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Improving Governance

A great deal is known about how governance fails to support sustainability and the ways it could be improved to do so more effectively. It is relatively easy, for example, to arrive at a definition of “good” governance in which most people could find much with which to agree. Conor Seyle and Matthew King, in Chapter 2, put it this way:

An electronic voting booth in Almere, the Netherlands.

Whether concerned about human rights, legitimacy, or even sustainability, it appears to be the case that good governance systems need to be inclusive and participatory: they need to allow the members of the system to change the rules when needed, and have a voice in the collective decisions that are made…[S]ystems need to be accountable to processes that guarantee fair treatment and establish predictable rules that are applied equally to all members of the collective. And ultimately,…there need to be systems in place to resolve disputes and sanction those who would violate the rules and collective values of the group.

Governance, to be good, should be both efficient and legitimate, where legitimacy derives from the wide perception that the system is fair. Fairness demands equity in terms of how social and economic benefits and hardships are shared by different people, communities, and countries. But increasingly, fairness also depends on how well we respond to the worsening climate crisis so that the worst consequences are avoided for the next generations, that the costs of adjustment are shared in a reasonable manner, and that unavoidable impacts do not fall squarely on the shoulders of those who are least responsible for the calamity.

These underlying principles should not be in contention in any society that lives by defensible values. The more difficult question concerns what is needed to drive the governance process for sustainability forward. The chapters in this book examine not only the obstacles to this process, but also the multiple ideas and possibilities for needed change at different scales—from the level of individual ethics to the minutiae of international policy making:

Personal. Whether one lives in a lakeside villa or a mud hut, is a Wall Street financier or a subsistence farmer, is healthy or starving, one's initial circumstances are an accident of birth. Whatever one accomplishes begins there, and to that extent the rich no more deserve their wealth than the poor deserve their poverty. There are no self-made men or women; every human alive is helped or hindered by the legacy bequeathed him or her by the society in which he or she lives. Even prominent mainstream economists have acknowledged that most of what each of us has is due more to the wealth and assets accumulated by previous generations than to our own efforts. (See Chapter 18 by Gar Alperovitz.)

This fateful truth imposes serious obligations on those who are born into wealth. People with the great good fortune to enjoy comfortable lives have deep ethical obligations, first to be aware of how very differently their lives could have gone, and second to heed the requirements of environmental justice. The first such requirement, observes Aaron Sachs in Chapter 10, is to do no harm. While it is impossible to live a perfect or impact-free life, we each need to do what we can to minimize our own impacts, help others to achieve decent and sustainable lives, and push our own communities toward sustainability.

Local. Individual responsibility and action is indispensable, but action by individuals united into communities and movements is even more important. As Monika Zimmermann writes in Chapter 14, the current locus of activity on climate change and biodiversity preservation lies mainly within organizations of local and regional, not national, governments. Over the last 20 years or so, pioneering local governments have stepped forward on the global stage to assert their relevance to sustainability initiatives, exemplify commitments, provide and share resources, establish concrete metrics, track progress toward goals, and help spur national and international processes to do the same.

National. National governments have struggled to make collaborative progress on sustainability issues, particularly climate change, although there has been no shortage of good intentions, impassioned rhetoric, and meetings since the 1992 Rio Summit. Individual countries, with a few exceptions, have not done much better. In Chapter 11, Petra Bartosiewicz and Marissa Miley explore the congressional intransigence around climate change legislation in the United States (as well as providing an object lesson in how not to address such resistance, in the story of the U.S. environmental establishment's efforts to pass a carbon cap-and-trade bill without first building strong grassroots support for it). The European Union's carbon markets have so far proven ineffective due to a lack of government discipline in allocating permits. Sam Geall and Isabel Hilton, in Chapter 12, examine China's fractured environmental politics and note that there is emerging support among networked citizens, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and journalists for the country's ambitious green goals and regulations, but that structural problems, such as collusion between polluters and local officials, continue to block progress.

National governments need to do better, both in negotiations with other governments and in their own countries. The opportunities to do so are plentiful. Besides showing some spine in resisting industry efforts to undermine progress on climate, governments need to regain control of financial markets, demand corporate transparency and accountability, and sharply reduce the role of money in politics. (See Chapter 16 by Thomas Palley.)

Governments in general also can take a role in recognizing and sponsoring commons resources by means such as land trusts, cooperatives, and online peer networks for ecosystem monitoring (see Chapter 9 by David Bollier and Burns Weston), or by managing shared assets in the manner of the Alaska Permanent Fund, which allocates earnings from North Slope oil production.

International. Winston Churchill famously quipped in 1947 that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” The same could be said about the United Nations with regard to international governance. The UN certainly has displayed a degree of bureaucratic inertia at times, although the larger problem is that it is often shortchanged in terms of funding and political wherewithal by the very governments that expect it to provide solutions where purely national efforts fail. And yet an international organization that provides the space to work out cooperative approaches to the sustainability challenge is more indispensable than ever.

As Maria Ivanova explains in Chapter 13, governments and UN officials have come to understand that the time for addressing environmental, economic, and social dimensions separately is long past. The need to weave these policy trends together closely has been recognized in recent efforts to restructure and reinvigorate the UN's sustainability bodies, such as the UN Environment Programme.

In the same way that market mechanisms have been promoted on the national level, public-private initiatives are being pushed at the UN, sometimes in the form of a disconcerting “minilateralism” that regards selfselected groups of governments, corporations, and NGOs as key drivers. As Lou Pingeot reminds readers in Chapter 15, there is a need for much greater transparency and agreed-upon norms to ensure that minilateralism does not amount to an end run around multilateralism.

Finally, we must point out that many of the world's governing systems are still heavily male dominated and thus reflect men's values, priorities, and viewpoints much more than they do women's. Just as the emergence of more democratic forms of governance has been a slow and difficult process, so is the effort to inject greater gender balance into governance. Governments might perform better if more women held positions of leadership, although the evidence so far on this question is inevitably thin, given the continued underrepresentation of women in executive political offices and in many legislatures. (See Box 22–1.)

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