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From State-Based Sovereignty Towards Bright Green Governance
Billy Matheson, 9 Nov 07
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In his book Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming (2007), as well as through the Wiser Earth project, Paul Hawken offers a compelling vision of a green future in which people all around the planet reconnect with each other, with place, and with an understanding that "all life is sacred."

If, as Hawken suggests, we are in the middle of the "next great transformation," it will require us to form relationships with each other -- and not just the easy kinds of relationships with people we like, but the hard kind: relatedness across difference and across scale.

The hardest differences to bridge might be differences in how we understand governance and imagine sovereignty.

Much of our modern thinking about rights is informed by an idea of sovereignty that emphasises autonomy rather than relatedness. Nations go to war because they have the right to do it. Businesses pollute because they have the right to pollute. Governments pass environmental legislation because they have the right to make laws. Community groups organise and campaign because they have the right to, people vote because they have the right to.

In some ways the idea of sovereignty is an abstract concept, but it"s an abstraction that informs so many of our actions in the world. So how else might we govern ourselves, and each other, in a bright green future? How, for example can a regional government allow deforestation without causing conflict amongst local groups that need to make an income from that same forest, or preserve their hunting grounds? How do local groups concerned about financial decisions being made at the national or global level attain meaningful input into the process without having to resort to illegal demonstrations?

Contemporary history is often presented as a struggle between opposites. On one side is a large, normative monopoly government that holds power at the center; on the other a small, highly distributed "power to the edges" approach. What if today"s challenges meant that we needed to re-imagine both, and all points in between?

Using the space between these polarities as a point of departure, let"s explore the possibility of a bright green vision of governance and sovereignty that exists at "all states, all stages." This may present us with some new options.

The Green State

For most of us "the state" is the main source of power and structure in our lives. The state creates and enforces laws, participates on our behalf in issues of global governance, and is subject to a measure of democratic accountability. While more and more people are also getting involved in local and regional governance, big decisions -- especially significant environmental decisions -- are usually made the state level. For this as well as other reasons the state is often the focus of conversations about green governance.

I want to look at the idea of the state through the lens of a book titled The Green State: Rethinking Democracy and Sovereignty, by Australian academic Robyn Eckersley (2004).

From an environmental perspective the nation-state seems to create a number of problems, as environmental crises do not respect national boundaries. This might be a simple as a polluted river flowing from one country to another, or as complex as global climate change. Because we divide ourselves into nation-states, we end up competing for resources in a process that seems to actively encourage ecological destruction. When the consequences of this present themselves we cannot respond to them effectively because we cannot decide who is responsible.

From a social justice perspective the nation-state also seems to create a number of problems. In many parts of the world national boundaries are legacies of European expansion and conquest during the colonial period. The kind of territorial authority embodied by these borders underpins many of the ethnic conflicts in recent history. Regional and local assertions of independence and self-rule are often suppressed by central state governments, and cultural minorities dispersed within or between nations often struggle to get adequate representation at the national level.

While Eckersley acknowledges both these perspectives, she also pragmatically argues that the state is still the primary political institution we have to address our environmental and social problems. She describes nation-states as key players in maintaining global order.

The Green State explores how we might create a green democratic state as an alternative to the present liberal democratic state. According to the publisher"s blurb:

This is the first book to make the vision of a "good" green state explicit, to explore the obstacles to its achievement, and to suggest practical constitutional and multilateral arrangements that could help transform the liberal democratic state into a post-liberal green democratic state. Rethinking the state in light of the principles of ecological democracy ultimately casts it in a new role: that of an ecological steward and facilitator of trans-boundary democracy rather than a selfish actor jealously protecting its territory.

If we want to see any greening of domestic policy and of international policy law, Eckersley argues, then we need to "green" our idea of the state, and of democracy, as necessary first steps. Throughout the book she connects the moral and practical concerns of the environmental movement with contemporary academic theories about the state, democracy, and justice.

The Green State isn"t a light read. I found it hard work, one of those books you dutifully finish to justify the (re-cycled) paper and the (shipping) freight involved. But I suspect that it is an important book and it puts a stake in the ground well ahead of mainstream political discourse.

Bright Green Sovereignty

Bright green thinking invites us to go beyond old models, which traditional green thinking has always done, but it also asks us to go beyond those traditional green alternatives as well and listen to the future that seeks to emerge. The challenge seems to be doing this respectfully, in a way that takes the best of the old while bringing in new contributions. If the green state represents the emerging edge of conversations about green governance then how to we add to it rather than sit back and critique it from a safe distance?

In this next section I want to present a conceptual model as a way of placing other sites of governance and sovereignty along side the idea of the green state. The model is certainly not meant to "true" or provide any answers. It certainly cannot be in any way complete. Like any model it is a thinking tool and will create as many questions as it resolves. What I am trying to present in this model are some possible layers and shapes that may help us to get inside the idea of sovereignty.

This model was informed by two excellent books: Presence (2002) by Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jarworski and Betty Sue Flowers, and Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges (2007) by Otto Scharma.

On the left hand side of the "U diagram" above are some layers from the past of the idea of sovereignty. These are presented in a linear historical sequence from nature-based or pagan, to Christian, to Monarchy, to Democracy, to the modern ideal of personal autonomy. Down the center of the model is a progression in the idea of sovereignty, which shifts in scale from universal to individual. It also shifts from being "out there" to "in here", from unknowable, to God"s will, to the King"s word, to State law, to My decision.

Moving across to the right hand side of the U diagram, the model "flips" from linear history-telling to a more generative space. On this side of the model the five levels move back up the scale from small to large. As we do this we are attempting to describe in the simplest terms what bright green governance might involve at each stage. At the individual level it starts by "getting to we." At the local level we can co-create new cultural forms; at the regional level there is cooperation on larger scale projects; and at the global level there is collaboration for the common good.

Across the bottom of the model the shift is described using a number of polarities. I have also tried to interrupt the linear nature of models like this by suggesting that a move away from "the future" and suggest instead the idea of "presence" might best describe the long now that underpins thinking in terms of integrity and legacy, rather than progress through time and space.

Finally this model describes a journey: from undifferentiated participation in nature, to highly differentiated individualism, to returning to a holistic consciousness. Based on Ken Wilbur"s pre-rational, rational, trans-rational distinction, I have added pre-relational, related, trans-relational to this. The story I am trying to tell here is a cultural journey from society and family of origin (no choice), to isolated individual (no choice), to autonomous individual (chosen), to empowered community, to co-created society.

A Story of Belonging

In this last section I want to share a story that one of my teachers and mentors told me, both because it is a good story but also to start to ground some of these ideas in place and in action.

The story concerns about a group of early Polynesian settlers of this land. He described the islands they came from, the journey they made getting here, and the intricate feather cloaks worn by their Rangatira, or senior leaders. These cloaks, he told me, were made from parrot feathers and the red feathers were especially prized. A cloak made exclusively from red feathers was treasured not just as a statement of personal power but a collective expression of cultural sovereignty.

Most New Zealanders know the famous story about the arrival of Maori in what would come to be known as Aotearoa, the land of the "long white cloud" that is visable long before you see land itself. In my teacher"s story though, when the voyagers did arrive in sight of the shore they were greeted by a land fully cloaked in red. The Pohutukawa (or New Zealand Christmas tree) that covers the coastline of much of our northern island was in full bloom. In response to the overwhelming statement of sovereignty before them, the Rangatira took off their small red cloaks and cast them into the sea, ceding their authority and that of their people to this new land.

As someone who enjoys ritual I was moved by this powerful image of a new beginning. The opportunity to make such a powerful commitment to place was recognized by the people in the story and accepted with an act of humility. The story still resonates inside of me after more than a decade because I wonder: what it would be like for all of us to make a similar commitment to the land on which we live?

When my ancestors arrived in this place as part of the European Diaspora, they bought with them their own rituals of belonging, and their own ideas of sovereignty. Today New Zealanders continue refer to "The Crown" or "The State" as the source of authority to make their decision. I wonder how different New Zealand would be if we too reinvested our sovereignty in this place, in this land?

Towards A New Vocabulary of Governance and Sovereignty

When most of us think of sovereignty we usually imagine some a singlular and absolute power. The law. The king. God. Gaia. This article has suggested that we will need a more subtle and complex understanding of governance, and of the sovereignty that governance is based on, if we want to create sustainable environments, organisations and relationships.

We may need a new vocabulary just to have the conversation about governance and sovereignty in the global and networked world. Learning how to have this conversation is the work of active citizenship.

This is not a new idea. In many ways I feel like we are just starting to realise the potential described in the social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762). It was their ideas that helped Thomas Jefferson to write the American Declaration of Independence in 1776:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

While the Declaration didn"t immediately result in votes or rights for "all men" (or women) it did open a space to have a conversation about those rights. The idea that "we the people" have both the opportunity, and the responsibility, to self govern. This idea was probably just as exciting and confronting then as it is today.

This was a vision of "active citizenship." Rather than being passive consumers of a political process, active citizenship means asking each other how we want to "do governance" and then getting on with it.

The possibility of bright green governance I have tried to describe here, involves shifting from a linear historical trajectory of "sovereignty and government" into a new space of "service and governance." I have suggested that such new forms would occur as innovation at multiple scales or levels and in a diverse range of modes across the system.

In the book Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems (2002) Lance Gunderson and C. S. Holling describe the similarities between human and other complex natural systems. Learning from nature we too may be able to develop the "resilience" needed in our selves and in the way we do governance to navigate the next part of the journey.

Just as Robyn Eckersley encourages us to "green" the state, I would ask that we bring both our intention and attention to all the new forms of service and governance we see emerging in the world.

Today"s active citizenship might start with noticing the change around us.

Image credit: Koru from (Creative Commons)

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What's that saying again?

"The State is that entity which claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of lethal force withing an area?"

What it all comes down to is "under what condition will people with guns come and stop you doing what you are doing?"

Right now, if you're in America, the EPA can send the police to stop you doing what you're doing.

If you're in China, the EPA can't come over there. Same air, different law. That's where we are right now.

The problem is at least threefold.

1. What if we globalize these environmental laws without an appropriately democratic decision making foundation?

Like One Child Family was INCREDIBLY effective as an environmental policy, but you probably don't want it imposed on you.

2. What if we *do* democratize our environmental laws globally, and people wind up voting for dumb things?

For example, what if global lobbying targeted at the poorer and less educated convinces them to vote for liberal carbon allowances, because after all, that lets them burn coal, for cheap power, for industrial growth - just like America and Europe did?

Should we be paying "Carbon Reparations" for all the CO2 we have emitted already, and the industrial growth it allowed us?

3. When it inevitably comes down to "balance of life" arguments - who lives and who dies, through loss of agricultural lands to global warming, or through slowed economic growth due to energy constraints on coal - who gets to choose and on what basis?

Local governance is hard. National governance is harder. Global governance is hardest of all.

Right now, a rational global environmental policy would curtail the consumption of natural resources by Americans by maybe 80%. We can't get our own government to persuade us to cut it by 10% through things like feebates and taxes.

We'd have a global government-like body do more?

Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 9 Nov 07

Billy, Thank you bringing these fabulous ideas together and presenting them so lucidly. It will take a lot of time for me to read the material and think through the issues for myself.

The quoted passage from the declaration of independance is interesting in that it is applicable to all people in the world at any point in history / future. It has nothing to do with USA. Just wanted to point that out.

Keep up the work you love.

Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 12 Nov 07



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