Averting a Tragedy of the Global Commons
What can be done to strengthen global stewardship of shared resources like the oceans and the atmosphere?
- Most governments see the cost and benefits of every significant action differently, except in times of crisis.
- Developing sound policy at the global, and even national, level is made more difficult by the deluge of information and opinion.
- Political leaders are accountable to national electorates, while many threats are transnational, even global.
- Excess has become the norm both in most developed societies, and among those in emerging economies who have escaped poverty and feel the need to demonstrate their success.
In this economically and technologically hyperconnected world, too many political challenges fall through the global institutional cracks, causing short-term harm and risking a tragedy of the “global commons” — those planetary resources, like the oceans and the atmosphere, on which all human life depends.
Because the global commons are not in private or national ownership, there is a core imperative for effective global governance of the global commons. We need to change our policy and governance paradigms, so as to live successfully in the nonlinear, partly adaptive, ecological systems in which we are embedded, and to manage, to our collective advantage, the nonlinear socioeconomic systems we have created.
The first challenge of global governance is that almost all actors — and most governments — see the cost and benefits of every significant action differently, except in times of crisis. So, when all backs were to the wall in April 2009 because of the, just over six months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the leaders at the G20 summit in London were able to take a strong unified stance.
Just over a year later, in June 2010, when the sense of crisis had abated, Reuters described the Toronto Summit as “sound[ing] increasingly like a line from the Frank Sinatra signature song, ‘My Way.’” By the Seoul Summit in November 2010, Nouriel Roubini and Ian Bremmer were speaking of “the collapse of the G20 into the G0!”
Likewise, the path from Kyoto to Copenhagen, Cancún and Durban was frustrating, despite the EU’s bold policy stance, China’s domestic determination to extend its use of alternative energy, the Obama Administration’s willingness to engage more constructively than previous U.S. administrations, and several well-organized civil society campaigns. Few hold out great hopes for a substantive agreement at a future meeting, despite our collective efforts.
The second problem is information clutter. The task of developing sound policy at the global, and even national, level is made more difficult by the deluge of information and opinion, which confuses most citizens and many politicians. This continuous flow of — and demands imposed by — e-mails, digital calls and instant messaging, make reserving time for thinking difficult, while the complexity of the issues we must address in a highly connected world, demands deep insight.
We should also be concerned about the vulgarization of democratic expression through Twitter and Facebook. They displace analysis, privilege emotion and pose new challenges to even the best-intentioned policymakers.
The moral and political authority of most institutions has been weakened. Many democratic governments have been led by opinion polls in the past two decades, abdicating considered judgment and crafting policies to suit the whims of shifting majorities. Not surprisingly, greed and fear has come to dominate the landscape, and populism is on the rise.
At the heart of the problem of global governance, however, is the fact that political leaders are accountable to national electorates, while many threats are transnational, even global. Future threats can only be warded off by actions taken (and costs incurred) in the present, while their putative benefits will accrue (if at all) in the future. No wonder we often fail to act effectively to avert recurrent tragedies, or the threat of a collective tragedy of the commons.
The problem is exacerbated by disciplinary specialization in the academic realm — which requires deep but narrow expertise — and its corollary, the specialized but fragmented focus of national government departments and multilateral agencies.
Material advances over the past three decades have caused us to prioritize consumption and display over conservation. We have lost sight of the need for balance between individual rights and freedoms, social obligation and respect for the ecosystem on which we depend for survival.
Excess has become the norm both in most developed societies, and among those in emerging economies who have escaped poverty and feel the need to demonstrate their success. Industry — and the media and advertising services that support it — drive rising demand and encourage a sense of perpetual want.
We must check our hubris, recognize the reality of (still poorly defined) planetary boundaries and restore balance — before we trigger systemic inflection points that may unleash consequences from which we cannot recover.
Devising effective governance
To address the challenge of sustainable development — development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs — and devise effective systems of national and global governance, we must overcome the constraints of disciplinary specialization and focus on five integrated challenges. They comprise an imperative “global agenda” and an essential paradigm for governance:
1. Delivering environmentally and socially sustainable economic growth — for without this, we shall not be able to achieve anything else
2. Reducing poverty and improving equity — because exceptional prosperity for the few at the expense of the many is neither morally justifiable nor politically sustainable
3. Addressing the sources of global, national and human vulnerability and promoting security — for security underpins both community and progress
4. Sharing the norms and values that enable global coexistence, and working to reconcile cultural differences — because respect for core human values and universal norms allows us to live in harmony, while appreciation of cultural diversity enriches our understanding; and
5. Improving the quality of global governance and our global institutions — for most of the important challenges we face in a highly-connected world cannot be resolved any other way
In tackling this global agenda, we need to recognize that we do not all share the same interests or prioritize the same values with respect to these overarching goals. We have to agree on a certain number of binding norms that will be applied by all states in their dealings with one another, if we are to address the challenges we face. The diffusion of power from West to East and North to South means that the norms will have to be negotiated, as they can no longer be imposed by using economic or military might.
Rethinking and understanding the obstacles to better governance of global challenges is the first step to improving our performance. Demonstrating the humility and political will to address them collaboratively, is the second.
Editor’s note: This essay was adapted from the author’s presentation at the 2011 Salzburg Trilogue. Hosted by the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Germany, the Salzburg Trilogue facilitates international cultural dialogue by bringing together recognized public figures to consider matters of global importance.