February 14, 2014

Can Evolution Save Us From Climate Change? ~ Dr. Matthew Wilburn King

Save Our Earth

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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Mark Feb 15, 2014 11:30am

In my view, this is a very complex issue. The main problem is that there are over 7 billion people on this planet and growing rapidly. How do you feed, heat and shelter 7+ billion people? Going back to a "green" global lifestyle is pretty much impossible at this juncture. The evidence seems to suggest that we are heading for some rough waters.

Karissa Feb 15, 2014 8:15am

After decades of warnings, humans are finally beginning to grasp that our lives impact the planet. Still, many believe in the convenient garbage that the oil and gas industries pump out into our news feed—The planet is fine, it is meant to support us, global warming is a fraud, there is plenty of oil and gas for us to use, fracking is a responsible and beneficial action. The flame behind all of this is money. Unfortunately, greed is a fuel that does not run out. As long as there are large industries with the sole intent on raking in as much profit as possible via fossil fuels, the destruction will continue until there is nothing left to destroy.
While there are wonderful organizations taking serious action to stop the destruction and to knock some sense into our species, I fear that it is only going to slightly slow the process.
It is arduous for humans to change our ways of living. Most would much rather believe that the earth is fine rather than switching to solar power and refusing to use plastic. Until we all (including the money-hungry fossil fuel industries) accept that drastically changing our ways is pivotal for life on this planet, the destruction will continue.

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Dr. Matthew King

Dr. Matthew Wilburn King is an American author, international consultant, and “creative” residing in Boulder, Colorado. Matthew’s ultimate purpose in life is to live, love and learn. He has two decades of experience conducting research and development, leading projects, writing and delivering strategies in the fields of environmental governance, sustainable development, and social entrepreneurship. He’s worked for government, universities, non-profits and the private sector. He consults and advises leaders worldwide.

Matthew has been to every Continent on Earth with the exception of Antarctica, completed expeditions to over 30 countries, lived in five and studied and conducted research in four—completing his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge.

He has published academic and popular literature for the BBC, Journal of Biological Conservation, Marine Policy Journal, Earth Island Journal, World Watch Institute, U.N. Environment Program, U.N. Peacebuilding Commission, One Earth Future Foundation, U.S. Department of State, NOAA Research, Boulder Magazine, Mantra Magazine Yoga + Health, among others, as well as given talks around the world. He was 1/365 Authors selected to contribute to Global Chorus: 365 Voices on the Future of the Planet alongside Dr. Jane Goodall, Nelson Mandela, The 14th Dalai Lama, Stephen Hawking, Maya Angelou, Justin Trudeau, and others.

He is a former US Presidential Management Fellow, a Founding Member of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association, a post-graduate Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Kinship Conservation Fellow, and a Fellow of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. He is the Founder, President, and Chairman of the COMMON Foundation, serving people, planet, and peace. His biggest journey, thus far, has been his current one, from head to heart. You can find him here at COMMON Foundation, King’s Newsletter, King’s Creations, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Amazon Author Profile