Earth System Governance

Knowledge brokering04 Dec 2009

As you may have already noted, the new issue of The Broker is online. Our feature article this time is about Earth System Governance: Managing Global Change by Frank Biermann and Ruben Zondervan.

The Broker is, at the moment, also blogging from the big Amsterdam Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change – Earth System Governance, People, Places, and the Planet – check out our conference blog.

I have deliberated for a long time over whether to publish this article about Earth System Governance. My main doubt related to the fact that this piece still merely poses questions. It is a rather new area of academic research and it is very abstract, talking about global public goods, networks, formal and informal political processes, etc.

But there are many reasons to publish this article. I think that one of the main challenges in this period of history is to establish much more efficient and just forms of global governance, which overcome the structural deficiencies of the current international system that is based on the dominance of national states and their relations. Apart from the inherent pursuit of national self-interest, which impedes the common care for global common goods, there is another big problem with (any form of) global governance: it takes place at a level that is too far away from people’s daily lives, their societies, their politics. I think that much of the current turmoil in western societies – the lack of trust in politicians, the fear of other cultures and for the uncertainty global processes entail, and the subsequent withdrawal behind safe national walls – has to do with this contradiction between the local and the global (listen to the interesting video interview about this friction with Roberto Pereira Guimarães). Such problems are not addressed in the traditional international relations studies, and neither in the more locally or nationally-focused social sciences.

The Earth System Governance project is part of an even wider research project, with many institutes worldwide involved, and over many years. But as such, the ESG project is already encompassing a very broad area and many academic disciplines (listen, for example, to what conference organizer Frank Biermann told The Broker in this video).

It is the aim of The Broker to promote as much ‘cross-fertilizing’ as possible, so as to improve the exchange – to broker – between different communities, disciplines and policy fields. In this sense, it is interesting to encounter at the ESG conference people like Peter Leigh Taylor, who does research in the field of global value chains: the subject of our special report in issue 16.

Earth System Governance covers a very wide range of actors on the global level, so not only the usual suspects in international relations literature: states and international organizations. It looks at global networks, at multinational companies, and at the global civil society. It looks, for example, at the legitimacy of actors such as big international NGOs. And here is an overlap with the work of Lisa Jordan, who was one of the keynote speakers at the Complexity and Strategy conference in Wageningen. Jordan, who together with Peter van Tuijl published ‘NGO Accountability; Politics, Principles and Innovations’, talked in Wageningen about global civil society and global governance.

Another example of the overlap between the ESG conference and the Complexity gathering is the central role of power relations. Read what blogger Sara Hughes writes from the ESG conference venue: ‘What was particularly interesting were the “cross-cutting themes” of power, knowledge and scale – issues deemed to be universally pervasive in the dynamics of earth system governance…. Powerful interests often block efforts to improve water conservation, protect wetlands, develop alternative energy supplies, or support sustainable agriculture. And when these same interests change their position… we often see fast action and big changes. However, we still need to know how these power centres can be overcome, moved somewhere else, or transformed.’

These kinds of angles and approaches fit well into one of the central lines that The Broker tries to explore: the new actors in globalization. See, for example, our special report in issue 17, Cities of the world unite, about the increasing influence of cities and their networks on the global stage.

And, finally, I see the ESG project and conference as a platform where a lot of things come together. Starting from the perspective of the environment, natural resources and climate change, the ESG is moving into a much wider area, which encompasses a lot of themes and debates of the development community, international relations and social sciences. Many of the scientists that attend the Amsterdam conference at this moment will fly tomorrow to Copenhagen for the COP15. Indeed, some of the videos (Diana Liverman, Joyeeta Gupta) on our conference blog are about what should happen to combat climate change. Although up until now expectations are not too high about the results of the Copenhagen Climate Conference, in more general terms and in the longer term I think that the climate crisis could be, to use a term often used in complexity thinking, the ‘tipping point’ that helps us move into world relations that will be characterized by real cooperation, instead of competition.