What governance system will truly protect planetary resilience? Comments from the SRC MOOC

The Planetary Boundaries and Human Opportunities MOOC, hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the SDSN, is now into its second week (see here for PBI’s article on the MOOC).

What has been particularly interesting is the flourishing online community that has formed for sharing ideas on the state of our planet alongside the course. A thread launched by Cliff Krolick particularly stood out:

“What governance system will truly protect planetary resilience?”

A contribution from Ranjay Singh, echoed by contributors from Mongolia and Syria, highlighted that it has often been observed that systems and norms developed by indigenous communities are more sustainable than formal systems of governance. This idea that we require good quality local governance and civil participation to build cooperative and resilient communities emerged repeatedly in the discussion; but it was also highlighted importantly that global level problems cannot be solved by local governance alone.

One of the challenges therefore in this modern globalised world is to find a means to integrate the macro and the micro harmoniously, so that each part of the system can operate to best effect. Currently global, regional and national level systems of governance often work against effective local governance, a case in point given of the current protests in British Columbia against a federal-approved and locally-opposed pipeline that has seen at least 34 local protesters arrested and charged. Another example given was of the Rojava region in Syria, a fully self-organised society run through growing levels of counsels –disrupted by the civil war and the growth of ISIS. Before we can see sustainable local governance, initiatives and communities to develop successfully worldwide, there have to be changes at a higher level to provide the environment conducive to their development. How exactly this can be done, in a way that looks forward and accommodates emergent technology and standards of development, is a critical issue for our day.

Another key issue that came through the discussion centred on the need to transition to a steady state economy, rather than perpetuate the global pursuit of constant economic growth. This takes us into the politically controversial but essential issue of global consumption and production. The planetary boundaries concept is, at its core, about setting boundaries and limits to our consumption and production – limits to how much we take from the Earth and how much we emit globally. Bring in social equity, for instance in the framework of Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut economics’, and that then requires us to address the ‘who’: of the total that we can safely consume and produce, who can take what and emit what. Interestingly, the MOOC generally avoids the word ‘consumption’ (prefering to refer to ‘affluence’, if necessary). One can surmise that this is to avoid political alarm bells going on, or even those of the modern ‘consumer’ (and producer) from developed countries, and those of aspirational consumers from developing countries. And yet our unsustainable and unequal levels of consumption and production are at the core of our global environmental and social problems, and this needs to be clearly and courageously addressed in any moves towards governance for sustainable development (see this Tearfund Think Piece that excellently sets out the paradoxes that lie behind the success of ‘development’ at the cost of the ‘sustainable’ part).

The need for a change of ethics and attitudes obviously rang clear in the discussion. Malgorzata Blicharska, however, responded to this demand by asking the simple question – how would we do that on a large scale? Nowadays a lot of people are informed about the damaging effect our ways of living are having on the planet, but that this “lot” is still – globally – a minority. She also points out that being “informed” does not seem to be enough: many people who are informed do not allow that knowledge to influence their actions, or at least not to the extent it could. In her own words: “I come from Poland, live in Sweden and have family in Australia – all very different, but all developed countries, and in all of them I see such huge level of consumption and such extremely low environmental consciousness… Good governance is important not only for “governing” itself, but for creating a society that is open, knowledgeable, trustful and able to co-operate for common resources maintenance. At all different governance levels.”

As well as providing an opportunity to learn about the science behind anthropogenic global change (which, let’s face it, most of us with non-scientific backgrounds could do with), all in a flexible and interesting way, the SRC/SDSN MOOC is proving a valuable platform for the sharing of ideas. And it is only into its second week of six. Watch this space for the PBI’s comments on what emerges.

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