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Global Governance: Impressions from Complex Adaptive Systems Theory

Purdey, Stephen J. 2017. Global Governance: Impressions from Complex Adaptive Systems Theory. Lund: Earth System Governance Project.


Notwithstanding the territoriality of sovereign states and other claims to private property, Earth’s biosphere is a public space. Its protection is a public and therefore a political responsibility. Managing the relationship between people and planet is the centerpiece of that responsibility, and the defining challenge of global governance.

Today the relationship between people and planet is unstable. It follows that global governance should be improved and strengthened.

This essay [download pdf] builds on the premise that global governance includes a strong ideational component which informs our relationship with Earth and determines our path to the future. Values, beliefs, worldviews, collective intentions and ethical propensities inherent to systems of governance contribute to a shared sense of meaning and purpose, and thereby to the character of the human/nature complex and the development trajectory we choose to follow. Given a certain sense of urgency regarding the instability of our relationship with Earth, however, and the apparent need to chart a new path forward to long-run planetary sustainability, it’s appropriate now to re-evaluate, and reformulate if necessary, the ideational roots of global governance.

This approach to better governance is intended to contextualize, and perhaps catalyze, the myriad practical—and, by and large, incremental—activities aimed at securing the long-run material sustainability of the human/nature complex such as moving to a low-carbon energy regime, building resilient communities, alleviating poverty and so forth. These projects are ongoing and clearly necessary but they’re also slow-moving, standing in sharp contrast to repeated (and increasingly strident) calls for radical, transformative change in our relationship with Earth, and in the direction of our forward motion. The proposition offered here is that this radical change, tantamount to securing the future of human life on Earth, will arise in large measure from a revitalized conception of global governance with a fresh focus on its ideational component.

This shift in focus from the material to the ideational, from the physical to the metaphysical, does not diminish the need for practical action but it does move to the forefront the broader objective of understanding more clearly the existential implications of our current situation, prompting us to revisit the formative questions of life: why are we here, what are we doing and what, if anything, are we trying to accomplish. Positions adopted regarding these questions (whether thoughtful or dismissive) ultimately give meaning to the human condition, and underlie all modalities of governance.

This essay briefly introduces the notion of global governance, highlighting its ideational component and then engages with Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) theory to probe more deeply into the normative profile of global governance.

Download the essay here.

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