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Planetary Boundaries and the Rise of Non-State Global Governance
A powerful, unaccountable network is shaping government and business decisions
Writing in The Guardian a decade ago, James Randerson explained that the notion of “watermelon” politics is a pejorative that suggests that many environmental advocates are “green on the outside but red on the inside.” Randerson explained,
[O]ne of the reasons the jibe is so persistent is that, if we're honest, there is a grain of truth to it – at least among some in the green movement and on the left. Many of the policy responses to the climate change problem – consume less, regulate businesses, curb big oil and coal, restrict car use – feel more comfortable to those on the left than the right of the political spectrum.
Today I argue that an influential element of the “degrowth” campaign is both watermelon-flavored and also adjacent to the institutionalization of a much deeper and more serious challenge to science and democratic governance. That challenge involves the blossoming of myriad non-state actors funded by large foundations who are implementing a framework of “planetary boundaries” into the decision making of businesses, governments and multilateral institutions.
This is not a conspiracy — it is simply a group of powerful and well-funded groups organizing to advance their shared special interests. They are doing so out in plain sight. This is the normal stuff of politics. However, the complexity of the organizational arrangements, their work outside of governmental oversight and the incredible pervasiveness of their work can make them hard to see, much less to hold accountable. For whatever reasons, journalists and academics have spent essentially no time documenting the rise of these organizations, their goals or their influence. Today’s sunshine is just a start of the attention I’ll be paying to them.
Let’s start with degrowth.
Last week the European Parliament hosted an event focused on going “beyond growth,” giving the idea a big boost in legitimacy and visibility. The European Parliament of course recognizes that the notion of moving beyond growth is not really a single coherent idea, and has characterized different strands of this concept as “green/inclusive growth, post-growth and degrowth.”
It is the last of these — degrowth — that has captured the most attention and discussion. It is also the leading edge of a broader movement with actual power and influence. This influential characterization of degrowth asserts the need to reduce or radically transform global economic activity to reduce consumption and the use of material resources.
Much of the associated discourse sounds a lot like snobbery of the highly educated:
The objective of degrowth is to scale down the material and energy throughput of the global economy, focusing on high-income nations with high levels of per capita consumption. The idea is to achieve this objective by reducing waste and shrinking sectors of economic activity that are ecologically destructive and offer little if any social benefit (such as marketing, and the production of commodities like McMansions, SUVs, beef, single-use plastics, fossil fuels, etc.).
Ug. Those suburbanites in their SUVs, eating Big Macs — Little if any social benefit to be sure. I jest, but you get the idea.
[G]rowth isn’t an option any more – we’ve already grown too much. Scientists tell us that we are blowing past planetary boundaries at breakneck speed . . .
We have no choice — the argument goes — because there are hard and fast “planetary boundaries” within which human society must operate or else face apocalyptic consequences. The boundaries thus dictate policies and the politics.
As an example of how planetary boundaries are connected to degrowth, one group of scholars explores “a good life for all within planetary boundaries” and explains:
[O]verconsumption burdens societies with a variety of social and environmental problems, and moving beyond the pursuit of GDP growth to embrace new measures of progress. It could also involve the pursuit of ‘degrowth’ in wealthy nations . . .
Hickel is more specific:
[T]he only way to ensure that planetary boundaries are not violated on a global level would be to impose caps on resource use and pollution for every biophysical process identified in the planetary boundary framework . . .
The notion of caps on resource use justified by planetary boundaries places degrowth adjacent, if not closer, to far more influential actors.
For instance, the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 and 2 degree Celsius targets are often invoked as operationalized examples of “planetary boundaries.” Johan Rockström, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a creator of the notion of “planetary boundaries” asserts:
A rise of 1.5C is not an arbitrary number, it is not a political number. It is a planetary boundary.
The implications of this view are clear: If a planetary boundary is not a “political number,” but an empirical constraint — like the speed of light — then it cannot be exceeded and it must instead be accommodated.
You cannot continue compromising with science all the time. You cannot negotiate with the planet, you cannot negotiate with the atmosphere. These are physical limits.
Hence, there is no need for politics, just someone to tell us what the boundaries are and then we must accept them. Science says.
But Rockström is wrong. The Paris Agreement targets are not fundamental limits, they are arbitrary targets set in a political process that reflect a mishmash of conflicting values across the world and a combination of science that is at once robust, uncertain, imprecise and evolving.
Even the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change — under which the Paris Agreement was negotiated — admitted the arbitrariness of the 1.5C target when adopting its targets:
[W]hile science on the 1.5C warming limit is less robust, efforts should be made to push the defence line as low as possible.
More generally, the late Steve Rayner observed that the rhetoric of “planetary boundaries” was evocative of “millenarian prophesies among small Marxist splinter groups.” Rayner asserted that the creation of self-imposed limits necessarily reflected values, trade-offs and politics:
The identification of the planetary boundaries is dependent on the normative assumptions made, for example, concerning the value of biodiversity and the desirability of the Holocene. Rather than non-negotiables, humanity faces a system of trade-offs - not only economic, but moral and aesthetic as well. . . The framing of planetary boundaries as being scientifically derived non-negotiable limits, obscures the inherent normativity of deciding how to react to environmental change. Presenting human values as facts of nature is an effective political strategy to shut down debate.
Rayner was of course correct. Consider that the original conception of “planetary boundaries” associated the notion of limits with the need for global government to enforce the boundaries of those limits:
Ultimately, there will need to be an institution (or institutions) operating, with authority, above the level of individual countries to ensure that the planetary boundaries are respected. In effect, such an institution, acting on behalf of humanity as a whole, would be the ultimate arbiter of the myriad trade-offs that need to be managed as nations and groups of people jockey for economic and social advantage. It would, in essence, become the global referee on the planetary playing field.
Who would these referees be? Scientists who developed the notion of planetary boundaries, of course.
Proponents of planetary boundaries have not waited for others to create these institutions or to propose specific targets for caps on resource use promoted in the name of degrowth. As a result, there is today a large and well-funded network of institutions established to work “above the level of individual countries.” Their influence on governments, businesses and multi-lateral organization is significant.
The Global Common’s Alliance has been organized by foundations and advocates of planetary boundaries and is a coalition of likeminded actors outside governments or multilateral organizations.
It describes its objectives are as follows:
By 2025, the scientific framework of safe and just boundaries for people and planet will be being applied by decision-makers in private sector and government.
By 2025, the adoption and implementation of available science-based targets will be the new norm.
By 2025, the true magnitude of the multifaceted transformations we need to safeguard the global commons will be well understood. Key actors will know what they need to do, where things are most urgent, and be taking action that sparks and sustains transformational change in order to protect the global commons.
The meaning of “transformational change” will be quite familiar to THB readers.
One of the institutional elements of the Global Commons Alliance is an organization called the Earth Commission which is empanelled to serve a role akin to the global referee envisioned under the planetary boundaries framework, and which is lead by the lead proponent of that framework:
The Earth Commission is the first holistic attempt to scientifically define and quantify a safe and just corridor for people and planet. It is aiming to establish scientific guardrails for Earth’s life support systems . . .
The Earth Commission is an international team of leading natural and social scientists and five working groups of additional experts. The Commission is led by three distinguished professors: Johan Rockström, Joyeeta Gupta and Dahe Qin.
Don’t dismiss the significance of the Earth Commission and the Global Commons Alliance of which is is a part.
For instance, operating outside of governmental oversight, public scrutiny and democratic control, among their initiatives is the “Science-Based Targets Network” which seeks to “transform” the global economy by creating implementation targets to guide the decision making of businesses, cities, central banks and more. Such targets are already in wide use. On another day I’ll show how such targets are central to so-called ESG practices in business.
The issues here are not about the importance of environmental or climate policies — they are indeed important. And I might even be a bit watermelon flavored myself. The issues here are instead about scientized politics, politicized science and perhaps most importantly, the evasion of democratic accountability by powerful and well-funded non-state actors who are seeking to transform the global economy.
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