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Reading notes: Democracy in America

September 2003

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Year published

Nb pages

Price (in euros)


Minimum scientific background required
Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville


1.000 (paperback)

15 € (2 volumes)


all publics


Looking as a scrupulous entomologist on the american society of the beginning of the 19th century (Tocqueville's journey to United States took place in 1831), this book offers a seldom attained analysis on the way democratic societies get organized and how this organization can be linked to the profound nature of men.

Why should I quote this author when we are talking about climate ? Because the main greenhouse gases emitters in the world are democracies...

Breakdown of the world greenhouse gas emissions by country or region in 2000, all gases taken into account. All the following countries are democraties: United States, Russia, Japan, all european OECD countries (Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, etc), all the other Annex I countries (those that committed to a voluntary decrease of their greenhouse gases emissions through Kyoto), that notably include Canada, Australia, and most Eastern Europe Countries ; and again India, and actually most other countries (that include South Korea, Taiwan, some South East Asia countries, etc). In short, most of the world emissions come from democraties.

Source of primary data: UNFCCC, WRI.

The processes that should be put in motion to halt the ongoing climate change (or more exactly to prevent a possible catastrophic evolution) are so huge, and would span over such time periods - decades at least and not weeks, that it is legitimate to ask oneself whether we have any chance to meet such a goal when the person that is in command changes every couple years.

Reading Tocqueville provides with incomparable information and thoughts to feed one's personal reflection on this subject. I can't resist to give a couple of "prophetic" statements that can be found in the second volume of this book :

Democracy will bring mass consumption, with products to which manufacturers will try to "give glittering properties they don't have" (this was written at a time when there was no advertising and no supermarkets !),

In democratic regimes it will be fashionable to have a productive job, and not well considered to live off other's sweat (while in aristocratic regimes having a productive occupation was degrading),

In democratic regimes, "superficial ideas" will be prized much, and "slow and profound thinking" much less,

In democratic regimes, the press will be a major power (well seen !),

Democratic regimes will see the rise of individualism, and the inclination to consider oneself as perpertually insatisfied of one's fate (not bad a prediction either....),

In democratic regimes, time will shorten: we will forget the generations that preceded and the ones that follow, to fully concentrate on the present times ; the love of "present times pleasures" might well occult, for most citizens, "their own long term interest, as well as that of their descendants",

In front of such a series of visionary prophecies (there is one every three pages, since the reader will also find - in a book written in 1840 - that the world will be split in two zones, one dominated by Russia and the other one by the US, that Southern America will become totally dominated by Northern America, and so on ; if it were not for the style one might think that the book was written last week), how one cannot be very doubtful when reading this other conclusion of the author: totally absorbed by the management of their economy, which will be their "big affair", democraties will be near-sighted, and unable to see in time the upcoming long term perils.

This worrying assertion goes with another major conclusion of this book, that perfectly fits with my own experience: in a democratic regime, the elected are not in charge of being "more visionnary" or "wiser" than the voters, but just in charge of executing the desires of the latter. When a citizen asks to the elected to be more anticipating or more cautious than him(her)self, (s)he is mistaken: in the specifications of the elected's job, there is no mention of being more audacious than the "global state of the opinion" (on the opposite, (s)he is elected to implement the will of the majority !), or of managing our schizophrenia for us.

Thus, when we consider, for climate change, that "they know and they don't act", we make a double judgment error:

Basically, they don't know more than us. For any given problem, we will find, in the french congress (any comment on whether it is different in another democracy is welcome !), between 5 and 10 (at best) congressmen that know more than the average, and all the others get informed exactely as the majority of my fellow citizens do: by reading the paper ! This rule is also valid for ministries (at least in France, but I am ready to bet a good lunch in an expensive restaurant that it is the same in other democracies !): on the 45 ministries that compose the french government, between 0 and 2 probably understand fairly well the basics of what it implies to tackle climate change, and the others have not understood any better than the "average citizen",

In 2004, in the same time that "the opinion" is asking the government to "do something" so that we can prevent a dangerous climate change, the opinion is against about any element of solution:

An increase of the price of fossil fuels (of all fossil fuels ! natural gas, car fuels, jet fuel, fuel oil....), though it is the only way to get savings, otherwise technical progress is offset by an increase of the consumption,

Stopping building roads and highways: everybody is for the local road aimed at supressing the local traffic jam, but once new infrastructure is built it seems difficult to wish a decrease in the general traffic !

The setting up of a constraining regulation on the energy consumption of buildings,

A progressive increase of the price of manufactured goods, because those goods had to be produced, and today the more we produce, and the more we emit,


In other terms, the implicit conclusion of Tocqueville, stated at a time when climate change was not really a hot topic (but it was already known among physicists !), is that it is up to you and me to understand in what way our various wishes might be antagonistic, and to send to the elected an explicit message, free of contradictions.

To be totally clear, the day we say to the government: "we have well understood that fighting climate change requires that we progressively increase the price of domestic fuel oil, jet fuel, natural gas, gasoline and diesel, and we have well understood that it will lead computers, houses, beef meat and transportation to cost more, but we accept it because it's the price to pay for our grand kids to have a comfortable life - or a life at all in some case", there isn't the slightest doubt that the government will take the necessary measures the next minute..... as there isn't the slightest doubt that as long as a majority of the population will be against the elements of solution stated above, nothing of the good magnitude will happen before the trouble starts.

I therefore will end with this only piece of advice: before risking any forecast on what might happen in the future, read (or read again) Tocqueville !


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