If evolution seems to have backed us into a corner when it comes to existential threats such as climate change, does it also offer a way out?
The failure of traditional human governance institutions to come to grips with climate change—to perceive the threat, formulate a coherent and flexible response, and then enact it with vigor and discipline—is all too plain.
Nearly all climate scientists now agree that climate-warming trends over the past century can be attributed mainly to human activity, and it is no longer a matter of scientific dispute that climate change poses real challenges for current and future generations.
Humanity has been aware of climate change for decades, yet for the most part neither individuals nor institutions have been able to respond at the appropriate scale or speed.
We have failed to significantly reduce carbon emissions or our reliance on fossil fuels, a triumph of short-term interest in sustaining or raising current levels of energy consumption over our long-term welfare.
The paradox is that our evolutionary history has equipped us for long-term planning and action.
Humans possess a highly advanced capacity for mental “time travel” and are arguably unique in the degree to which we can recall past events and anticipate future scenarios. To an extent, at least, we can imagine and predict multiple, complex outcomes and act accordingly in the present to achieve desired outcomes in the future. This general capacity is very old; the first direct evidence for it is found in the two-million-year-old stone tools shaped by our distant ancestors.
Moreover, humans regularly do make long-term plans: we invest in retirement accounts, establish trust funds and endowments, and buy insurance, for example.
However, while these plans sometimes have long-term impacts on society, they frequently yield results that will directly affect only the individuals themselves or the next one or two generations. Evolutionary theory suggests a reason for that too: we care most about our genetic relatives, i.e., great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, or an approximate span of 140 years that includes both past and future family members.
Beyond that most people do not care much about the past or the future.
To embody and act upon those concerns that extend beyond family to others and to times beyond our own lifespans, humans have created institutions. Governments are pre-eminent among the institutions that are supposed to perform this role, but as already noted they have not been effective at addressing climate change.
However, humans are creatures of culture, the product of learned human behaviors and actions that cannot be directly attributed to genetic inheritance.
Governance is a cultural phenomenon and evolves similarly to physical traits: behaviors can be transmitted and can change over time. We are now seeing the emergence of a kind of governance that departs from the centralized, top-down structures we have so far relied upon to solve problems. Networked systems of governance are a shift toward a more self-organizing approach that brings together dispersed individuals from the state, civil society, and private sectors that have a shared interest.
Each acts independently yet remains connected through exchanging information, planning for future events, and cooperating as is useful.
Systems of networked governance arose soon after World War II and have been growing ever since as an adaptation to meet the global challenges and complex problems that existing systems, which frequently are slow and hampered by the politics of entrenched interests, have failed to address adequately. Networked systems of governance make it possible for small groups to act quickly and in locally appropriate ways, testing solutions that can then be passed on to other groups with similar aims. Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye has described these networks as a cultural adaptation that is evolving slowly to supplant the formal mechanisms of international cooperation.
Some current examples of networked governance addressing the challenge of sustainability include the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the Marine Stewardship Council, Equator Principles, and the Forestry Stewardship Council. Each has been successful to varying degrees because they facilitate collaboration among a wider range of actors including the private sector, governments, international organizations and NGOs to achieve a common vision in the absence of regulation.
Networked governance may be the very type of social evolutionary development or adaptation that will make it possible for us to counter our inherent biases so that we can begin to reorder our lives in a way that moves us toward a more sustainable future. As systems of networked governance become more prevalent and stand (or fail) the test of time, we can help drive their evolution by exploring ways they might be replicated at varying scales to share lessons learned and encourage adoption of good governance practices.
The survival and evolution of cultures rely on the inheritance of learned behaviors, including cultures of good governance. Networked systems of governance are currently the most versatile, agile, and adaptive systems available to meet the challenges ahead of us.
The task now is to identify and strengthen these new systems as they are emerging.
Note: The full text version of this article will be published in the World Watch Institute’s State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability, as well as a chapter written by Dr. Conor Seyle and Dr. Matthew W. King on “Understanding Governance”.
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