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State of the World 2014 - Governing for SustainabilityState of the World 2014 - Governing for SustainabilityState of the World 2014 - Governing for Sustainability

The Worldwatch Institute 

Island Press, ISBN 978-1-61091541-0, April 2014 –  320 pages


This annual report, which anyone even remotely interested in the future of this planet should read, marks the 30th anniversary of the series and the 40th anniversary of the Worldwatch Institute. This year the focus is on "Governance", or what and whom it will take to put on the break and steer the world to the opposite direction so as to avoid catastrophic climate change: warmer more acidic oceans, massive storms, rising seas thal disrupt food production, and force millions to relocate from sea coasts and arid regions. A total of 31 experts, mostly Academics and NGO officials, produce a thought-provoking and eye-opening analysis of current efforts, grassroots as well as top-bottom, as well as lack thereof, in an accessible, data-rich, format avoiding jargon suitable for all audiences. Each chapter has a very helpful conclusion. Although there is a United States focus there is a fair geographic coverage of other regions including Europe and China. The report, available in both paper and ebook format, documents the many progressive eco alternatives currently being pursued around the world even in places where you would least expect them to, due to mass media bias. It provides alternative non-market, ideas for needed change at different levels, from individual ethics to local and regional governments, to national policies to international policies.

The report, as expected by any serious and honest discussion, offers 'no silver bullet', no single approach. This is not a textbook either, so it may appear chaotic (suitably, as chaotic as the current state of governance for sustainability) to those seeking a textbook. A common theme among authors however is the necessity of citizen empowerment and citizen responsibility, hostility towards multinational corporations and authoritarianism of all types, an endorsement of grassroots environmental protests and a preference for transparent and accountable democracies, with direct democratic elements. Surprisingly, for a volume on governance and politics, there are few appearances of the terms "capitalism" or "socialism" or of the "climate justice" movement although there is a fair discussion of the underlying issues. (The only Marx mentioned is Groucho, while criticism of Capitalism is in most instances indirect.)

Even though all contributions are of a high quality, it would have been useful to have some from politicians, trade unionists, activists, mayors, business people, bankers and defence and security experts. Future editions will hopefully cover in greater depth issues such as Economic Migrants and Climate Refugees, Tax Havens, Tax Avoidance, transfer pricing, the resurgence of racism, neo-nazism and nationalism in Europe and the persistence of religious-based terrorism, organised crime, drug trafficking and sex trafficking. Future Editors should definitely also dedicate a chapter to Tourism and Travel, which are major sectors of the global economy and society, certainly a part of the problem as emitters of greenhouse gases and a part of the solution as major employers in resource-poor parts of the world.

Among the many memorable points produced by this collective effort are the following:

In the foreword, Professor David W. Orr sets the general tone of the volume by pointing out that the current climate crisis is no accident but ultimately it is the result of a "concerted ideological" (read neoliberal) "campaign to reduce the parts of government dedicated to public welfare, health, education, environment and infrastructure while at the same time raising defence expenditure, policing, subsidising fossil fuel industries", and weakening collective bargaining and union representation one may add. Professor Orr argues for a "much more equitable distribution of wealth" and "an economy similar to the stationary state predicted by John Stuart Mill in 1848". While "Markets do many things well" "for things that cannot be priced, they are inept, and autistic to human needs and ecological imperatives"!. Thus it is up to central governments to effectively price and/or control carbon for an entire country.

In Chapter 1 "Failing Governance, Unsustainable Planet" Michael Renner and Tom Prugh, codirectors of the State of the World 2014 project explain the structure and methodology of the volume and present a historic account of international environmental governance efforts so far. They speak of an "unprecedented crossroads that requires sharp departure from politics and business as usual" as we are looking at a 3.7 degrees - 6 degree Celsius increase in global average temperature within the century. They point out that the structures and processes under the UN's climate regime are largely indecipherable to the majority of people. Imposing a cap on emissions and putting a price on carbon appeared as a sensible market solution, however in practice it has failed with carbon prices having nose-dived repeatedly. Fixing carbon prices would require dramatically reducing the supply of carbon certificates and lowering the overall cap on emissions. In the mean time rich polluters have bought often questionable or fraudulent carbon offsets in poorer countries. A carbon trading 'priesthood' prevails while lobbyists paid by polluting industries draft legislation thanks to a revolving door allowing for the right people to move between positions in government and business. Market worship has marginalised successful experience around the world with managing of common-pool resources, i..e managing the atmosphere as a commons.

In Chapter 2 "Understanding Governance", D. Conor Seyle and Matthew Wilburn King define Governance ( ultimately derived from Greek "kybernan" or steering of a ship) as any system that humans use to make and enforce collective decisions, and "Good" governance as that governance which protects human rights and allows decisions by consent. The chapter presents the work of Elinor Ostrom, 2009 Nobel laureate in Economics and a major scholar of commons management. Local systems rather than large centralised governance appear to be particularly suited to the sustainable management of resources. The tragedy of the commons (i.e. looting of common-pool resources by individuals) is proven as an empirically false theory in many societies.

In Chapter 3 "Governance, Sustainability and Evolution" John M. Gowdy argues that there is an evolutionary basis for our current dilemma : 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. Sustainable human communities existed for some 2 million years (counting Home erectus as human) so there is hope!

In Chapter 4 " Ecoliteracy: Knowledge is Not Enough", Monty Hempel points out that theoretical environmental education is not enough, we need an education system that rewards action and a students personal efforts in reducing carbon emissions.

In Chapter 5 "Digitization and Sustainability": Richard Worthington critically evaluates the role of ICT and the Internet: on the one hand they may assist direct democracy and protests on the other they facilitate authoritarian control. The Internet also "spawns enormous volumes of cheap talk, i.e. internet petitions and similar communications who are ignored by officials and other elites".

In Chapter 6 "Living in the Anthropocene: Business as Usual or Compassionate Retreat?" Peter G. Brown attacks Geoengineering as futile and proposes an 'ecozoic' approach, which sees the earth and the universe as "a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects".

In Chapter 7 "Governing People as Members of the Earth Community" Cormac Cullinan, a leading environmental attorney from South Africa discusses the legal roots of Climate Change: By defining all of nature (other than humans) as property legal systems have enabled corporations to exploit and trade aspects of nature as if they were slaves. Cullinan proposes "Earth Jurisprudence" instead, a legal approach that recognizes that humans are an integral part of a whole living community, Earth. Bhutan, Bolivia, Ecuador have moved towards that direction in their legal systems although the latter two have continued to authorize mining and infrastructural projects. The author also highlights legal milestones such as a successful lawsuit in the name of Vilcabamba River in Ecuador, the recognition of the legal enforceable rights of "Pachamama" (Mother Earth) in the constitution of Ecuador in 2008, the recognition of the river Te Awa Tupua in NZ as a legal person in 2012, and the famous victory of the Dongria Kondh people against Vedanta Resources bauxite mining plans in April 2013. He also hails the legal resistance of many communities in the United States to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) through local ordinances and charters.

In Chapter 8 "Listening to the Voices of Young and Future Generations" Antoine Ebel and Tatiana Rinke compare among other things the wisdom of "The Seventh Generation principle" of the Iroquois people, which states that any action or decision should take into account its consequences for up to seven generations to come, with the short-termism of Corporations where the average tenure of a CEO is under four years.

In Chapter 9 "Advancing Ecological Stewardship Via the Commons and Human Rights" David Bollier and Burns Weston urge that humanity infuse ecological governance with a commons and rights-based approach. An estimated 2 billion people depend on natural-resource Commons including forests, fisheries, water, wildlife for their everyday needs. Thus public laws and policies must formally recognize and support these and countless other commons while new ones must be created: subsistence and indigenous commons, land trusts, cooperatives, online peer networks that monitor ecological resources, state-commons partnerships that contract with self-organized collectives (as some Italian municipalities have done).

In Chapter 10 "Looking Backward (Not Forward) to Environmental Justice Aaron Sachs warns that there is a risk of losing sight of the injustices of today's world when we worry about future Climate Change.

In Chapter 11 "The Too-Polite Revolution: Understanding the Failure to Pass U.S. Climate Legislation" Petra Bartosiewicz and Marissa Miley explain how, through industry pressure and influence on legislators, a more pro-environment US policy was not followed before and during the Obama administration and why the US never ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. At the same time mainstream environmental advocacy failed as it was too polite and elitist, with an insider approach and without an aggressive grassroots one. They agree with Naomi Klein that "what climate deniers understand and the big green groups do not is that lowering global carbon emissions to safe levels will be achieved only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their " free market belief system".

In Chapter 12 "China's Environmental Governance Challenge": Sam Geall and Isabel Hilton shed light into one of the 21st century's biggest questionmarks. China has recently surpassed the US to become the world's largest emitter of CO2 by volume, with 29% of global carbon dioxide emissions. While China's current leadership has made 'Ecological Civilization' and "Beautiful China" two of its most prominent slogans it is still weary of any international agreements that would impede economic growth. China's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) has enshrined sustainable development as a core state policy but China's environmental laws are still more akin to policy statements, encouraging rather than requiring. China's environmental and climate governance is at a crisis point: with more than 57% of the groundwater was rated bad or extremely bad, 30% of the major rivers polluted or seriously polluted and with air in 86 out of 113 key cities did not reach air quality standards, leading to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010 according to a study in The Lancet. The environmental movement is steadily growing within China since 2007, and public protests have succeeded in halting a number of large industrial and infrastructure projects such as a 6bn uranium processing plant in Guangdong province in July 2013..

In Chapter 13 "Assessing the Outcomes of Rio+20" Maria Ivanova largely agrees with Greenpeace's assessment of "The Future We Want" the event's 50-page outcome document as as "the longest suicide note in history"!

In Chapter 14 "How Local Governments Have Become a Factor in Global Sustainability": Monika Zimmermann finds that in the last 20 years local governments have radically stepped up their organising, cooperation and degree of commitment to addressing issues such as climate change and that they are less likely to be controlled by powerful special interests.

In Chapter 15 "Scrutinizing the Corporate Role in the Post-2015 Development Agenda": Lou Pingeot cautions against the rising corporate influence on the processes related to implementing Rio+20 decisions and illustrates how big names and key organisations in the environmental movement have ended up growing comfortable with the status quo in their efforts to secure funding and access to the corridors of power.

In Chapter 16 "Making Finance Serve the Real Economy", rather than destroy it as happened during the last (ongoing) economic crisis of 2008, Thomas Palley argues that the ever-rising influence of finance has led to a global economy that gobbles up growing amounts of scarce resources and distributes products in ever more unequal ways producing vast wealth gaps (the 1% vs the 99%). Palley argues for full employment, campaign finance reform (in the book we learn that during 2009 the 22.4m spent by pro-environmental groups on federal US lobbying efforts was dwarfed by oil & gas expenditures of USD 175m), financial transactions taxes, greater financial sector regulation and targeted, asset-based reserve requirements (ABRR) to prevent asset price bubbles.

In Chapter 17 "Climate Governance and the Resource Curse" Evan Musolino and Katie Auth, correlate economic dependence on oil and gas with poor governance and lack of freedom of the press. Essentially, oil interests control a number of national governments and thus block any international process reliant on cooperation between national governments. The authors admire Norway's Government Petroleum (now Pension) Fund (commonly "The Oil Fund") valued at USD 800 bn and its support, through transparent structures, of sustainable economic and social development.

In Chapter 18, one of the more optimistic chapters, "The Political-Economic Foundations of a Sustainable System" Gar Alperovitz discusses the alternatives, existing or feasible. Community wealth building can and does already take place: people join together through some form of public, community, or employee-owned business to meet local needs and thereby regain a measure of local economic democracy and control. They pool capital in ways that build wealth, create living-wage jobs and anchor those jobs in communities. In the United States more than 9,800 companies are owned in whole or part by workers through their pension contributions (employee stock ownership plan). 10.3 m Americans were employee-owners of such companies in 2009. 130 m. Americans are currently members of a co-op or credit union while 30,000 cooperatives created 856,000 jobs in 2009. Argentina's empresas recuperadas de trabajo (worker-recovered businesses) successfully emerged out of the economic collapse of 2001: some 300 businesses still operate under worker control as cooperatives in Argentina. The famous Mondragon cooperative in Basque region of Spain controls 257 businesses, with a revenue of Euros 14bn and a workforce of 80,000 in 2012. UK's The Co-operative Group, employs over 90,000, co-owned by 7.6m (2,800 food stores, 750 pharmacies, 300 bank branches). In Emilia Romagna region of Italy roughly 60% of the region's 4.4 m belong to at least one co-op. In Bologna 10% of the population works for a co-op. Grassroots resistance is also rising: 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 XL pipeline, challenged mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for natural gas. At the same time 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 km to an export terminal and eventually to Asian markets.

In Chapter 19 "The Rise of Triple-Bottom-Line Businesses" Colleen Cordes reviews the still "small" but continuing to expand "phenomenon" which mainly concerns small and medium-sized companies in the United States. The legal form of a "Benefit Corporation", first enacted as a law in the state of Maryland in 2010 (by November 2013 by 17 more states), requires such businesses to report annually and publicly on their overall environmental and social impact and assess it against an independent third-party standard. Corporate directors, the, as-yet-untested, theory goes, will have legal cover if they do not 'maximize shareholder value'. Acquisitions by larger corporations already pose complications and suspicions of greenwashing - can, for example, the wholly-owned subsidiary (Ben & Jerry's) of a multinational (Unilever) be certified as a Benefit Corporation? Apparently it can. Are Benefit Corporations a trojan horse to vie for/enter public sector business? There are predictions that most Fortune 500 companies will be Benefit Corporations in a few years, but would such corporations really have a social & environmental conscience or is it one more legal (and even 'ethical') method of tax avoidance.

In Chapter 20 "Working Toward Energy Democracy" Sean Sweeney suggests the good case of the city of Munich which decided in 2011 that all of its energy will come from renewables by 2025, and that all of it will be generated by the public sector because the private sector cannot be relied on. Sweeney explains that Germany's successes in advancing renewable energy are largely due to the role of public authorities in challenging privatization and intervening on behalf of the broader public. Half of Germany's wind power and three-quarters of German solar installations are locally owned. Liberalized energy markets elsewhere have led to competition when greater cooperation was needed. Sweeney is in favour of remunicipalizing utilities.

In Chapter 21 "Take the Wheel and Steer! Trade Unions and the Just Transition" Judith Gouverneur and Nina Netzer argue that a fundamental reorganization of work needs to be undertaken so that available work is better shared in a sustainable economy. But so far there is little sign of the fundamental sociocultural change that a radical reorganization of work would require, with unions being largely on the defensive worldwide for a number of reasons. Erstwhile strong trade unions in coal mining, steel and automotive industries are particularly between a rock and a hard place when it comes to developing a climate change stance.

In the concluding Chapter, 22 entitled "A Call to Engagement" Tom Prugh and Michael Renner sum up the volume and convincingly argue that only a more engaged citizenry can offer the key to all dimensions of sustainability. It seems clear to the authors "particularly after the latest recession, that markets will not be riding to the rescue" as they (markets) are self-serving and often self-destructive, while multinational corporations, the greatest supporters of open markets "behave according to an internal logic of their own that is very often contrary to the public's interests and the planet's." Improving governance will take personal, local as well as national action and responsibilities.

Assisted by academic-quality as well as readable works such as this volume, people in the streets and in online communities worldwide increasingly understand that multinational corporations, and the governments they control or influence, still treat, and will always treat, environmental and social factors as "externalities" and will do anything to delay - already very late - decisions needed for our own survival (because the planet will survive even without humans). It is high time that we the people also start treating such corporations and governments as externalities and as self-serving relics of a barbaric era putting (industrial) growth above all else. The keys to progressing can be found through cooperation between all sections of the broad movement for ecological & social justice (climate justice) and by avoiding the narcissism of small differences. The many, Hoi Polloi, the 99%, have science and justice on their side, so they will not lose, no matter how powerful the 1% is.

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