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A review of Governing for Sustainability: Better government is possible, and necessary

My mom, a thoughtful educator and environmentalist, looked at me on Mother’s Day and sighed. “Can we do it? Do you think there’s any way we can get out of this mess?” We’d spent most of the weekend watching an owl fledge out of a nest box under the watchful eyes of its parents. Spring in northern Illinois has been unusual. The Mississippi River is still high in its banks. The weather got so hot, so fast that the daffodils bloomed and faded. My mom anticipates another summer of drought. She’s worried.

I’m worried too. Too many people—young and old—who are concerned about climate change and income inequality are equally turned off by conventional electoral politics. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans represent their interests; corruption is rampant; government bureaucracies are perceived as inefficient at best or organized against people’s interests at worst. Ordinary people have no voice in the governing of our country, so why participate in the charade?

Meanwhile, Governor Inslee’s modest proposal to reduce the coal used for Washingtonians’ electricity is already meeting opposition. U.S. Rep. Steve Daines (R-Montana and current contender for a seat in the Senate) says that Inslee’s proposal will hurt Montana mining interests. Critics in Washington say that the move to get off coal will result in rate hikes. Both sets of calculations fail to consider what we all lose by increasing carbon in the atmosphere, but those voices may prevail.

Inslee plans to introduce a carbon cap and trade system in the next legislative session. Expect another version of the “jobs vs. the environment” battle. As Patrick Mazza writes in Crosscut, cap and trade—ineffective as it is—will be billed as a “job-killing energy tax.” Republicans and Democrats in swing districts will opt for jobs and the legislation won’t pass. Alternatively, we can work our hearts off for legislation that promises to do only modest good at best, and only if the cap can hold.

What are we to do?
In spite of the odds, we need to get our governance right if we want to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in any measurable way. Enter the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2014 edition, Governing for Sustainability, a collection of essays arguing that good government is not only necessary, but according to these authors, possible.

We need good governance—not small government. In a forward to the volume, professor David Orr argues that what’s being championed in the name of smaller government is not smaller government at all. It’s a different government, one that focuses on higher military expenditures, domestic surveillance, larger police forces, subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear energy, and low to no corporate taxes or taxes on the wealthy. This argument for this “smaller” government, made popular by Ronald Reagan, is on the upsurge. As a result of this “pro-small government” view, Orr argues, we are losing our capacity to solve public problems.

In their rousing introduction to the volume, “Failing governance and an unsustainable planet,” Michael Renner and Tom Prugh, codirectors of Governing for Sustainability Project, note that in 2012, 25 companies were behind 58% of worldwide upstream oil and gas investments. Those companies exercise enormous influence on governments. As Renner and Prugh write, “concentrated power and wealth will forever seek to fulfill its own narrow interests—even as the biosphere and civilization are corrupted and perhaps destroyed.” And, as Renner and Prugh put it, only “a steady popular commitment to engagedgovernance” can prevent our nearly assured destruction.

Several chapters address the need to “break the political power of finance”, as Thomas Palley, economic advisor to the AFL-CIO puts it in his chapter, “Making Finance Serve the Real Economy.” Palley writes, “The process of ‘financialization’—by which the financial sector has become the new master of the broader economy—needs to be tamed so that finance once again serves the economy and people’s needs. Subjecting runaway financial institutions to rules and regulations driven by the public interest forms a critical part of overhauling governance processes.”

Other chapters argue that we have to think (and talk and act) differently. We need a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between sustainability and governance. We can’t achieve the first—at any scale—without a version of the second and that means getting involved in politics. For example, Monty Hempel, president of Blue Planet United (, argues in “Ecoliteracy: Knowledge is Not Enough,” that we need to incorporate social and economic concerns within a framework connecting eco-literacy with political literacy.

From this eco-socio-politically just perspective, exactly what needs to be done to address climate change? David Orr offers this essential list:

Permanently remove reserves of coal, oil, tar sands and natural gas from the asset side of the economic ledger but without crashing the global economy.

Reform the global economy so that its full costs are internalized—costs to the environment, costs to workers, costs to communities—and also fairly distribute benefits, costs and risks within and between generations.

Acknowledge the rights of our descendants to a habitable and hospitable environment.

Nothing can happen until we separate money and policy. As long as wealthy donors, corporate and individual, can purchase the legislative policies that protect their interests, we won’t move forward. Citing political philosopher Alan Ryan, Orr writes that “the struggle to separate money from policy making and law will, in time, come to be seen rather like historic battles against feudalism, monarchy, and slavery.”

Governing for Sustainability is not a perfect book—it underreports important eco-socio-politically just work going on in Latin America, particularly in Ecuador. It under-reports the work of indigenous people, and only one chapter focuses on youth movements. However, it’s a good book, and it makes a good argument. Governing ourselves isn’t an option—the only question is how, and who will do it.

Emily Lardner teaches at Evergreen State College and co-directs The Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education, a public service of the college.

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