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From Behavior to Governance

Poor ecoliteracy remains a sign of crisis in education. But it is also evidence of a deepening crisis in governance. Good governance in the twenty-first century requires stewardship of planetary life-support systems and ecosystem services, accountability, transparency, informed public opinion, leadership skills in nonviolent conflict resolution, and, especially, sustainable conceptions of economic prosperity and wealth. Governance reform can be aided tremendously by applying principles of ecology and biomimicry in political design and policy formation. Examples range from biomimicry's emphasis on decentralized and distributed systems operation to economic development strategies based on ecosystem succession models (e.g., Eugene Odum's 1969 article “The Strategy of Ecosystem Development”).

In almost every case, ecoliteracy calls for governance that is based on life-cycle planning, regenerative design, adaptive management, and policies aimed at resilience and sustainability. It promises to improve both the structure and content of governance. But ecoliteracy will not be enough. In some countries, such as the United States, effective governance reform will also require new standards of principled compromise, campaign finance reform, and increased civility among politicians and partisan citizen activists.

The most vexing problems in contemporary governance stem from converging sets of technological, social, economic, and political pressures to bypass, distort, or even dispense with democratic deliberation. Global environmental problems tend to amplify this trend. Technology is enabling political polarization and segmentation into single-minded camps through the selective use of narrowcasting and social media.

In the United States, declining trust in many large institutions and growing contempt for political compromise has resulted in social pressure to opt out of public deliberation. Meanwhile, the economic pressures to cede additional power to Wall Street and large corporations have led to highly undemocratic systems of campaign finance and political influence, not to mention a shrinking middle class that is increasingly unable to carry the burden of participatory democracy. Finally, there are muted but growing political pressures to replace a barely functioning democracy with something closer to technocratic oligarchy in order to deal decisively and swiftly with urgent domestic and international challenges, such as climate change. None of these trends bodes well for democracies in which legitimacy is regarded as sacrosanct, or at least as important as producing good policy results.

The challenge for ecoliteracy in our time is to join the power of science and the joy of emotional attachment to nature with the indispensable role of governance in connecting the worlds of thought, feeling, and action for the purpose of sustaining the web of life. It is only by integrating these three objectives—in much the same way that sustainability integrates environmental, economic, and equity aims—that we can create a coherent community narrative about the interacting risks of climate change and other global environmental threats.

Responding to these threats in a timely manner is likely to require informal networks of governmental and nongovernmental organizations, using strategies that go far beyond conventional policy making or market-based incentives. Such forms of governance will probably be “glocal”—a mix of global and local—and depend on the empowerment of communities and networks of business, faith-based organizations, universities, civic groups, and many others, all of which share responsibility for addressing urgent foresight problems. Glocal foresight requires a well-educated civil society with polycentric “islands of governance” (e.g., collaborative networks ranging from the Davos Economic Forum to the World Social Forum) linked across a sea of political and economic self interest. Arguably, the principal aim of ecoliteracy would be to help disparate peoples and cultures grasp why and how their environmental self-interest, rightly understood, requires new foresight capacity and reform of governance.

Increasingly, governance is about empowering collaboration that produces an expanded sense of what is possible, along with practical strategies to achieve it. The strategies arise ideally from democratic deliberation that involves community-based systems of trust and verification of claims. The choice of strategy depends on how problems are framed and narratives are constructed. Table 4–2 summarizes the broad response strategies that can be used to solve or reduce the three types of global environmental problems outlined earlier, with examples from the climate debate. Because no one strategy can be expected to make much of a dent in foresight problems, however, the ultimate collaborative challenge in governance may be in deciding the strategic mix and modalities of solutions for these very complex global problems.

Table 4–2. The Governance Tool Kit

Real-world strategies employ multiple approaches, as in the German approach of using carbon pricing (market) and feed-in tariffs (policy), along with information about renewable energy (advertising and education) and related governmental and grassroots campaigns (politics), to replace coalfired power plants with photovoltaics or wind (technology).

If this analysis is correct, conventional ecoliteracy is too narrow a foundation on which to build an effective community narrative about climate change, biodiversity crises, and the many other global challenges confronting us. No exclusively science-based concept of ecoliteracy will be sufficient for this task. Ecoliteracy will need to accommodate the traditional knowledge derived from nature-based attachment to place. Moreover, it will need to incorporate explicit social and economic concerns within an action framework that joins ecoliteracy with political literacy about governance— in particular, deliberative, democratic forms of governance.

By recasting ecoliteracy within a larger sustainability framework, the integration of ecological knowledge with community-based concerns about social justice and economic vitality can be greatly advanced. Ultimately, if understanding the relationship between governance and sustainability can become a priority in public education, along with knowledge of the basic principles that govern ecosystems, many societies may be able to overcome some of the disbelief and suspicions that currently polarize large segments of their populations. Overcoming this polarization will require both intellectual and emotional intelligence about our common origin in the great web of life and our common future in sustaining it.

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