Many of the problems we and our planet face are due to humans over-exploiting resources. Whether its simple to see: like taking too many fish out of the sea, too many cattle grazing a limited amount of land and too many trees being cut down. Or abstract and hard to see, as overloading our planets capability to store and convert carbon dioxide.
Over-exploitation today often has a high cost for future generations. Take for example the Easter Islanders who's chiefs cut down every last tree on their remote pacific island, competing to build monuments to themselves (see the Moai above). Unable to build ocean-going canoes to fish and trade their civilisation went backwards, with too few people left to keep alive the traditions and technology of the past. By the times Europeans arrived in the 18th Century the Islanders weren't able to resist, and many were taken as slaves to mine Guano in Peru (which is sea bird poo used as fertiliser!). Why didn't they stop before the last tree? And how can we as a species ensure we don't follow the same path?
To answer this question, a researcher called Oliver Hauser recently developed a new experimental paradigm, called the 'Intergenerational Goods Game'. A line-up of successive groups (aka generations) can each either extract a resource to exhaustion or leave something for the next group. Using all the resource gets you the biggest payoff for your present generation, but leaves all future generations empty-handed (you can probably insert any big company's name here and find this describes the situation).
What did they find? Well Hauser found that the resource is almost always destroyed if each person on their own decides how much to take - as a small number take as much as possible, and then as everyone else sees the resource declining they start to take as much as possible. Back to the Easter Islanders - their society was split into competing small chiefs who each may have competed to erect the biggest head, destroying the forests needed for the future. In contrast though, when extraction is decided democratically by vote, the resource in Hausers et al's experiment was nearly always sustained.
Why is democracy the secret for sustainability? Two reasons: 1) it allows the majority of good sensible people to stop the unsustainable ones; 2) its makes sure that people feel they have the ability to make change, because without the ability to make change people see being sustainable as futile and give up - paradoxically ensuring what they hoped to avoid!
If you want to know more about the Easter Islanders and why unsustainable societies have collapsed in the past I recommend reading: Jared Diamond's Collapse.
If you want more info on the experiment check the link below.....