We are in a race between tipping points in nature and our political systems.
~ Lester R. Brown, Plan B (2008)
MOVING THE IMMOVABLE OBJECT
The State of The World Report 2014 focuses on Governance – “the most powerful obstacle to creating a sustainable future.”
It is clear that things cannot continue as it is the. The modern caisson of hell is ‘Business As Usual”. That is why the core of the Environmental Movement is Change – but change has three aspects to it:
1. Change has to be initiated
2. Change has to be controlled and directed
3. Transformational change, always brings side effects – they have to be mitigated or hedged against.
Dealing with these three aspects requires good leadership, motivated citizenry and capable institutions – Good Governance, in short.
We need to recognize this and break out of our apathy or even revulsion towards governments. True, governments have not ben responsive, true they have not lived up to their empty promises, and true they have deliberately sabotaged environmental movements – but the answer is not rejection, but reform.
Long before the climate crisis was “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen,” it was a massive political and governmental failure.
This Report is a call for action for this reform. It asks us to get around the idea that “government is the problem,” propagated by the odd alliance of ideologists, media tycoons, corporations, and conservative economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, which has only lead to the sad present condition where the public capacity to solve public problems has diminished sharply, and the power of the private sector, banks, financial institutions, and corporations has risen. Meanwhile, elsewhere, the number of failed states with tissue-thin governments is growing under the weight of population growth, corruption, crime, changing climate, and food shortages.
This is why we need to re-look the role of governance – The Report asks us to start to make concerted efforts to create the kind of local, national and international governance structures that will take us through the ‘Perfect Storm’ we are sailing into.
The Irresistible Force of Environmental Concern and Activism has to Move the Immovable Object that is the current atrophied Governance structures.
The Coming Tide
The massive ecological changes that are predicted, and already underway, is going to change the landscape of human existence and civilization. We are living a pipe-dream if we expect magical technological bullets to stop this. The effects of our rapaciousness are already upon us and the effects will last for centuries, perhaps millennia, and no society, economy, and political system will escape the consequences. That is where we are headed.
Many challenges loom ahead:
Soon, millions of people will have to be relocated from sea coasts and from increasingly arid and hazardous regions of Earth. Agriculture everywhere must be made more resilient and freed of its dependence on fossil fuels. Emergency response capacities everywhere must be expanded. The list of necessary actions and precautionary measures is very long. We are like a ship sailing into a storm and needing to trim sails, batten hatches, and jettison excess cargo.
Without proper governance structures, can we realistically expect to confront and survive changes on this scale?
What we do know is that citizens, networks, corporations, regional affiliations, nongovernmental organizations, and central governments will all have to play their parts. The twenty-first century and beyond is all-handson-deck time for humankind. We have no time for further procrastination, evasion, and policy mistakes.
We must now mobilize society for a rapid transition to a low-carbon future. The longer we wait to deal with the climate crisis and all that it portends, the larger the eventual government intrusion in the economy and society will necessarily be, and the more problematic its eventual outcome.
Prioritizing Responses; Avoiding Disaster
A second and related priority will be to reform the global economy to internalize its full costs and fairly distribute benefits, costs, and risks within and between generations. By most reckonings, majority of the costs of economic growth has been, and will be, offloaded on the poor and disadvantaged.
In the face of governmental inertia and corporate capture of many decision-making processes, strong and persistent bottom-up political pressure is needed more than ever, and it should be a directed and strategic pressure, aimed at well thought out reform towards much-needed new economic, political and social governance structures.
Whether we can avoid capsizing the frail craft of civilization or not will depend greatly on our ability and that of our descendants to create and sustain effective, agile, and adaptive forms of governance that persist for very long time spans.
ADDENDUM: A SUMMARY OF CHAPTERS
All in all, this year’s Report is a very good compilation of the leading thoughts on an important issue, as usual presented in a focused and concise, yet hard-hitting format.
While it is easy to say “Good Governance” is the answer, the more difficult question concerns what is needed to drive the governance process for sustainability forward. The chapters in this book examine not only the obstacles to this process, but also the multiple ideas and possibilities for needed change at different scales – from the level of individual ethics to the minutiae of international policy making.
Here is a quick summary of core ideas from some of the chapters, since the ideas themselves are worth thinking upon and acting upon:
Chapter 1: Failing Governance, Unsustainable Planet
Introduces the main themes and sets the stage.
Cold, hard data reinforce the sense that humanity is at an unprecedented crossroads that requires a sharp departure from politics and business as usual.
Climate and other sustainability questions cannot be seen solely through the prism of environmentalism. The fight for sustainability needs to incorporate dimensions of social justice, equity, and human rights.
Chapter 2: Understanding Governance
Sets out the core principle so ‘good’ governance, especially for our changing times.
Taking inspiration from Elinor Ostrom’s (2009 Nobel Prize in economics) work, Conor Seyle and Matthew King, while admitting there is no ‘one-size-fit’s all solution’, makes a case for stronger and more involved bottom-up local governance to flourish.
Elinor Ostrom, drew on her experience in small-scale societies around the world to identify eight principles for the successful management of common-property resources:
(1) a strong group identity,
(2) fairness in distributing costs and benefits,
(3) consensus decision making,
(4) effective monitoring of effort and rewards,
(5) graduated sanctions,
(6) rapid and fair conflict resolution,
(7) sufficient autonomy when the group is part of a larger system, and
(8) appropriate coordination between groups.
Ostrom and her colleagues identified these principles, which, when are in place, local communities do a remarkable job of protecting their resource bases even under intense outside pressure.
Chapter 3: Governance, Sustainability, and Evolution
In this chapter, Governance is explored from the perspective of evolution, which makes a lot of sense when governance is so divorced form nature – it helps to put it back in perspective. Governance systems are the formal and informal ways that humans manage relationships with each other and with the natural world.
John Gowdy, in this chapter, argues that there is in fact an evolutionary basis for the worst forms of governance mistakes and suggests that failing to devise institutions that can mitigate our worst genetic tendencies will take us down nature’s pathway to sustainability, with whatever costs and disruption to human civilization it sees fit to inflict.
Chapter 4: Ecoliteracy: Knowledge Is Not Enough
Monty Hempel asserts that teaching ecoliteracy, while necessary, is not enough to get people to respect the mimics of the planet and operate harmoniously with the natural world; it will need to be combined with ethics training, developing emotional connections to the natural world and appeals to action.
Much attention in environmental education and risk communication has been devoted to the “knowledge deficit” theory of social change, when the real issue appears to be a behavior deficit.
Chapter 5: Digitization and Sustainability
Richard Worthington debunks the idea of “technology is legislation, ” and cautions that we cannot rely on the digitization of everything to solve the problems we face – digitization has not increased the number of politically engaged citizens. What we need is concerted action in other, especially political, spheres.
Digitization and media access widens the information and engagement gap. At one end of the spectrum are a relatively few highly informed and active citizens, whose information sources are more biased toward their views than was the case before the advent of digital systems. At the other end are the vast majority of citizens, who have relatively little information or interest in politics, and whose views are subject to the messages emanating from an increasingly concentrated mass media.
Chapter 6: Living in the Anthropocene: Business as Usual, or Compassionate Retreat?
Peter Brown and Jeremy Schmidt urge us change the basic approach towards the future, way from a blind hope in technology that reaches extremism like geoengineering and to instead to opt for an ”ethics first” approach, that would seek reduce human impacts on planetary systems.
Our task within the Anthropocene is to re-learn what it means to be a citizen; not just of our earthly community, but of the universe. And it raises sharp questions about whether geoengineering is the latest version of the Faustian bargain struck by a wealthy minority who have brought life’s commonwealth to an unwanted and undeserved, yet fateful, choice.
Chapter 8: Listening to the Voices of Young and Future Generations
Antoine Ebel and Tatiana Rinke urge us to expand the circle of stakeholders to include the voiceless youth and the generations to come, especially in business calculation and the now infamous short-termism of the ‘discount rate’ – we can not longer afford to ‘discount’ the future!
Chapter 10: Looking Backward (Not Forward) to Environmental Justice – MUST READ
In what is the best written and most eloquent chapter in this Report, Aaron Sachs warns us that we cannot afford to lose sight of the injustices of today’s world when we worry about the apocalypse that is coming. Sachs invites us to instead view the Environmental Movement through a historical perspective and demonstrates why all successful social movements throughout history, have incorporated a strong sense of ethics – The Environmental movement cannot expect to gloss over the injustices of today if it hopes to succeed.
And this should start with what is increasingly derided by a disillusioned community – of taking personal steps and sacrifices towards an ‘impact-free’ life. Yes, all that tripe about switching off the bulbs and recycling is indispensable to a truly ethical approach.
We can be impatient for revolution but we cannot abscond our own responsibility to “Do No Harm”.
This chapter made me proud again of my own small efforts such as cycling to office everyday. It is easy to question what these sorts of acts can really accomplish – it reinforces the ethical basis of the revolution, that is what it accomplishes.
It gives legitimacy to the rhetoric.
Even the best-intentioned young environmentalists, who often emphasize governance and “efficacy,” tend to scoff at my insistence that they read Thoreau: given the enormity of our problems, what does it matter if one more hermit goes off the grid? But the point of working one’s way through Walden and Thoreau’s other writings is not so much to dwell on his specific actions in the woods as to analyze his way of thinking and his resistance to certain elements of the status quo, to engage with his New England spirit of self-reliance and civil disobedience.
Chapter 14: How Local Governments Have Become a Factor in Global Sustainability
Extending the the focus on Local Governance, Monika Zimmermann discusses that the current locus of activity on climate change and biodiversity preservation lies mainly within organizations of local and regional, not national, governments.
Over the last 20 years or so, pioneering local governments have stepped forward on the global stage to assert their relevance to sustainability initiatives, exemplify commitments, provide and share resources, establish concrete metrics, track progress toward goals, and help spur national and international processes to do the same.
Chapter 19: The Rise of Triple-Bottom-Line Businesses
As Muhammad Yunus argues in his discussion on ‘Social Businesses’ as a way to end poverty, Colleen Cordes examines the parallel “benefit” corporations and their impact on changing the face of business and eventually of investment activity, I.e., finance. This still-new phenomenon of remarkable companies that orient themselves toward a broader array of stakeholders, including their employees and the local communities within which they operate, volunteering to be held publicly or even legally accountable to a triple bottom line: prioritizing people and the planet, while also promoting profits.
Chapter 21: Take the Wheel and Steer! Trade Unions for a Just Transition
Along with Sean Sweeney in Chapter 20, who argues in favor of greater “energy democracy” that gives workers, communities, and the public at large a more meaningful voice in decision making, Judith Gouverneur and Nina Netzer argue here for a fundamental reorganization of all unionization.
They argue that it is also the responsibly of the Trade Unions to protect their members through the coming changes to ensure a ‘just transition.’
Conclusion: A Call to Engagement
Ultimately, then, it is not ‘Government is the problem’, that we arrive at but concentration of power that is thwarting efforts to achieve sustainability. The theme that runs through much of this year’’s report is one of deconcentrating – devolving – wealth and power.
The concluding chapter, is a ‘call to engagement’ by listing out again the variety of political and economic means available to achieve that end.
Sustainability is a socioecological problem. It is a problem for each and every one of us to tackle personally, socially and politically – we need to tackle it on every field simultaneously.
People everywhere must strive to don the mantle of citizenship and commit to persistent engagement in the governing of their workplaces, communities, and nations. Only a steady popular commitment to engaged governance can prevent the future we seem to be headed towards.
The quest for environmental sustainability, social equity, and a deep, deliberative culture of citizen engagement are closely intertwined goals.
If there is a common theme standing behind the policy ideas and reforms explored in this book, however, it is the necessity of citizen empowerment and citizen responsibility. Call it the first law of political physics: a body at rest will remain at rest until a force is applied to it. When promising governance alternatives are known and seem worth trying out but are not yet happening, then a force needs to be applied to encourage exploratory movement in a new direction. And when governments themselves are unable to muster that force and other actors (such as corporations) are pushing in the wrong direction, an opposing vector can come only from the people.
This book was provided by Island Press as an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.