Review: Governance, Democracy and Sustainable Development

The subtitle of the book edited by James Meadowcroft, Oluf Langhelle and Audun Ruud is Governance, Moving Beyond the Impasse. Progress on important issues such as climate change, biodiversity, sustainable management of lands and oceans is blocked. The book’s essays, by some of the world’s leading thinkers, explore how we got here and how we might move beyond the current impasse. Although there is some discussion of accumulation, commodification, profit motive, greed, and corporate governance, more focus on those areas is needed to make more substantial progress.

Carlo Aall captures the sense of many. The public seems to believe they understand climate change but it can’t be that dangerous because so few are taking serious measures to deal with it. Aall, and others in the book, call for

developing and improving methodological approaches that can more convincingly illustrate the links among the local environment, local community and the global environmental effects of climate vulnerability.

More information and a better feedback loop will help citizens see the real dangers of inaction. Elizabeth Bomber’s essay brings the message closer to home with her examination of alliance-building, primarily between US and EU NGOs. Oluf Langhelle and Audun Ruud cite Norway’s leadership in developing and utilizing indicators of sustainable development. Although progress has been made they point to deficiencies in the notion of “natural capital” and deficient political discussion on strategy.

Per-Olof Busch and Helge Jorgens explore mechanisms of international policy coordination through diffusion, which could lead to legal harmonization.

Susan Baker’s explores Rawls’ treatment of the common good and advocates moving beyond his position of giving priority to rights, instead grounding justice on how institutions maintain ecosystems. The common good must be given precedent over and above human rights.

Rawls says that the principles of right are prior to the conception of the good. However, we argue that the good, as it relates to the overarching requirement to preserve ecological integrity, is prior to the system of rights.

Liberal democracy is generally inherently unsupportive of the norm of sustainable development, she argues, because it puts human/corporate interests and rights as the measure of all values. In future, deliberations must instead, be grounded on the common good, especially with regard to ecological integrity and a salubrious environment. We need non-anthropocentric principles to drive those engagements.

Only then will ethics be seen not as an obligation but as a source of affective commitment. Rights must be derivative of, and conditioned upon, their contribution of the good of the community, understood to include both social and natural dimensions. Rights decoupled from an ecological context are leading us on a path to mass destruction.

Stress on the common good can provide us with an ethics of environmental responsibility that can be used to ground collective action and provide a new political will to act… an organizing principle for collective action.

The other “must read” essay is William M. Lafferty’s “The Impasse of Dysfunctional Democracy.” Honoring Lafferty’s work with a symposium is what brought all the authors of this book together. His essay had the benefit of reflecting on the other papers and the gathering. Read it and you will probably want to go back and at least skim  others.

Lafferty speaks of the need to transcend traditional definitions of democracy based on nation states to one which elevates “crucial aspects of the global community.” We need to supplement community and national identities with “an emerging ecological community and globally responsible citizenship.”

Unfortunately, we have made little progress since Rio, so he searches for answers to the current impasse of competitive party (or nation) politics, which holds back progress toward sustainable development. The science of climate change is solid but a major hinderance is identified as capitalism, characterized by Robert Dahl as “a nondemocratic economic system.”

While Dahl places his hope on growing economic equality as a foundation for sustainable development and Meadowcroft adds the need for technological innovation and lifestyle changes, Lafferty takes us deep into a discussion of altering the presuppositions that might strengthen our political will. He calls for top down policy initiatives to prioritize an ecological direction by circumscribing the range of democracy.

Three general characteristics of this more ‘authoritative’ design are:

  1. greater legalism and regulation;
  2. greater caution as to risk; and
  3. strengthened advocacy in monitoring and implementation
He freely admits, his turn towards more authoritative governing for sustainable development is at odds with greater reliance on ‘free-market’ principles and the stakeholder participatory methods of ‘deliberative democracy’ that have dominated sustainable development theory since Rio. We’ve been mired down in process. While some may be tempted to constitutionally extend rights to future generations or nature, Lafferty sees the need for science and expert opinion to hold sway over our current electoral system where the winning side imposes their version of the ‘truth’ in any given policy area.  
Lafferty thinks the current ‘democratic toolbox’ can be used to “impose stronger and more effective pro-SD regulations.” However, as we saw when the SEC tried to impose proxy access rules even after being sanctioned to do so by Congress, the US Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable were able to overturn the rule essentially on the basis that the cost-benefit analysis didn’t recognize corporate boards would have a fiduciary duty to spend whatever it takes from corporate coffers to keep their own members in place. 
We aren’t likely to move beyond the impasse discussed in this impressive reader until corporations are infused with democracy. Just as our ancestors were able to point to the words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” we need to point to the need for corporate “elections” to involve real choices. Most corporate elections are similar to those in North Korea. Only incumbents are listed on the ballot, blank votes go to incumbents and it only takes one vote to win. 
A recent paper, CEO Wage Dynamics: Estimates from a Learning Model, finds that CEOs capture roughly half of the positive surplus from good news, with the other half going to shareowners who also absorb the full cost of bad news. One CEO capturing more than thousands of shareowners; no one sees that as equitable or just.
Institutional investors (mostly pension and mutual funds) own approximately 75% of the stock of the largest 1000 US corporations. As Monks and Minow once wrote in Power & Accountability,
Corporations determine far more than any other institution the air we breathe, the quality of the water we drink, even where we live. Yet they are not accountable to anyone.
Until they are, progress toward sustainable development is likely to be slow or nonexistent. Social media platforms, such may facilitate the ability of shareowners to hold corporations accountable. When they do, will they focus on sustainable development or simply short-term gain? Since most of those funds are invested for retirement, there is hope the focus will be long-term and sustainable.

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