The Earth System – How far does it go?

There is a close overlap between what PBI is interested in and the scope of the Earth System Governance (ESG) project, which has this week held its global annual conference, at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, England.

ESG is a network of academics researching issues about how governance systems are responding to, or might be changed in order to respond to, global environmental issues such as climate change and the future of the oceans and Arctic. The conference included people from a range of different subject disciplines, mainly social sciences, and different ages, from young PhD students to long-established leaders in this field. Along with many other research networks, ESG has now become part of the larger network of Future Earth.

Some dilemmas for ESG were evident at the conference, although there was also clearly on display a willingness to talk about them and think about how to change the project in order to move forward. This is a dynamic field of debate, not something set in academic stone.

One dilemma is about how upbeat or depressing to be about the challenges of the global environment. There were complaints in the final plenary that the conference in general had been too upbeat. This is a difficult issue for the whole environmental movement, but my feeling is that we should only be upbeat on the basis of some actual good news, however small, and not on the basis of denial or evasion of what is happening. Some of the presentations felt to me like forms of retreat dressed up in supposedly “new paradigm” positive language.

Another dilemma is about how explicitly political to be. The implications of what ESG is talking about are extremely radical. Really to have effective earth system governance would involve, for example, the following changes –

• A rethink of economics to give full weight to the dependence of the economy on the environment, and then a restructuring of economic institutions to reflect that understanding.

• A transfer, at least partially, of people’s loyalties from nationalism, ethnic groupings, and nation-states, over to the level of the planet as a whole.

• A re-examination of the history of political philosophy and constitution-making, to see what is relevant from those debates for the present ‘global moment’.

All these are to a large extent academic and intellectual tasks, examples in fact of where academics could be making themselves and their work extremely useful. But funders may frown, journal referees may recommend non-publication, senior colleagues may block promotion, some versions of the concept of “social science” may squeeze out historical and philosophical understanding, and subject discipline silos can clamp down on anything dangerously interdisciplinary.

My feeling was that the ESG network is caught between seeing that the issues it deals with have extremely far-reaching implications, and on the other hand many participants wanting to play it safe. Then often there is an effort to resolve this dilemma by trying to make playing it safe appear radical by adding some obfuscation, presented as an exciting “shift in discourse”.

In talking about planetary boundaries, earth system governance, and so on, we are embarking on what needs to be a very wide-ranging agenda. My feeling is that we are only just at the beginning of appreciating how wide and deep it goes.


Victor Anderson


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