Frank Biermann – Earth system governance: world politics in the Anthropocene

Biermann_MIT_2014-coverFrank Biermann’s new book now out with MIT Press, two videos below by Frank:

Humans are no longer spectators who need to adapt to their natural environment. Our impact on the earth has caused changes that are outside the range of natural variability and are equivalent to such major geological disruptions as ice ages. Some scientists argue that we have entered a new epoch in planetary history: the Anthropocene. In such an era of planet-wide transformation, we need a new model for planet-wide environmental politics. In this book, Frank Biermann proposes “earth system” governance as just such a new paradigm.

Biermann offers both analytical and normative perspectives. He provides detailed analysis of global environmental politics in terms of five dimensions of effective governance: agency, particularly agency beyond that of state actors; architecture of governance, from local to global levels; accountability and legitimacy; equitable allocation of resources; and adaptiveness of governance systems. Biermann goes on to offer a wide range of policy proposals for future environmental governance and a revitalized United Nations, including the establishment of a World Environment Organization and a UN Sustainable Development Council, new mechanisms for strengthened representation of civil society and scientists in global decision making, innovative systems of qualified majority voting in multilateral negotiations, and novel institutions to protect those impacted by global change. Drawing on ten years of research, Biermann formulates earth system governance as an empirical reality and a political necessity.



Earth systems governance papers: complex architectures, multiple agents

The Earth Systems Governance Conference in Tokyo will be at the end of this month. Already there are several papers available for download here. These are on a wide range of topics (biodiversity, climate, REDD, income inequality, and so on) so lots of interest for all.  Below is a description of the conference.

Earth Systems Governance Tokyo Conference: Complex Architectures, Multiple Agents


The challenge of establishing effective strategies for mediating the relationship between humans and the natural world represents one of the most daunting tasks in the quest for environmental sustainability at all levels, from the local to the global. Environmental problems, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, water quality and access problems, soil erosion and others, call into question the fundamental viability of how humans have organized the relationship between society and nature. There is an urgent need to identify and develop new strategies for steering societies towards a more sustainable relationship with the natural world.

The Earth System Governance Project was launched in 2009 to address these problems of environmental governance. In this project, “earth system governance” is defined as the interrelated system of formal and informal rules, rule-making mechanisms and actor-networks at all levels of human society (from local to global) that are set up to steer societies towards preventing, mitigating, and adapting to global and local environmental change and earth system transformation, within the normative context of sustainable development. The Earth System Governance Project’s Science Plan (available at is organized around five analytical problems. Architecture relates to the emergence, design and effectiveness of governance arrangements. Agency addresses questions of who governs the earth system and how. Adaptiveness research explores the ability of governance systems to change in the face of new knowledge and challenges as well as to enhance adaptiveness of social-ecological systems in the face of major disturbances. Accountability refers to the democratic quality of environmental governance arrangements. Finally, allocation and access deal with justice, equity, and fairness. These analytical problems are united by the cross-cutting themes of power, knowledge, norms and scale.

The Earth System Governance Tokyo Conference will address these five analytical problems with a focus on complex architectures, multiple agents.

Managing nature? Bromley on the problems of FIT between institutions and ecology

Daniel Bromley has an excellent new article out in Ecology and Society. It is entitled “Environmental Governance as Stochastic Belief Updating: Crafting Rules to Live by” and it challenges the basic tenets underlying the idea that we can “manage” nature. It doesn’t question the tenets of “nature” itself with the same enthusiasm. Rather, it attempts to give a pragmatist explanation of how we should try to reason with respect to human-environment interactions. Bromley leans heavily on C.S. Peirce and is highly critical of Oran Young’s arguments in his 2008 essay in Global Environmental Politics, “The architecture of global environmental governance: bringing science to bear on policy.”

Since Ecology and Society is an open access journal I will post Bromley’s opening volley below, but the entire article is in this pdf. Or you can read it in HTML on your web browser here.

Environmental Governance as Stochastic Belief Updating: Crafting Rules to Live by

Daniel Bromley


I wish to focus attention on how beliefs about knowing influence beliefs about doing. My enquiry is motivated—stimulated—by the appearance of what may turn out to be the early stages of a new “settled belief” about the very great difficulties humans face in our long-running attempt to live with nature. It has not been a happy relationship, after all. But reconciliation may be on the way. To borrow only slightly from Winston Churchill, we may be approaching the end of the beginning. And that would be, I submit, a marvelous thing indeed.

Humans did not always imagine themselves to be in control of much of anything. In fact, if we follow convention, the emergence of “sapience” (as in Homo sapiens) occurred approximately 50,000 years ago. By implication, humans have spent approximately 49,600 years firmly in the grip of the “other.” Then we became modern, and reason liberated us from the tyranny of imposed ideas. Quite soon we came to imagine we were in control. From the idea of control comes the idea of management. Now we “manage” nature.

The prospect that this conceit of management is a spent force in environmental governance is an encouraging omen. Holling and Meffe (1996) write of the “pathology of natural resource management.” Ludwig (2001) claims that “the era of management is over.” Finally, Anderies et al. (2006) write that social-ecological systems are so complex that understanding them is still a faint hope. If you cannot understand something, “managing” it is problematic. Notice that the precautionary principle is of little value in complex systems that we do not understand. What, exactly, ought we to be careful about—exercise precaution—in a system whose operational characteristics are obscure to us? Which, of a large number of instrumental properties, must be approached with caution? How do we know?

Into this emerging view of just how hard it is to live with nature—and for us moderns “living with” generally means “managing”—comes yet another promising management prescription. It is called Fit (hereafter FIT). In exploring issues in global environmental governance, Oran Young writes:

    • To be effective, institutional arrangements need to be well matched to the defining features of the problems they address. This makes it essential to recognize from the outset that environmental problems differ from one another in ways that have fundamental implications for the nature of the arrangements required to solve or at least ameliorate them (Young 2008:20).


    • The point of introducing these distinctions is not to argue that some environmental problems are harder to solve than others in some generic sense. Rather, the lesson to learn is that successful governance systems must be based on a recognition of the character of the problems at hand and feature the introduction of behavioral mechanisms crafted to address these problems (Young 2008:21).


  • The essential step is to reach agreement on an appropriate structure of rights, rules, and decision-making procedures. Once that is done, it becomes timely to consider the nature of the organizations needed to administer these institutional arrangements (Young 2008:21).

Young’s insights, intuitively obvious on their face, entail the following presumptions: (1) the ideal institutional design (a management regime) must fit the problem; (2) behavioral mechanisms must pay attention to incentives; and (3) the necessary institutions (rules) must be embedded in (fit) the proper organizational structure. The clarity of Young’s prescriptions is commendable, and their pertinence for environmental governance seems obvious. Unfortunately, it is harder than it appears. In keeping with the growing sense that the pursuit of scientific “management” is problematic, I argue here that the apparent clarity on offer by the idea of FIT is illusory. My doubts arise because the specific prescriptions advanced by Young require the ability to specify a priori the precise functional attributes of particular ecological problems that can then be meliorated if only we would apply the appropriate institutional arrangements that have been purposefully crafted to fit the environmental problems under consideration. Much of what follows will address our inability to specify these functional attributes.

A second concern arises because a specific constellation of institutions (rules) and governance structures, intended to address a particular ecological problem, necessarily sets in motion a new ecological trajectory whose salient properties are unknown until it is too late to craft new appropriate and incentive-compatible institutional remedies. This point has been elaborated in the literature (Holling and Meffe 1996, Anderies et al. 2006). We may think of this problem as a variation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. If the concept of FIT is to do the required work, then it presumes simultaneous feedback and re-calibration to jointly engage two emerging systems—the ecological and the social—whose idiosyncratic adjustments cannot be known and assessed until it is too late to “fit them back together.”

Finally, the concept of FIT introduces the sterile shadow of scientism into a realm in which FIT does not fit. In its narrow version, scientism claims that the natural sciences have epistemology right and the other sciences ought to follow their lead. An obvious entailment of scientism is that of positivism—that we can only know what we can observe and record. Some would add “and prove.” The consistent quest of scientism is to get ever closer to the way the world really is—as opposed to how it merely seems to appear to us. As I will elaborate below, scientism is the modernist project that deluded us into supposing that environmental management was possible. Donald Ludwig (2001) offers compelling arguments in support of my doubts.

The appealing aspect of Young’s prescriptions about FIT is that they are coincident with our acquired habits of mind concerning what rational science consists in, and therefore what rational scientists ought to do. Our beliefs about knowing preordain our beliefs about doing. But of course the essential question is what, exactly, is this ecological system to which an equally obscure social system is to be creatively joined? What, exactly, is the social system that is amenable to perpetual redesign in order to bring it in line—to make it cohere—with this unknown natural system?

For the concept of FIT to do the necessary work, we must be willing to assume that the natural systems and social systems have the potential to work in harmony—if only we can get the institutions right. It is also necessary to assume that the natural system has a knowable evolutionary dynamic which can be harnessed to the concepts central to the social sciences in such a way that decision makers are capable of crafting the evolutionary architecture of social systems—institutions—in a way that will ensure that the two systems continue to cohere. The point seems to be that while humans are unable to design the natural system to suit our taste, we can design the social system so that it will “communicate with” the pertinent natural system. If successful, this process of artful design will yield timely and appropriate signaling that will preserve the integrity of both subsystems, and it will therefore ensure connectivity and associated long-run dynamic coherence between the two systems…