Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Looming global disaster, anyone?

A panel of experts publishes a manifesto or guide in Science that is just the ticket for someone like myself who verges on clinical depression after every morning reading of the New York Times:
Energy, food, and water crises; climate disruption; declining fisheries; increasing ocean acidification; emerging diseases; and increasing antibiotic resistance are examples of serious, intertwined global-scale challenges spawned by the accelerating scale of human activity. They are outpacing the development of institutions to deal with them and their many interactive effects. The core of the problem is inducing cooperation in situations where individuals and nations will collectively gain if all cooperate, but each faces the temptation to take a free ride on the cooperation of others. The nation-state achieves cooperation by the exercise of sovereign power within its boundaries. The difficulty to date is that transnational institutions provide, at best, only partial solutions, and implementation of even these solutions can be undermined by internation competition and recalcitrance.

Figure - Interactive effects of global drivers on unwanted outcomes in the state of the world. Some outcomes also act as drivers of others (dashed arrows).

The major powers must be willing to enforce agreements, but legitimacy will depend on acceptance by numerous and diverse countries and by nongovernmental actors, such as civil society and business. This seems to be the basis for the greater success of the Montreal Protocol relative to the Kyoto Protocol. Strong backing by a majority for collective action, even though it may restrict individual freedoms, is necessary to institute and uphold an agreement. Formal sanctions are necessary to prevent cheating and are more likely to succeed where the backing is based on transparent, common norms. Agreements should not only be instruments of change but should establish processes for change, engaging a wide set of actors.

The institution of the nation-state has helped improve the well-being of many individuals, but at the cost of reduced global resilience. To address our common threats we need greater interaction among existing institutions, as well as new institutions, to help construct and maintain a global-scale social contract.


  1. Anonymous9:29 AM

    scary stuff

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