The Washington DC based NGO, the Worldwatch Institute, looks at the characteristics of governance that can be most effective in facing what it terms as the converging environmental crises of the future. When a crisis develops, what sort of governance is best?

Crises have traditionally resulted from situations of social turmoil, such as military invasion, revolution, or corruption, but the Worldwatch Institute says that modern-day emergencies are more likely to arise from disturbances due to climate change and other environmental disruptions. It is possible for us to reach a state of sustainable living, but this will happen only once we are able to overcome political − more than technical – problems, it says.

“Current governments, encumbered by bureaucracy, swayed by special-interest groups, and forced to respond to a variety of competing communities, have so far proven incapable of dealing with the threat of climate change. If we are ultimately unable to push our leaders into effectively rewriting policy, we must prepare ourselves for what kinds of catastrophes might arise and how we can best deal with them politically,” the Worldwatch Institute says.

Brian Martin, professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and contributing author of the Worldwatch Institutes State of the World 2013 overview, provides four essential features of effective governance during times of crisis.

  • Widespread participation: “Significant participation is essential for rapidly responding to a crisis,” Martin says. “Genuine participation is greatest when power is shared. The more people take part in creating a solution, the more likely they are to stay committed.”
  • Development of resources: “When troubles arise, we need to be prepared with adequate technological and material resources. These include food, transport, and especially methods of communication.”
  • Tolerance and inclusion: “Having certain sectors of the population opposed to action can delay and prevent important changes that need to be made. With everyone participating, we ensure that solutions are acceptable to all citizens and that every group is contributing to solving challenges.”
  • Skill development: “Through education and the sharing of ideas, we can be prepared to respond to threats in effective and intelligent ways. Martin explains that strategic insight is most likely to flourish in a form of governance that gives considerable autonomy to smaller units, while enabling communication between them so that insights can be shared, tested, and applied.

“International governance is particularly unsuited for dealing with crisis,” Martin says. “There is little citizen participation and little capacity for skill development. The result is a form of symbolic politics that gives only the illusion of authority.”

David Orr, the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College, offers a long-term perspective on how societies can transform governments to handle any imminent environmental catastrophes. One concern he deals with is the potential for the emergence of authoritarian governments to provide ultimate enforcement of societal change. According to Orr, the most effective alternative to this kind of state totalitarianism is to strengthen democracy.

The best way to strengthen democracy is to create active citizen participation in government, rebuilding democracy from the bottom up. A transition to local, self-governing communities will raise the legitimacy of policy choices and improve public knowledge.

“In our time, strong democracy may be our best hope for governance in the long emergency but it will not develop without significant changes,” Orr says. “One necessary change is to confront economic oligarchy. Today the majority of concentrated wealth is tied, directly or indirectly, to fossil fuels. A second change must be to the triviality, narrowness, and often factual inaccuracy of our political conversations. It is time to talk about important things.”