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Governance from the Bottom Up

Governmental structures and decision-making processes diverge widely by country, but the common challenge is how to imbue them with a greater degree of foresight, accountability, transparency, and responsiveness. Can humanity devise governance institutions and processes—both political and economic—that are able to overcome the barriers to greater sustainability? It is an empirical question that we will likely see answered in the coming years, as either we rise to the challenge or nature imposes something like sustainability upon us. John Gowdy, in Chapter 3, argues that there is in fact an evolutionary basis for the dilemma we seem to have backed ourselves into— which 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.

Although global society has largely ignored them, for years there have been alternatives to the dominant worldview that the natural world is a platform for living situated in a warehouse of resources that are ours for the taking. Ecological economists and others repeatedly have made the case for operating within Earth's system limits. Other eloquent voices have urged consideration of perspectives on the human place in the world that would enable and support this mode of operation.

In Chapter 4, Monty Hempel asserts that teaching ecoliteracy, while necessary, will not be enough by itself to achieve an Earth-centered worldview; it will need to be combined with ethics training and appeals to action. Richard Worthington cautions in Chapter 5 that we cannot rely on the digitization of everything to solve the problems we face, absent concerted action in other, especially political, spheres. And a trio of chapters, by Peter Brown and Jeremy Schmidt (Chapter 6), Cormac Cullinan (Chapter 7), and Antoine Ebel and Tatiana Rinke (Chapter 8), urge us to rein in our worst tendencies in order to free up ecological space for the rest of creation, and to expand the circle of stakeholders to include the voiceless: other creatures, indigenous cultures, and youth and the generations to come.

David Bollier and Burns Weston (Chapter 9) urge that humanity infuse ecological governance with a commonsand rights-based approach that is anchored in laws and policies drawn up at the local and national scale. The plodding pace of international talks on climate protection and sustainable development has made many civil-society activists weary of a mismatch between promising rhetoric and paltry outcomes. Maria Ivanova (Chapter 13) points to outcomes of the Rio+20 conference that are nonetheless significant for shaping global governance in coming decades. It would be a mistake for civil society to retreat from these processes, but Lou Pingeot (Chapter 15) cautions against the rising corporate influence on them.

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. It was grassroots mobilization under the banner of nationwide Earth Day celebrations that helped bring about landmark U.S. laws such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in the early 1970s, when the United States was an environmental policy pacesetter. But over time, parts of the environmental movement have grown comfortable with a more establishmentarian orientation that cherishes mainstream respectability, ample funding, and access to the corridors of power. Chapter 11, by Petra Bartosiewicz and Marissa Miley, explores how a small group of wellfunded mainstream environmental groups preferred an elite approach to passing cap-and-trade legislation over grassroots mobilization—a strategy that ultimately failed.

Elite environmentalism runs the danger of being disconnected from environmental justice perspectives driven by the devastating real-world impacts on communities of mining projects, petrochemical plants, or other toxic facilities sited near poor neighborhoods, or, for that matter, dubious green solutions such as large-scale biofuels plantations associated with land grabbing and displacement of small farmers. Aaron Sachs (Chapter 10) insists that we not lose sight of the injustices of today's world when we worry about the coming storms and floods and heat waves in a future warmer world. Successful social movements throughout history, Sachs reminds us, have incorporated a strong sense of ethics.

Undoubtedly, new grassroots movements are emerging, and new energy is being unleashed—keeping true to the view that the whole point of civil society organizations is to be a thorn in the side of the powerful. This is part of a broader phenomenon of spreading popular protests driven by a range of grievances and demands—irrespective of the political governance system in question. A recent study analyzing 843 protests between January 2006 and July 2013 in 87 countries found a steady increase in protests from 59 in 2006 to 112 during just the first half of 2013. Many of the protests—ranging from marches and rallies to acts of civil disobedience—involve issues that are of relevance to a more sustainable and equitable society. The lack of “real democracy” is a major motivating factor and is seen as an underlying reason for the lack of economic and environmental justice. (See Table 1–2.)

Referring to what he calls an “emerging fossil fuel resistance,” Bill McKib-

Table 1–2. Worldwide Protests by Selected Grievance or Demand, 2006–2013

Note: The report distinguishes among a total of 34 specific types of grievances/demands. Source: See endnote 28.

ben, founder of, observes that in the last few years a new grassroots movement “has blocked the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline, convinced a wide swath of American institutions to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stocks, and challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for natural gas.”

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, slated to carry Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, has emerged as a lightning rod of resistance in the United States. Similarly, opposition by native peoples and others in British Columbia has put on hold the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline (intended to carry tar sands over a distance of 1,177 kilometers to an export terminal and eventually to Asian markets). Several planned coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest also have drawn strong local opposition due to environmental and health concerns. In Europe, France and Bulgaria have banned fracking, and opposition to the controversial practice is rising in the United Kingdom. In the autumn of 2013, EU lawmakers provided initial approval of a measure requiring extensive environmental audits before fracking can go forward. In China, pollution may be the single largest cause of social unrest, as Sam Geall and Isabel Hilton explain in Chapter 12. Since 2007, waves of social unrest there have halted numerous large industrial and infrastructure projects.

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