Role of National Governments
National governments are responsible for protecting their citizens and their environment and for working collaboratively with other governments to deal with issues that cross borders. Sustainable scale issues are transboundary, and thus require collaboration among affected nations.
Solutions to sustainable scale problems require determination of optimal scale for a variety of material and energy throughputs that currently challenge the ability of ecosystems to continue providing life support services, and which are organized in ways which currently increase injustices. Determining optimal scale requires broad participation, especially of those who are most adversely affected by the current injustices. Such participation represents a major social challenge as even our best democratic institutions are skewed toward the rich and powerful, who generally have a vested interest in, and undo influence in maintaining, the status quo.
Nonetheless, there are many openings within the world’s democratic systems for public input and participation. Massive efforts in public education are needed to raise awareness of the importance and pervasiveness of scale problems (see Importance of Scale), and to identify possible directions for solutions. Governments in democratic nations remain sensitive to public opinion, and changes in public opinion are likely necessary before governments take the issues of sustainable scale seriously. Taking sustainable scale issues seriously would involve both changes in national policies and priorities, and working collaboratively with other nations to ensure attractive solutions are implemented.
Ultimately, it is governments and the international agreements they enter and enforce which will determine whether sustainable scale is achieved and maintained. But they cannot do it alone and the role of civil society will be key in generating widespread support for governments to implement attractive solutions. For better or for worse, national governments represent critical institutions through which problems of sustainable scale must be addressed. Any efforts which assist individual nations to live within their own ecological footprint (see Ecological Footprint) are positive steps toward sustainable scale. But individual nations will not be able to implement effective solutions without working toward global solutions to global scale challenges. Collaboration among nations is essential for this task to succeed.
As the sole body representing all nations and peoples on the planet the United Nations, and its many agencies, need to play a key role in implementing attractive solutions to global scale problems. To some extent it is already playing this role viz a viz its sponsoring several international treaties such as the Montreal Protocol and Kyoto Protocol, among many others. However, none of these international agreements has adopted a sustainable scale perspective, and each of the current international agreements is lacking from this perspective (see Proposed Solutions, and Additional Solutions sections in Areas of Concern). It is therefore recommended that:
- all existing UN sponsored environmental, trade and economic treaties undertake a review from a sustainable scale perspective to determine how optimal scale might be achieved and maintained.
Some suggestions regarding how a few of these important agreements could be strengthened from a sustainable scale perspective have been identified elsewhere in this website (see Additional Solutions sections in Areas of Concern). There are a number of additional areas that require attention, including:
- A massive global public education campaign raising awareness of sustainable scale issues and the necessity of transforming the global economic system to achieve and maintain sustainable scale.
Broad public participation is essential for a variety of reasons. Broad public support will be essential for the radical changes needed to achieve and maintain sustainable scale. Creative ideas from all sectors will be required to implement the kinds of changes needed. Most importantly, optimal scale requires consideration of values regarding current and future generations of people as well as for non-human creatures. Articulating such values requires broad participation and development of consensus; they cannot be imposed in a top-down fashion if they are to succeed.
UNESCO is currently sponsoring a Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005 to 2015), which covers education in the broadest sense – from professional training, to raising public awareness. It presents an opportunity to raise issues of sustainable scale (especially the idea of a global agreement on energy presented bleow). As with most UN initiatives, this thematic focus will be implemented through the efforts of individual nations, providing an opportunity for civil society to participate.
- An international agreement on the production and use of energy which recognizes both the impending peak production of oil and gas, and the central role of energy in generating dangerous levels of material throughput.
Abundant, cheap energy is coming to an end and there are no acceptable substitutes to readily take its place (see Energy). Abundant, cheap energy, regardless of the source, represents a potential threat to sustainable scale. Energy and economic development are inextricably intertwined. For individual nations or international agencies such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, to pursue development without a global energy plan is a recipe for continued development failures, social inequities, violent conflicts and ecological disasters. The current political climate may not welcome facing the negotiations for an international agreement regarding energy, but this does not mitigate the need for such an agreement. The more nations that prepare themselves for such a discussion and agreement, the easier it will be when the global political climate more clearly recognizes the necessity.
New Institutional Roles
International institutions are created and controlled by individual nations. Several nations have taken the lead in recommending reforms for existing environmental institutions. There is widespread discussion about the inadequacies of existing international environmental agencies and agreements: existing agencies, such as the UNEP, UNSD, the Commission on Sustainable Development, and others, are acknowledged to be under funded, weak relative to trade related agencies such as the WTO, and fragmented. Various proposals are currently under discussion to strengthen global environmental protection, including consideration of a World Environment and Development Organization. Calls for a strengthened environmental agency have even come from the WTO. Potential conflicts exist between provisions of the WTO, which encourage trade and economic growth, and the possible goals of a World Environmental Organization, which presumably would seek to limit the negative impact of economic growth on critical life support systems. Currently, the WTO is well funded, has powerful enforcement mechanisms, and its rules dominate other international agreements. But this predominance of WTO rules is being challenged and opportunities exist for substantial progress.
It is encouraging that the global and unprecedented nature of environmental problems is being acknowledged within the UN framework, and that new institutions are being considered to deal with these challenges. It is not the intent to review these proposals here. However,
- whatever improvements to international environmental governance occur, it is vitally important that a sustainable scale perspective is adopted as a priority approach for this new endeavor.
A sustainable scale perspective requires not only that ecological sustainability be achieved, but also that issues of social justice are addressed for sustainability to occur. Both ecological sustainability and social justice are critical frameworks for reforming global environmental policies and practices, as well as economic development activities. For the goal of sustainable scale to be realized, the dominance of WTO rules which encourage and support unlimited economic growth will have to end. This will be difficult if not impossible unless there is widespread support for placing a higher priority on ecological sustainability and social justice. This emergent perspective, in turn, requires much broader understanding of the interconnectedness of ecological sustainability, social justice and economic development, and the unique role each has to play in contributing to human happiness and well-being (see Understanding Human Happiness and Well Being).