Global governance and the principle of subsidiarity

From the Wicked Problems category, topic 62:

@Anna-M, A “fear of global decision making” is a wise fear to have, in my opinion!

Unfortunately I haven’t written up much in a format suitable for publication yet, so I thought I’d take a bit of a swing at directly answering the point you raised.

I guess the first thing I should clarify is how I use the term “governance” in relation to the Global Commons Trust (GCT). I’m using it in a broad sense, such as is described in Wikipedia:

Governance comprises all of the processes of governing – whether undertaken by the government of a state, by a market or by a network – over a social system (family, tribe, formal or informal organization, a territory or across territories) and whether through the laws, norms, power or language of an organized society. … Governance is the way rules, norms and actions are structured, sustained, regulated and held accountable.

So … I’m not talking about the kind of formal government we most often associate with the word ‘governance’ these days. The governance structure I’m proposing for the GCT is a Trust (hence the name :slight_smile: ), with opt-in membership and participation.

Secondly, even though an opt-in Trust is not exactly an ‘authority’, the GCT’s intended scope of operations is also very much aligned with the principle of subsidiarity: a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level.

And I’d argue that for truly global issues, which have planet-wide impact, the ‘new’ governance tasks we need performed cannot be fairly and effectively performed at any level more local than the globe.


I think it’s important to note here that while humanity’s aggregate impact on our environment was less than global, which it was until comparatively recently (say until about 50 years ago), we were fine without global governance, but now our impact is global and we’re facing multiple tragedies of our Global Commons (atmosphere, oceans etc).

We need global governance now to manage our impact on our own habitat.


So the question now is: What form should global governance take?

One ‘obvious’ possibility that most of us are carefully avoiding talking about is a One World government which has authority over all the nations, and has the mandate to determine and enforce each nation’s ecological policies, resource allocations and carbon emission quotas.

This concept frankly scares the stuffing out of me. Out of most of us, I’d warrant … which is probably why we’re so carefully avoiding talking about it. (Elephant in the room, anyone?!) :sweat_smile: And I’m guessing that this is what comes to mind for you when you say: “I have a fear of global decision making, especially through any kind of global governance” … right?

I see the GCT as an opt-in global stewardship system for understanding and fairly distributing our ecological ‘budget’ of Commons resources, using incentive mechanisms which are not only a lot more palatable, but – I strongly suspect – likely to be a lot more effective than an authoritarian One World government approach could ever be.

However, because the GCT concept:

  • is a complex adaptive systems-based design
  • relies heavily on feedback loops, information flows and constantly evolving structures and parameters
  • has no current real-world analogue
  • is based on a different / new paradigm (stewardship rather than ownership; Commons rather than market or state; functional thriving rather than ideological stories)

… it is not an ‘obvious’ solution. At least, not to most people, not immediately.

And it needs a lot of work, not only in terms of finding words to explain it to others (e.g. funders!) in a way that makes sense outside my (admittedly somewhat atypical) head, but also in terms of figuring out the details of how the system would function, and modelling different scenarios … and so forth.

Hi Kylie

Thank you for elaborating here. I have spent today delving into the literature you’ve created so far and I think you’ve summed it up perfectly with:

What I think I like particularly about these discussions on Praxorium is that they’re quickly vaulting me from a place of solution-seeking and wrestling with the ‘but what if…?’ and ‘how would that work…?’ and ‘this doesn’t make sense to me/feel right to me’ into a very different (I’m not sure how best to put this into words) place of approaching what’s going on and what kind of response may work to shift us into another way of living, on every level. It’s a way of approaching things that I still don’t fully grasp but that feels like the next step in how we as humans organise and manage our relationships and our place here on Earth.

It leaves me with some questions that I don’t think need to have answers to because thinking it through from a place of where we’ve been isn’t what will get us to where we need to go. I think what’s going to get us where we need to go is a fundamentally new way of responding.

And perhaps it’s still my mind tugging at things, but I’ve been pondering how we are going to get from where we are now to a place where the people that currently have vested interest in not opting in to any kind of governance that has ‘fair distribution’ at their core to opt in, and would love to hear of any insight you’ve been having on this?

Sitting here, it seems to me that perhaps a solution lies along the lines of

Something that I think you and Teri have both brought up (thank you).

With this in mind, referring to the below:

Do you currently have any insight into the first steps we could take towards creating the right environment that would entice or herd the players in our current system into opting in to the GCT?

This idea dropped into my awareness a while ago about needing a stepping stone, from where we are now into the kind of future we’d like to see; a ‘bridge’ as such, that could move us from our current reality and closer to solutions such as the GCT. A bridge that, while uncomfortable, yes, would be workable from where most of us are right now (such as end-goal problem solving and approaching things from a right/wrong mentality), and can move us into not only accepting uncertainty and a fluid way of processing and approaching challenges as they arise (and the chaos inherent in life and any systems we create), but thriving there.

I guess what I’m asking is do you have any insight into how the places to intervene in a system are created? And specifically, in relation to the GCT, so that the GCT has the best chance at taking root and growing?

Lengthy post alert! :wink:

Agreed. :smile:

My sense is that lightly holding and examining our questions is deeply important, given that our phrasing of questions can so easily direct us back down familiar paths.

That’s nicely illustrated here (from a slideshare on survey design):

I’m particularly intrigued by this example because even after rephrasing, the second question still carries an assumption that traffic safety ‘requires’ some sort of speed limit!

I like to unpack questions like this, turn them upside-down, give them a wee shake and see what falls out. :slight_smile:

My first step is generally to try to imagine myself in the shoes of the ‘other’ … in this case, in the shoes of one of those people who has “a vested interest in not opting in to any kind of governance that has ‘fair distribution’ at its core”.

What sort of (perceived) conditions would have to be true in order for me to take the position they do? Why might I have a vested interest in not opting in?

  • There is not enough of the resource to go around so distributing it fairly is dumb anyway. No-one would have enough.
  • ‘Fair’ by what measure?! Are we talking ‘equal’? That’s ridiculous. I am the only person in my group capable of doing the physical labour necessary to keep all of us alive. Obviously I need and deserve more food than the rest of my group.
  • Power corrupts. The people in charge won’t be fair, and I’m not signing up to be abused by liars and thieves.
  • My family and/or social circle would reject me if I opted in.
  • Survival of the fittest. I got mine, others should be responsible for getting theirs, too.

And then I step back out again, with a clearer sense of what some of the ‘real’ problems we have to solve might be, e.g.

  • Prove there is enough of the resource that it can be distributed fairly.
  • Make sure that there is an intelligent mechanism for distribution according to requirement.
  • Design the system so that corruption is either impossible, or at worst, easily detected and corrected.
  • Change the story to make opting in the socially valuable (high status) thing to do.
  • Find a way to prevent psychopaths / sociopaths from capturing the system.

Of course, even after solving all these problems, there are still going to be some who won’t change their minds, who believe that opting in is not in their interest. This is particularly true for anyone who has identified so strongly with their opinion that changing it would provoke an identity crisis.

But each person who does change their mind and opts in automatically alters the field of information and possibility for the rest. :wink:

I do have a few strategies in mind, some of which I’ve not yet attached words to (although they do need to be explained for the proposal, so eventually I will need to stop procrastinating :laughing:) … but for now, here are a few points which might shed some light:

  • The GCT proposal seeks to persuade several well known billionaire philanthropists to place significant funds (>$20M each) in escrow, to finance building the GCT through a very high profile, professionally delivered project. Ideally, these public figures, as project sponsors, would also champion the GCT, helping to persuade key CEOs, investors and politicians to opt in and/or cooperate with the GCT.

  • The GCT would contract individually with organisations extracting rivalrous ‘global commons’ to pay (controlled increasing) fees per volume on those resources to the GCT. Most likely the first companies to get on board would be large fossil fuel companies, e.g. Shell, Exxon-Mobil, British Petroleum, Saudi Aramco, Coal India. More on this below …

  • Every living human would be eligible to opt in as a beneficiary, to receive equal dividends on global commons.

When I put myself into the shoes of a current-day oil company CEO, here’s what I see:

  • Public opinion is turning against the oil industry. My children / grandchildren are starting to ask me questions which are difficult to answer. Investors are pulling out and/or asking difficult questions at shareholder meetings. The board of directors is getting antsy about it and are seeking reassurance that we have the risks under control. Environmentalists are unpredictably getting in the way of my business operations, which is costing a fortune and disrupting my sleep patterns. I might even have a bit of cognitive dissonance myself. Am I doing the right thing?

  • Sometimes I feel really unappreciated and vilified in this role. The simple truth is that our whole society and economy still deeply depends on oil. Without me, without this company, people wouldn’t eat. They wouldn’t be able to get to their jobs, or keep the power on, or go to hospital, or have medication or clothes to wear or access to water or anything. If we actually stopped drilling for oil tomorrow, it’d be chaos, apocalypse. I’m contributing enormously to humanity and I should be able to be proud of it, instead of having to keep my family insulated from the media and protect them from activists.

  • Even if we had the new sustainable systems in place to enable us to stop drilling for oil tomorrow, we would still have hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of stranded infrastructure (‘assets’) to decommission and a heap of ecosystem restoration work to do. Even if the company goes bankrupt and avoids the cleanup, given the way public sentiment is turning, I might just be held personally criminally responsible for this failure by some court or another and wind up in jail. Seriously … who knows when ecocide will actually become an international crime?

  • This ‘transition’ to a so-called sustainable future is a nightmare to manage. On the costs side, from one day to the next, I don’t know which project is going to be stopped, or blocked, or made more expensive. I don’t know how much maintenance to do on the rigs and other infrastructure, because if we don’t do it, we might end up with another hugely expensive oil spill … but if we do, we might just be throwing money down the drain because we have to decommission the equipment before we can depreciate it. And no-one will buy it! The revenue side is a mess too. Some governments are putting carbon taxes and other sorts of taxes on fuel and on our other customers; some aren’t. Some of them give us subsidies, some give the renewable energy companies subsidies. This business environment is increasingly difficult to function in.

So, these are the problems the GCT should be working to help solve. Benefits to an oil company of signing up to pay (controlled increasing) fees per volume on global commons ‘resources’ to the GCT could include:

  • Good public relations and personal reputation management. By opting in they’d be taking very real and very clear action to help the world transition to a sustainable future, not just greenwashing.

  • Increased predictability. If there is an agreed transition plan in place for a particular company, why would activists, governments etc keep fighting against that company, when they can go after less responsible targets? An agreed transition plan also makes for a smoother transition: Companies know what assets they need, what maintenance to do, how many people to employ, what to invest in (or not) and so on.

  • Expert (and possibly subsidised) assistance from the GCT to decommission infrastructure and restore ecosystems.

  • There’s also a competitive advantage for the first few to sign up. Beneficiaries are incentivised to purchase from and ‘support’ the companies which pay fees to the GCT (and therefore provide them with dividends) rather than those which don’t.

And then there are the feedback loops. The more people who sign up to become beneficiaries, the greater the social pressure on companies to also opt in, and the more companies that opt in, the greater the dividends will become, and so on.


(Scope is critical, by the way: Note the link between global commons and all humans as beneficiaries in the above discussion.)

Hmm. I agree that we need a stepping stone or three between here and there.

To date, I’ve been thinking of the GCT itself as the bridge (and sort of a safety net) between our current systems and whatever future paradigm we’re moving towards. Maybe the super-long answer above goes some way towards answering your question …? Let me know either way! :sunglasses:

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Thank you so much Kylie, you have answered all of my queries eloquently and with great insight. I’m very much excited by the potential I see here for being an actual workable solution.

Thanks again :smiley:

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