Introduction: What is governance for sustainability?


This report – if we can call it that – compiles information, evaluations, and case studies about governance for sustainability. The topic is serious and pressing, but also incredibly complex because it addresses the three key issues of globalization, democracy, and sustainability. Rather than trying to offer a definitive report that attempts to incorporate these three issues into one theory, we extend an invitation to the wider IUCN community – to academics and environmental activists – to take up the challenge and jointly search for a theory of sustainable governance that can make a difference in practice. This report should be seen as a first step towards such an initiative.

Relating the concept of governance to the concept of sustainability requires no less than reformulating the basics of democracy. It is clear that the past 20 years of neo-liberal economic globalization have eroded both the common good and democracy. Reclaiming lost ground, therefore, is paramount for disempowered communities and disenfranchised citizens. But this in itself will not be enough. The real issue is whether the common good, that is the sustainability of life, can be pursued through democratic forms of governance. While the word sustainable has been slapped onto everything from sustainable development to sustainable economic growth, sustainable communities to sustainable energy production, the theory of sustainability and what it means to the concept of (democratic) governance has hardly been discussed. Some might say that sustainability, like democracy, is a mere ideal toward which we strive, a journey more than a destination, a goal removed from politics.

But even if we accept that sustainability is an ideal, some clarity is urgently needed. Our democratic institutions – governments, political parties, and the media – are currently fixated on economic growth. What may have started with great promise has been compromised, if not abandoned, because of the global market ideology. The ‘displacement of the political by the market’ (J. Habermas) raises the question of how democracy and sustainability can ever be revived.

We strongly feel that the concepts of democracy and sustainability are both absolutely indispensable, and further that one cannot be realized without the other. However, we also believe that the concept of democracy must be reformulated based on commonly accepted principles, such as freedom, equity, justice, and also sustainability. The search for a principled approach to democracy has occupied the literature for some time. There is a host of new composite terms such as ‘discursive democracy’ (Habermas), ‘deliberative democracy’ (J. Elster), ‘substantive democracy’ (W. Bello), ‘cosmopolitan democracy’ (D. Held), ‘normative democracy’ (R. Falk), ‘ecological democracy’ (R. Morrison), ‘sustainable democracy’ (A. Przeworski) or ‘Earth democracy’ (V.Shiva). They all point to the blind spot of democratic decision making. Understood as a system of government through elected representatives, democracy is always at risk of losing sight of its political sovereign – its citizens. Demos, the Greek root of democracy, originally meant the district, or the land, and later came to mean the people. Polis, the root of politics, means the city, the Greek unit of government. Modern democracy has reduced citizens to consumers. Its ideal is not the actively involved citizen, but the consumer voting on the basis of personal economic security. It is here, at the level of citizenship, where our search for better governance must begin.

The more than 20 contributors to this publication come from a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and cultures. But they are all motivated by a sense of citizenship that strives for the common good. The common good comprises social and ecological concerns of which economic concerns are only part. This perception may be in contrast to the perceptions of governments and corporations. It is, however, the only way to reflect citizenship. As membership in a society and community (originally a city), citizenship implies rights and duties. A responsible citizen, therefore, is concerned with the functioning and welfare of the community, not only with economics.

Conceptually, it may be possible to describe governance for sustainability in these terms. With the awareness of citizenship comes the realization of rights and duties towards the community. Rights are essential to protect individual freedom as much as social, democratic, or economic interests. They include the fundamental right to participate in public decision making. Equally, duties are essential to guarantee the functioning and welfare of the community. They include the fundamental duty to respect ecological boundaries. Without accepting such a duty, the community cannot be ‘sustained’.

The idea of governance for sustainability differs from conventional theories of governance. The concept of ‘good governance’, for example, requires more than transparency, accountability, and participation. Good governance and good citizenship are interdependent. Thus, a clearer sense of citizenship is needed for governance for sustainability, one that implies duties alongside rights. This is best expressed by the notion of ecological citizenship. Sustainable governance then is the set of written and unwritten rules that link ecological citizenship with institutions and norms of governance. The emphasis is on ‘link’: no form of governance can succeed if there is no common bond between those who govern and those who are being governed.

This report reflects and further explores this brief sketch of sustainable governance.

Part A, ‘Issues, Resources’ sets out the general debate. How are governance and sustainability related? What are the tensions between democracy and sustainability? Is there a common ground or ‘covenant’ that we can rely on? These are conceptual questions that need to be raised but do not necessarily require final answers. Chapters 1 and 2 aim to identify issues, not to resolve them. Our underlying assumption is that the global sustainability movement needs to open a dialogue with governments. Such a dialogue must be based on partnership and be open to new ideas.

For this reason, we saw it useful to provide some stocktaking. How have governments and other agencies of governance addressed the sustainability issue? There are various levels of governance including the global level (e.g., the UN system), the regional level (e.g., the European Union), the national level (e.g., national governments), the local level (communities), and the corporate level (businesses). Underpinning it all are citizens and civil society. Each level of governance is discussed in terms of its functions, institutions, shortcomings, and reform efforts.

As will be shown, the overall weakness of governments at all levels is owed fundamentally to a lack of civic virtues (e.g., common sense, foresight, and humanity). Economic rationality has been too dominant. Arguably, no society or community can exist without a sense of civility based on commonly shared values. We consider this aspect so important that we devote Chapter 2 to covenantal foundations. All forms of governance whether formal or informal, explicit or implicit, display marks of covenantal relationships. Ultimately, governance relies on mutual trust or a covenantal bond in much the same way that a government relies on its constituents. The better we, as individuals and communities, are able to formulate such a covenant, the better the chances for sustainable governance. That is why the Earth Charter is so crucially important; it provides a global framework of commonly shared values and principles.

Part B, ‘Challenges, Successes’, looks at practical experiences. The collection of case studies from around the world gives us insights into real life. The authors, all expert ‘volunteers’, provide a wealth of information. They reveal obstacles, failures, and successes of engaged citizens in their struggles for sustainability. Some case studies give testimony to the existence of covenantal relationships. Typically, these relationships exist within the concerned communities and citizens groups, but sometimes they underlie the entire process of decision making. When communities govern themselves through bottom-up approaches, covenantal relationships are most obvious. However, local governments can also form covenants, as some examples show.

The real challenge occurs when the top-down approach of steer, command, and rule clashes with values strongly held within the community. When this happens, either power or dialogue prevails. Most case studies impressively demonstrate the importance of leadership. When leaders act with personal integrity and public morality, they will be trusted and vice versa. Quite obviously, the prospects of governance for sustainability are determined by the degree of ethical awareness.

Another feature that can be observed in many case studies is the high success rate of proactive rather than reactive approaches. Working for a sustainable project rather than against an unsustainable project is ‘healthier’, more rewarding, and truly empowering. If the proactive approaches described in the case studies represents a general trend, then we might have an important clue that governance for sustainability must be proactive and inclusive rather than reactive and divisive. While resistance against ignorance and arrogance will always be part of political action, the driving force for sustainability is self-trust and mutual trust. Convinced that sustainability is the ‘right’ thing to do, the actors of sustainable governance will prevail. The problem is that those in power have not (yet?) realized the wisdom of ecological sustainability.

We have not attempted to draw conclusions in this report. Drawing conclusions would have precluded its main purpose: to inform and encourage rather than to instruct. A handbook of guidelines for sustainable governance would be premature. Such a handbook could only result from a process that has not yet taken place. This process would involve a global dialogue among sustainability experts and activists accompanied by extensive research collaboration. If this report stimulates interest in a broad dialogue and collaboration on governance for sustainability, it has more than fulfilled its purpose.

Klaus Bosselmann, Ron Engel and Prue Taylor
Auckland and Chicago

August 2008

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