society. But consumption is not a private matter when it has devastating public costs (especially environmental). Are you saying that people have the right to consume in ways that collapse ecosystems? That would be impossible to defend coherently. If it is accepted that first world consumption practices are degrading the planet, then democracies ought to take seriously the idea of regulating material living standards with the aim of facilitating the transition to ‘one planet’ living. If this doesn’t fit your idea of freedom, then I would argue that it is your conception of freedom that ought to evolve, not the idea of regulating consumption.

      Furthermore, all our consumption practices already take place within a vast regulatory framework. That framework makes some ways of life easy or necessary, and other ways of life difficult or impossible. Current frameworks promote high consumption lifestyles and make simpler living much more difficult than it needs to be. There is no such thing as a neutral framework, since every framework promotes a particular conception of the good life. As a democratic community, we have the right to collectively shape the structure and the values that shape it. My position is that we need to restructure the framework to make simpler living much easier. This isn’t about Big Brother. It’s about taking collective responsibility for our ways of life.


      Exactly how to go about restructuring to promote simple living is of course a very long story, but if anyone is interested, see my “Property beyond Growth: Toward a Politics of Voluntary Simplicity.”

      1. I think the idea of redefining freedom is a very slippery slope. I can think of several very nasty dictatorships that claimed to be working to a different idea of freedom, especially talking about collective freedoms; the Soviet Union being a good example. So you will understand if I’m prepared to die in a ditch to defend individual freedom.

        This highlights the dichotomy at the heart of the Green movement. How far can individual freedom be reconciled with controls to ‘save’ the planet. This is especially salient if these controls are applied preventatively, that is to say restrictions while there is no actual current shortage of something. Even if you can persuade a majority to agree, our liberal democracy expects that the rights of the disagreeing minority be respected. Unless you propose to redefine democracy along with freedom.

        1. Devonchap, redefining freedom may have its risks, but there are as many, and I would argue far more, risks involved in not redefining freedom. If we end up with a world 4 degrees hotter (where it seems we’re heading), how then will you defend your cherished ‘freedom’ to consume without limit? The scale of death and suffering in such a world will likely dwarf Soviet massacres, and it will have been caused primarily by recklessly extravagant, high consumption lifestyles. The fact that it was not our intention to cause such tragic loss of life is no defence if the actions were obviously going to cause such loss. I cannot accept that we should be ‘free’ to live in ways that are so obviously unjust and unsustainable.

          Our liberal democracies do indeed seek to tolerate ‘disagreeing minorities’ but that view has its limits. Disagreeing minorities aren’t allowed to incite racial hatred, sell cocaine, distribute child pornography, etc. etc. Why? Because as a democratic society we’ve decided that such actions cause unacceptable harm. Is environmental degradation an acceptable harm that we should tolerate? You seem to think that we should tolerate it in the name of freedom and democracy. I think your conceptions of freedom and democracy are flawed.

          Regulating consumption is not about limiting freedom so much as it is about protecting the freedoms of future generations (as well as the freedoms of those oppressed by the existing economic order). Think of it this way: when one farmer is told he/she is not allowed to pollute the river because it is destroying the farm downstream, that is not restricting freedom, but protecting the second farmer’s freedom. You don’t seem to appreciate the relational nature of freedom. For you it seems to mean non-interference from state (fine if you’re safe, rich, privileged), but freedom often depends on interference (as you would discover if you ever call the cops to protect you from a home intruder). Or should we protect the intruders ‘individual freedom’ to enter your home uninvited? Of course we shouldn’t. Freedom implies restraint.

          I question your efforts to ‘die in a ditch defending individual freedom’ if that involves condemning future generations to a bare, scorched earth. Your efforts could be better directed elsewhere.

          1. How many times have we in the last 150 years been told that we have to surrender our individual rights for a greater good? For the proletariat, for the poor, for God, for the Motherland or the Fatherland. Every time it has ended in oppression. For the good of the Earth or future generations is just another version of the same thing. The fact is the Earth or future generations can not speak for themselves as they are not a single sentient entity able to speak a language human’s can understand. No, just like the proletariat or God or the Fatherland their views/needs would be interpreted by a ruling group. These ruling groups very soon see their own interests as identical with the greater good they claim to represent and repress those outside their group to pursue them. Be it 15th century Popes or 20th century nomenklatura that is human nature. So while you may not seek dictatorship, it would be the result. Unless you think millennia of human nature have changed in the last 30 years.

            You clearly see a looming catastrophe that will outweigh any loss of human liberty. Such a calamity needs extreme measures. Millenarian thinking begats extreme solutions. Pity us poor Kulaks in your world. If we will not change we might need to be made to change or if all else fails, liquidated: with the best of intentions of course. It is for the greater good.

            I’m much more optimistic. While I see climate change as a problem that is eminently solvable with human ingenuity. Resource depletion worries comes from a confusion of reserves and resources and a failure to understand basic market economics. Maybe we would all be happier with simpler lives but revealed preference suggests most people disagree. You can’t force people to be happy. I well understand the relational nature of freedom but no one individual or group can tease out everyone’s freedoms. Just as planned economies failed because the economy is too complex and they could not process all the information, while free markets can; planned freedom can’ t process all the conflicting freedoms so we are better with a version of our current set of rules and allow those conflicts to be resolved individually. Again you resort to the idea that is I accept some restriction of liberty I must accept any restriction. It is a flawed argument.

            Your novel fits with late 19th and early 20th century Utopian socialist fiction. The sort that was written before any real communist states existed, and which quickly died off after their true nature was revealed. With the discrediting of Communism it seems that Gaia is the new justification for the same old failed solutions.

  1. “We affirm that strict limits on material accumulation are required if a stationary state is to maintain a just distribution of resources and avoid corrosive inequalities.”

    I wonder how this worked in practise? For example do they mean it’s illegal to have a second house or car, or is it just discouraged? Is everything rationed with stamps, or is there a limit on the gross monetary value of all your possessions? I’m interested because I strongly agree with this bit of the charter… It’s really important for a society to have a small gap between the richest and poorest. I don’t believe everyone should be paid equally, but I think it should be a lot more equal than it is now (in the UK).

    Very interesting…

    1. That’s the dilemma isn’t it, and Devonchap hints at the same thing. Legislating for consumption limits would be a serious step backwards in civil liberties, and politically impossible. Leaving it voluntary means it wouldn’t happen.

      In the book, Samuel Alexander writes about peer pressure and new social norms, but it’s in the context of a small island community and makes more sense. Even there, he gives an example of a community elder paying a visit to a household to offer them friendly advice about how to save water, after it has been observed that they are using too much. He suggests this wouldn’t be a judgmental thing, but it’s hard to see how it could be seen otherwise.

      The role of cultural change would be a big one, using role models around simpler living, and social opprobrium around waste. That’s the line many simplicity campaigners take, in response to a culture that celebrates waste and excess.

      There are other ways, depending on what it is we’re talking about. The idea of tradeable energy quotas (TEQs) is an interesting one, where everyone is issued with energy credits. If you use them all, you have to buy more. If you use less than your allocation, you can sell them. Your energy account would be debited as you paid your bills or bought fuel, and it places a cap on total national energy consumption without dictating individual use. Those who saved energy would be rewarded, while those who wanted to use more would not be prevented from doing so, they’d just have to pay more for it. I think that’s an idea worth exploring with energy, but I don’t see how it could be applied to material consumption.

      1. Jeremy, I don’t think regulating consumption needs to be consider a ‘serious step backwards in civil liberties.’ As noted above in my reply to Devonchap, to hold that view suggests to me there is a defective conception of freedom operating. I sympathise with the idea that we should be free to pursue our own conception of the good life, but I don’t accept that we are free to live in ways that destroy the planet. So I can’t see why it should be deemed a breach of civil liberties to regulate destructive lifestyles. I don’t feel that my freedom is limited by defamation law. I don’t feel my freedom is limited on the grounds I can’t shout “fire” in a theatre just for fun. As I note in the Charter, “freedom implies restraint.” This is particularly relevant if we take the freedoms of future generations seriously. Imagine looking back from the future – a planet hot and degraded – and seeing that people said we couldn’t / shouldn’t try to regulate lifestyles on the basis that it restricted freedom. Freedom for whom?!

        More to say, but must run. Thanks for the post and comments.

        1. Thanks for dropping by, these are vital issues to tease out.

          I agree that material consumption needs to be reduced, and that ‘freedom to consume’ that impinges on the freedom of future generations is hardly a freedom that we should encourage.

          My problem is the idea of controlling consumption at the consumer level, which is the direction Tegan’s question took rather than being implicit in the charter. I think the best ways to control consumption are upstream measures, quotas on resource gathering, zero waste policies and cradle to cradle systems. At the risk of caricaturing the problem, nobody wants the government vetting their shopping list, but we can regulate what can be bought and sold, and we can create penalties and incentives (like TEQs) that make it easier to do the right thing.

        2. A parent has the freedom to have an affair and destroy their marriage even to all the evidence is that is likely to harm their children. Should we control divorce, make adultery a crime to prevent that harm? The arguments for are the same as yours (in fact since two households consume more than one it should be outlawed in your Nivana).

          When one group of people start regulating the freedom of others the result is dictatorship. Perhaps in your imaginary world, where everybody does what you tell them it doesn’t, but we don’t live in a fictional world.

          1. Devonchap, democracy cannot avoid ‘regulating the freedom of others’. Democratic decisions inevitably regulate the ‘freedom’ of others – and we wouldn’t want it any other way. So drop the dictatorship nonsense.

            If you’d like to read a good book on freedom, try Stanley Fish, “There is No Such Thing as Free Speech… and its a good thing too” or “The Trouble with Principle.”

          2. Your logic is the flawed ‘because there are some restrictions on liberty, any restriction on liberty is fine’ argument.

            While we accept limits on our freedom we also expect limits on government’s freedom to control us. If we abandon that we are on a slippery slope. You may mean well but the history of the 19th and 20th century is littered with those who ‘meant well’ but ended up with hands dipped in blood.

  2. Exactly, an organised society relies on the trade-off of freedoms. I don’t have the freedom to set myself up as a doctor, own a gun, employ children, grow marijuana in my back garden or drive down my street at 100mph. But I don’t live in a dictatorship.

    We already regulate consumption through things like efficiency standards. Are energy efficiency standards a loss of freedom? Technically, but it would be a perverse thing to argue against.

    1. Trade-off are fine but we do see certain spheres as fairly inviolate and leave them. The trouble is that is if someone feels there is some vast pressing issue greater than a few individuals they are happy to trample over those liberties. I fear Mr Alexander sees the future of the world as such an issue so would find his logic leading down ever darker paths, if by some horrific misstep he found himself in power over others.

      The greater good is an argument of naves, charlatans or the power hungry.

  3. Devonchap, you are regurgitating very familiar neoclassical principles which have served the privileged very well to date; the planet, the poor, be damned. I can’t imagine I or anyone will be able to free you from the paradigm within which you are so firmly and enthusiastically entrenched, so I won’t expend much of my limited energies on something with such a ‘low return on investment’ (see, I’m deferentially trying to speak your language!).

    Your simplistic argument is that since there have been murderous, power-hungry thieves in control of states in the past, we should continue more or less business as usual, for fear of murderous, power-hungry thieves. Therefore, do not interfere with the status quo! Terrible argument. And the fact that you are comparing me to Pol Pot and Stalin, etc., (I’ll try not to take offence, comrade) surely says more about the desperate lengths you are going to defend your position, than it says about my position. You are a rhetorician.

    You seem to think that there is something ‘neutral’ about maintaining the status quo, but that is a decision, a choice, for which we must all take responsibility. What of the individual freedoms of the billions of poor people, oppressed by material destitution while the rich world grows fat? What of the individual freedoms of future (and present) generations that will be (are being) constrained by ecological degradation? If you and I walk into a room and find someone strangling a child, there is nothing neutral about us maintaining the status quo. If we are in a position to reduce suffering through collective action, then we have a moral obligation to do so. Non-action, like action, is a choice for which we must take responsibility. I understand that talk of morality or ethics does not fit with your neoclassical framework, which assumes we do not need to talk about morality in order to decide how best to structure the world. But that view has been debunked many times before, but which you either ignore or do not appreciate. As you sound well read, I’ll presume you’re just ignoring it, like most neoclassicists.

    As for your optimistic ‘don’t worry, be happy’ view of the future: The ecological footprint analysis reports that the global economy would require one and half planets to be sustainable over the long term; we’re looking at 9 billion people by 2040, 10 billion by 2080. Billions of people live lives of material destitution, and essentially every nation on the planet is seeking to grow its economy without apparent limit; biodiversity falls; top soil erodes; fossil wells are drying; the climate becomes more unstable, etc, etc. Your faith in free markets to solve these problems defies belief. The paradigm needs to change. And, if you like, we should do so in the name of individual freedom.

    Just parroting your favourite words and calling people dictators doesn’t make you right.

    Must run, thanks for the exchange.

  4. Yes, probably not worth pursuing this forever. We established that this book isn’t for Devonchap the last time I mentioned it. So just two things.

    Devonchap, you’re suggesting that Sam is arguing that ‘because there are some restrictions on liberty, any restriction on liberty is fine’, an argument that you say is ‘flawed’. Of course it’s flawed, and nobody I know, anywhere and in any avenue of politics, argues that ‘any restriction on liberty is fine’. Even totalitarian states recognise that there are limits to what they can demand.

    Every restriction or regulation needs to be examined, and in a democratic society that is possible. The evidence of negotiating our freedoms is all around us every day in the news.

    Second, you’ve rattled off a series of extreme examples of restrictions to freedom as evidence that “every time it has ended in oppression.” This is clearly nonsense. Restrictions to our freedom are the basis of law, and we live comfortably within thousands of negotiated restrictions all the time – and uncomfortably within some of them, hence the ongoing process of renegotiation that society undertakes all the time. New freedoms are constantly being granted (gay marriage), while others are taken away (leaving your bins out in the street).

    1. Every time restrictions on liberty are imposed for some good greater than individuals it ends in dictatorship. Just because its you or him and you are nice people who mean well doesn’t make it different. Sam Alexanders is fairly clear that he would happily sacrifice liberty to avoid his fear of a ‘boiling planet’. Redefining liberty is pretty much the same as removing it in practice. Warm words from you hit historical fact. Clearly we won’t agree. I’m just saddened that Jeremy has shown that he can’t see the dictatorial edge in Mr Alexander’s writings.

      As to the idea that the status quo is not neutral and hence junking it is fine, I’d take a Hippocratic view – First do no harm. Changes to the status quo can make things better or make them worse and we don’t know before what the result will be. Hence what we have now should not the tossed away lightly for some watermelon’s hobbyhorse. Neoclassicist’s are not ignoring your arguments, they just find them unconvincing. You stick to your paradigm, I’ll stick to mine and we’ll see who wins

      Also I’m glad to hear we only need 1 and half Earths. A few years ago it was 2 or 3 so the numbers are coming down quickly.

      1. Ok Devonchap, we’re going to have to leave it there. I’m afraid I can’t take you seriously because you clearly haven’t read my work, despite speaking about it with such confidence. Even a cursory glance at my work (too much to expect?) would show it to be democratic through and through, but since you haven’t bothered, it seems you are just here playing games on the internet for kicks. Have you tried solitaire? Good day, comrade.

        (As for the ‘number of earths’, you’ve gotten confused again somewhere. The global economy requires 1.5 earths. Two or three planets would be required if the UK way of life was globalised, more than four if the US way was globalised, etc.).

        1. Democracy has many means so unless liberal values are at its heart it means little. Just saying you are don’t make it so. The Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea says it is. Utopia it ain’t.

          Luckily liberal democracy and the market economy is winning its arguments and Chicken Littles like you are not leading us to Foxy Knoxy.

  5. Devonchap, the markets you love so dearly depend on judicious limits to freedom just as much as anything else – they wouldn’t function if we had the freedom to print our own currency, or the freedom to renege on contracts, for example. Your claim that every restriction to liberty leads to dictatorship doesn’t stand up to ten seconds thought.

    But then I said that in my last comment and you didn’t read it. So what’s the point of replying to your insults and ideological tub-thumping?

    Your arguments are usually better than this, I have to say. Something about Sam’s work apparently gets your goat.

    1. We are clearly talking past each other. I didn’t say any restriction on liberty would result in dictatorship. So unless you are intentionally misreading me you aren’t reading comments either.

      What I said was “restrictions on liberty … imposed for some good greater than individuals …ends in dictatorship”. The greater good part other than individuals is the important point. This has been the hallmark of dictatorship. Mr Alexander is clearly near hysterical about the threat of climate change and how the Earth would boil (he said it several times in replying to me).. This ‘greater good’ justifies any number of restrictions on liberty. There is no end point to what can be justified by a zealot.

      So you breezy assure us that “nobody I know, anywhere and in any avenue of politics, argues that ‘any restriction on liberty is fine’”. The trouble is, that isn’t true and what red lines that the Green zealots have aren’t clear. I have red lines, liberties that can’t be crossed. I’m sure you do too but Mr Alexader doesn’t spell out his so how can you know where they are.

      Some examples, If to save the Earth from ‘boiling’ we had to rob at gun point 10 million people, would that be okay? How about if we had to kill them? What if you couldn’t convince the general public to make necessary sacrifices, would a green dictatorship be acceptable to stop a 4 degree rise in temperature? How about a 2 degree rise? You may see these are extreme situations but this book is predicated on an extreme situation, one that its author thinks is going to happen.

      This is dragging on. I’ll let Mr Alexander morn Tony Abbott’s crushing election victory. Night.

      1. If you read Sam’s book, you might actually know what he does and doesn’t say. You assume dictatorship and carry on, unaware of the book’s lengthy passsages on participative democracy and the importance of self-government.

        That’s in the charter in the post itself too by the way, so there’s no excuse. You just read the words ‘greater good’ in one line and it set all your ideological bells ringing.

        The greater good is the greater good of society, which is composed of individuals. Future generations are also composed of individuals.

        1. We clearly aren’t listening to each other. The greater good could include individuals but the point I have been making is that historical it has not, when those who pursue a greater good fine individuals in the way of that greater good then the rights of those individuals will suffer. Nobody says they want to trample on individuals, but they end up doing so. Utopian fictions almost all have this but since they are the author’s fantasy it never ends like that in the book.
          Alexander has climate change as his greater good. That is bigger than individuals, you can see that. You and he are basically saying’ this time it is different. All other utopias end in repression, but ours won’t’. You are not answering the historical objections, just conflating the greater good with the individuals within society.
          You don’t see the dangers here, preferring to see what you want. I think we have different conceptions of liberty and further discussion will not illuminate this.

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