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Home arrow Political science arrow Sustainability of Agro-Food and Natural Resource Systems in the Mediterranean Basin

Governing People as Members of the Earth Community

Cormac Cullinan

The governance systems of today's dominant consumerist cultures are facilitating, rather than preventing, degradation of the natural systems that support life and are the foundation of human well-being. By defining all of nature (other than humans) as property, legal systems enable people and corporations to exploit and trade aspects of nature as if they were slaves. Economic systems reward those who extract natural resources and accumulate assets handsomely, and society rewards the financially wealthy with power and status.

Contemporary governance systems are creating incentives for and legitimizing human behaviors that are harmful to the common good. Climate change and the many other “environmental crises” that confront us are the symptoms of this failure of governance. The crucial questions are: why are our governance systems failing, and what can be done about it?

Governance systems reflect a community's or a society's collective view about what it is, what it believes in, and what it wishes to become. Most governance systems today reflect the narcissistic belief that humans are exceptional beings who are superior to the rest of nature and who are not subject to its laws in the same way as other beings. The evidence, however, does not support the proposition that humans differ fundamentally from other species or that it is possible for us to transcend and escape the ordering principles that we observe throughout the universe. On the contrary, the more we discover, the more apparent it is that everything that exists is interrelated and forms a single reality that is ordered on the basis of consistent, universal principles.

Most contemporary governance systems do not account for the fact that they are established within a preexisting system of natural order that is binding on us all. To the contrary, they assume that these universal principles are not relevant to the design and functioning of our legal, political, and economic systems. Consequently, governance systems often function in ways that run counter to nature and that cannot be sustained. The overexploitation of a fish stock, for example, may be promoted by the political system, authorized by the legal system, and incentivized by the economic system, but all of these systems are powerless to prevent the ultimate collapse of the fish stock, which the laws of nature dictate. Sustainability depends on governance systems that ensure that people understand and comply with the laws of nature. The penalties that nature imposes for failing to do so are severe and nonnegotiable.

Most contemporary governance systems reflect the fundamental belief of consumerist societies that “more is better,” as well as the aspiration to enhance human well-being by amassing ever more material wealth and the technological power to transcend the limitations of nature. Consequently, these systems have been designed to facilitate human appropriation of ever increasing amounts of “natural resources” and “ecosystem services” to fuel infinitely increasing gross domestic product (GDP). Despite the logical absurdity of the goal of achieving infinite GDP growth and the abundant evidence that achieving it would require confounding natural principles of dynamic balance, this model informs most collective decision making.

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