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Governing for Stability: What Exactly Is Good Governance, Anyway?

Post by D. Conor Seyle. With Matthew Wilburn King, Seyle is co-author of “Understanding Governance,” a chapter in State of the World 2014. This chapter was included in a recent Foreword Friday excerpt. Last week, a new study was released that shows that the ice sheet in Western Antarctica is “in an irreversible state of decline.” Over time, this collapse is expected to lead to a significant increase in the global sea level, causing challenges for coastal communities. Regardless of whether you attribute the cause of this decline to man-made climate change or to some ongoing natural process, the collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet can be seen as a failure of humanity to effectively govern ourselves: If it is due to human activity, as it likely is, then it’s a failure of our global environmental system. If it is due to long-running climate change, then it’s a failure of our ability to predict and prevent these kinds of potentially catastrophic changes. This collapse underscores one of the major points contained in the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability, which launched in late April. The book asks how human social systems can make collective decisions about the use of natural resources in a way that ensures a sustainable future. In focusing on the idea of governance, Worldwatch is engaging with the critical question of how disruptions like the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet can be avoided and managed. The Antarctic is not the province of any one national government, and even if it were, the causes of the melting go far beyond the ability of any one state to resolve. Considering the idea of governance more broadly, rather than government, allows more robust analysis of how systems can be set up to prevent future collapses. By taking this approach, Worldwatch joins a larger trend of interest by researchers and practitioners in the idea of “governance”: My co-author and I found more than a million research publications focused on governance published in the decade 2001-2010, compared to only 765,000 focused on government as the key concept. In many ways, this trend is a positive one. Governance is much broader than government in its understanding of how collective decisions can be made. While both systems are used by humans to provide an ordered and structured society, governance allows for a broader—and more accurate—way of talking about how they work. Decisions about how natural resources are managed are made on a daily basis. Governments clearly play a role in these decisions, but they are also shaped by religious beliefs, social expectations, and local traditions. Because the concept of governance is extraordinarily broad, it is better able to capture the diverse mechanisms that humans use to pattern social groups. The weakness that accompanies this is that by trying to capture all of the complexity of human society, we may be unable to say anything specific enough to guide decision making. Our chapter in State of the World addresses this issue by reviewing definitions of good governance from a variety of fields. Researchers focus on how governance systems can increase efficiency and specialization of collective action, human rights, and natural resources. Across each of these topics, consistent themes arise that suggest how the global system can be set up to address future issues like the collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet. This research suggests that there are two basic characteristics of good governance: they rely on inclusive and participatory decision making according to rules applied to or understandings shared by all members of the collective and they include mechanisms for censuring those who do not act in accordance with collective decisions. Regardless of whether we’re analyzing governmental institutions or the systems in place to govern fishing on the high seas or just local customs that describe what polite behavior is, at the end of the day all governance systems are in some way or another engaging with the question of how to make a group of humans all agree on the basic rules and then follow them. Humans are social animals, and the idea that there are some basic things that we want from these collective systems is not too shocking. Systems that incorporate the governed into the decisions that are made, operate in a predictable and stable fashion, and have systems in place to stop spoilers simply work better. As the research and policy communities look for ways to improve governance around Antarctic ice and in many different areas, it may be the case that every intervention will ultimately boil down to variations on these basic themes. Perhaps, with these elements in place, glaciers not yet past the point of no return may be saved.   D. Conor Seyle is associate director of research and development at One Earth Future Foundation.