In March, Jeffrey Sachs published his latest book Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet – an urgent plea for societies across the globe to reduce and better manage their impact on the earth’s ecosystems if we want to survive and prosper in an ever more crowded world.
As Sachs warns, continuing ‘business as usual’ will make life on our planet increasingly unsustainable. Air pollution and global warming present the biggest risks. But as humans have come to use almost any natural resource intensively, there are also major risks related to the availability of water and of fertile top-soil. At the same time, Sachs argues that we have the technical tools and the economic means to save the planet and to accommodate a rising global population – as well as increasing global wealth and rising consumption in today’s poorer countries.
However, managing and preserving the regional and global ‘commons’ – water, forests, soil, the climate, and many others – will require change in many countries. Achieving such change will only be possible if the right political decisions are taken in many countries – and ultimately if substantial improvements in how societies govern themselves can be achieved. Thus, while economics can suggest what could be done and at what cost, innovations in governance and politics are crucial for ensuring that the requisite action is taken. In this sense, the biggest challenge for a ‘crowded planet’ is not – or certainly not only – economics, but how to make a leap in the quality of governance across many countries as well as at the international level.
Given the enormous challenges of living on a crowded planet, the need for better governance increases – in terms of greater capacity, greater integrity, and greater transparency – as does the need for greater incentives for individuals and groups to contribute to the global common weal. It is also a challenge which is shared by developing and developed countries.
Better governance is essential to manage global warming, to prevent the collapse of more and more fisheries, an increasing scarcity of potable water in many regions, and the disappearance of most of the remaining primeval forests in our lifetimes. Moreover, only by improving governance is it possible to build societies in which people are willing or able to contribute to addressing these collective challenges. These changes are urgently needed as we move from a global population of currently 6 to around 9 billion people by 2050, as well as to societies in which people increasingly live in large urban conglomerates.
The challenge of achieving such leaps in governance is immense. In recent years, the development community has started to focus increasingly on the quality of governance in poor countries. However, it is becoming clear that a further substantial broadening of the approach is needed: being more serious about governance, state- and democracy-building in poor countries, but also focusing on governance in rich and in middle income countries, and – furthermore – at the international level and across countries – which if anything is one of the most intricate parts of the challenge (Economist: What a way to run the world?).
In the global North, governments urgently need to become less beholden to lobby groups, but also to the trap of ‘populist’ appeals to voters. In the global South, most governments – whether more democratic or more authoritarian – are still far too frequently controlled by elites that disregard the needs of their citizens. Across the globe, the key challenge is to create more cohesive societies, with more embedded and more accountable states.
But how could governance be organized differently? Why would a well-heeled American SUV-driver or a Chinese new businessman care to lower their carbon footprint? Why would politicians at the edge of the Amazon protect the forest more effectively? Why would European fishermen agree to a significant reduction in fishing quota? Why would the interconnected business and political elites in natural resource rich countries give up appropriating the country’s oil wealth rather than sharing it with the millions of fellow citizens living on $2 a day or less?
For a start, we urgently need to move beyond the thinking of the 20th century that solutions are provided either by the market or by the state. Solutions to the governance challenge of a 21st century can only be provided jointly by the market, the state, and society. In some ways, this means moving back to a greater involvement of society in government affairs – something that has existed in small governance units such as early modern cities and city states, and exists in some selected places today (e.g. in the famous case of Porto Alegre's participatory budgeting). At the same time it means moving forward, in terms of involving and empowering societies in new ways – combining ideas and technology.
Social science experiments in a range of countries provide some ideas. Experiments with 'deliberative polling' – combining intensive information and debate with an experimental referendum on policy issues – show that a significant share of citizens change their preferences when they become better informed about an issue, and generally become more willing to promote the public good. Experiments with elections in developing countries indicate that voters start preferring public policy options over clientelistic messages if the former are proposed consistently and in ways which are sufficiently concrete (see the paper on Wantchekon’s 2001 experiment on elections in Benin). Lucio Picci has suggested ways of harnessing the internet and public scrutiny for generating reputation based public procurement – which may offer important improvements over existing attempts at procurement reform. Experimenting with such mechanisms could be particularly important as countries seek to overhaul existing infrastructure to reduce emissions.
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