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Creating Good Governance for People and the Planet

By Carolyn Raffensperger

Of all the problems ahead, particularly those arising from climate change, governance issues are the single biggest ball of thorns. We have solutions for preventing, mitigating, and adapting to the physical challenges of a changing climate but we don’t have good visionary solutions for the social challenges. In times of crisis, humans often become more hierarchical, more militaristic. Foresight and forecaring are more necessary now than ever, particularly for how we will govern ourselves. We have an opportunity to look ahead, apply vision and imagination to how we will live in a world that is rapidly evolving with predictable crises of massive droughts, flooding, fires, acidification of the ocean. How will we live together, allocate resources, make decisions and pass on a habitable world to future generations?

Good governance is key to answering those questions, making a smooth transition to the future and inhabiting that future well. Here are 12 premises of good governance. Six identify the problems and six propose a way forward.

13 Premises

Why governance is a problem:

1. Government and law change far more slowly than technology. This is what some call pace layering. Technological solutions to climate-induced problems can change far more rapidly than government.

2. Technology has outstripped our capacity for governance. Drones, surveillance, tar sands mining, and other technologies undermine democracy.

3. Scarcity and crisis tend to lead to hierarchy and inequality which arc towards violence and destabilization.

4. The prevailing theory in the U.S. is that government’s primary responsibilities are security and growing the economy.

5. Corporations have become the fourth branch of government with no checks and balances.

6. Representative forms of government conflict with an emerging principle of human rights—consent.

A Way Forward

7. Expand the notion of rights to include the individual right to a clean and healthy environment, the right of nature to exist, the right of Future Generations to a healthy and whole commons, and the right of communities to consent to activities that affect their future.

8. Define governments’ responsibilities as: 1) protecting and defending rights; and 2) serving as the trustee of the commonwealth and common health of Present and Future Generations.

9. Tailor the scale of government and the budgets of government to the rights and commons under their jurisdiction. For example, commons like the federal highways and national parks are under the jurisdiction of the federal government. U.S. Constitutional rights should be protected by the federal government. But state parks, public schools, wildlife are under state jurisdiction and should be funded and cared for by the state.

10. Develop measures for making community rights, including Free, Prior, and Informed Consent a defining principle of government. People and communities should have the right to consent or withhold consent from technologies, development, and other activities that may threaten the future.

11. Create new institutions and decision-making strategies that will allow us to prevent more environmental damage, mitigate existing harm, and adapt to the new norms. Guardians of Future Generations, public interest research agendas, evaluating alternatives to harmful activities, and other ideas emerging from precautionary strategies need to be put into place.

12. Economics cannot be used as a weapon or justification for destroying the commons or ecosystems. Situate economics appropriately so it does not conflict with the laws of biology, geology and ecology.

13. Enforce existing laws and reverse the burden of proof on harmful activities.  Illinois just passed fracking legislation but the Illinois regulatory agencies have been stripped of personnel and have had serious budget cuts that will prevent them from successfully regulating fracking or enforcing the law. Similarly, under most environmental laws the burden of proof lies with the public to show that a harm will ensue from an industrial chemical, facility, or activity. An industry or business should have the burden of proof to show that an activity will not impair the commons.

There have been times in our history when visionaries like Ben Franklin saw what was needed in terms of law and new institutions. Franklin created the first public library, fire departments, and other useful institutions. The 1970s were also a time of solutionary thinking about governance. States, including Illinois and Pennsylvania, amended their constitutions to include a right to a clean and healthy environment.  Hawaii recognized the trustee responsibility for the natural resources of the state.

We need now the kind of visionary thinking that led to libraries and rights to a clean environment. Now is the time to stop justifying old failed models of governance.  Now is the time to run experiments, try new things, and invent new institutions and laws. The future depends on it.