22 September 2015

Nobody gets up in the morning and says to herself: ‘That’s a fine day to accelerate climate change and put the world on course for concentrations that are unprecedented in human history.’

Nobody – at least I hope – gets up in the morning and celebrates the fact that we are living through the sixth great mass extinction of species and plant life on earth. Indeed, just last week the WWF reported that due to pollution, industrial fishing and climate change, we have killed off half of all marine life in the past four decades.

Welcome to the age of the ‘Anthropocene’. We humans – you and I – are now the decisive agents of change in the Earth’s planetary and atmospheric systems.

Welcome To The Anthropocene

The age of the Anthropocene marks a critical threshold on humanity’s journey on Earth.  Collectively and individually we have provoked an unprecedented existential experiment that will test our ability to align the future of our institutions, behaviours and practices with the dynamic unfolding of the earth’s systems.

The signs are not good.

Johan Rockström and his team at the Stockholm Resilience Institute have identified a set of nine planetary boundaries or thresholds that define humanity’s safe operating space on earth. A number of critical thresholds are already being breached:

  • Climate change
  • Loss of biodiversity
  • Land system change, and
  • Altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorous and nitrogen)

Two of these critical thresholds, namely climate change and biosphere integrity, are what scientists call ‘core boundaries’. Significantly altering core boundaries will drive the earth towards a new state, with all of the unpredictable consequences that will herald.

Closer to home, politicians and sectoral interests may deny that we play a significant role in global ecological change, even as we continue to celebrate our historic role as the cockpit of the industrial revolution. However, there is plentiful evidence that Northern Ireland plays a significant role due to systemic failures in environmental governance in areas such as planning, oversight of farming practices, and environmental crime. [Not to mention our home-grown and climate change denial industry].

Our democratic system falls short in many ways, including its performance on environmental governance. We do not yet live in an ‘Environmental Democracy’, one rooted in the idea that meaningful public participation is critical to ensuring that land and natural resource decisions adequately and equitably address citizens’ interests. At its core, an Environmental Democracy involves three mutually reinforcing rights:

  • The right to freely access information on environmental quality and problems;
  • The right to participate meaningfully in decision-making; and
  • The right to seek enforcement of environmental laws or compensation for harm.

Protecting these rights, especially for the most marginalized and vulnerable should be the first step to promoting equity and fairness in sustainable development. Without essential rights, information exchange between governments and the public is stifled and decisions that harm communities and the environment cannot be adequately challenged or remedied. Establishing a strong legal foundation is the starting point for recognising, protecting and enforcing environmental democracy. This is a particular challenge in a clientelist system built on consociational government, wherein loyalties to sectional interest become embedded within informal party and governmental networks.

The need for a New Environmentalism

The challenges for environmental campaigners are also significant. There is a growing consensus that traditional campaigning is not working, especially when it comes to single issue approaches. Parts of the environmental NGO community in Northern Ireland has also struggled to retain an effective degree of autonomy due to funding structures and collaborative networks.

Demorah Doane, a former Director of the World Development Movement has observed that environmental groups are often fighting u-turns by government on hard ought policies, such as those on renewable energy supports. Similarly, anti-World Trade Organization campaigns have simply given way to yet another multilateral threat to democracy in the form of the Transatlantic Trade Partnership. Campaigns succeed in short-term wins but the overall direction of travel remains the same.

It seems there are three main reasons why campaigning is failing:

  1. “The Thin Yes”

Many of the so-called wins in recent years have failed because they haven’t been coupled with a long-term shift in values. In the mid-90s, Shell’s sinking of the Brent Spar was seen as a transformative event in the life of the company, a shift away from doing harm, to being a responsible corporate citizen. Today, Shell is drilling for oil in the arctic.

Micha White, one of the founders of the Occupy Movement, has also expressed his doubts. In a recent interview, he said: “Occupy was a perfect example of a social movement that should have worked according to the dominant theories of protest and activism. And yet, it failed.” Instead, he thinks we need to address the issue of belief. “What I am proposing is a type of activism that focuses on creating a mental shift in people. Basically an epiphany.”

  1. Campaigning can’t tackle a system

Doane observes how campaigns often need a clear ask e.g. a demand for a new law. What is needed, more often than not, however, is systemic change. But complexity doesn’t lend itself to campaigns, though some have tried.

  1. Combat v collaboration

Thirdly, Doane notes that as campaigners, we often know the buttons to press to get short-term wins. Usually this involves anger, using words such as “stop” this or “save” that. But campaigners also need to find ways to engage, either directly or indirectly, while maintaining their values. Long-term change won’t happen solely through protest. It will also demand forms of collaboration, including with the private sector.

Eco-System Change = Systems Change

There is an emerging consensus among agents of transformation that we need to move towards a more systems-oriented analysis and strategy. Otherwise, we may never effectively answer the question that is put so bluntly by Otto Scharmer and his colleagues at MIT:

‘Why do our actions collectively create results that so few people want? What keeps us locked into old ways of operating? And what can we do to transform the root problems that keep us trapped in the patterns of the past?’

Scharmer describes three fundamental disconnects in our decision-making systems, both governmental and corporate. They are ‘ecological’, ‘social’ and ‘spiritual’.

The ecological divide manifests in symptoms like environmental destruction.

The social divide manifests in increasing rates of poverty, inequity, fragmentation and polarization.

And the spiritual divide shows up in increased rates of burnout and depression, and in an increasing disconnect between GDP and people’s actual wellbeing.

Scharmer has called for a three-fold revolution: with a transformation of economic thinking [capitalism] at its heart. He has called for a shift in our economic system to an ‘eco-centred’ rather than ‘ego-centred’ paradigm, or move towards a systems perspective. This would entail an inversion or turning current practices inside-out when it comes to the individual, the relational and the institutional.

By individual inversion, Scharmer is referring to opening up our thinking, feeling, and will so that we can act as instruments for the future that already wants to emerge. He is calling for techniques that help us to interrupt habituated thinking and behavioral patterns so that we can be truly present to those trends that are calling for a new response. Another writer, Peter Hershock, describes the shift from one of technocratic ‘problem solving’ to one of ‘predicament resolution’. Predicaments demand more than technology and software, they demand a complementary shift in values, culture and knowing.

Scharmer’s relational inversion means opening up our communicative capacities and shifting from a focus on conformity and defensiveness to generative dialogue, so that groups can enter a space of thinking together, and collective creativity, and flow. This implies genuine listening, being present to diverse perspectives, and an openness to co-authoring the future, often by trial and error or creating safe ‘landing spots’ for experimentation.

Finally, institutional inversion means opening up the traditional geometries of power that re characterized by centralized hierarchies and decentralized competition, and a refocusing of institutions around co-creative stakeholder relationships in eco-systems that can generate wellbeing for government. Indeed, governments – re-imagined as ‘partners’ and ‘platforms’ must begin to adopt some of the logic and practices associated with the internet and digital commons.

The Emerging Commons of Collaboration and Open Government

The emergence of the Open Government Network and associated conversations is one of a multitude of signs that the world anticipated by Scharmer and others is already emergent.

In Northern Ireland there are new conversations around all three of the transformations or inversions that Scharmer anticipates: individual, relational and institutional. Some of the conversations have been provoked by a new energy in civil society in response to the brokenness of our political or elite institutions, and the accompanying poverty of language and spirit. In the midst of our fixation with the party gaming of our governance institutions we have, perhaps, lost sight of the deep spiritual poverty of the language that now imposes itself on our public discourse. The institutionalization of inter- and intra-communal competition has locked all of us into a paradigm of scarcity, which tracks – almost precisely – the language and calculus of neoliberalism.

Simultaneously, civil society is reaching out to emergent global conversations because our brokenness is not unique to the institutions of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. What we have in Northern Ireland is a context-specific expression of political failure…..but there are echoes within our dilemma that have a universal dimension, including the confrontation with neoliberal forms, the hollowing out of citizens and the retreat of the State.

For glimpses of transformation on all three fronts in Northern Ireland, consider:

  1. Individual: The vast numbers of individuals engaging in forms of ‘askesis’ or body-mind work (yoga, tai chi, martial arts, mindfulness, therapies), and alternative knowledge systems drawing from non-Western philosophical influences. The influence of these practices for appreciation of nature and a newfound appreciation of of our intimate ‘interbeing’ with natural systems should not be under-estimated.
  2. Relational: Alongside and perhaps because of the political blockages at elite level, there has been a proliferation of sponsored ‘societal conversations’ and reflection on ‘new narratives’ as individuals and organizations respond to a deep sense of the disconnect between elite political discourse and our lived experience. There is an emergent but palpable demand by citizens-led ‘hack’ into our decision-making processes that will release a new commons of collaboration and generosity.
  3. Institutional: The individual and relational inversions will require a reciprocal set of transformations at the level of our institutions. Demands for a new style of ‘partnership’ or ‘enabling’ governance, alongside co-production, are part of a new language that has been picked up in the work of the Carnegie-School of Law Roundtable on Measuring Wellbeing.

A Beginning

The Open Government revolution is one critical part of these global and local conversations that carry the seeds of a systemic transformation.

The Open Government ethos will be central to the realization of ‘environmental justice’.

It is interesting to note that ‘back to the landers’ communities in the United States were among the first to see a social use of the Internet and created early “virtual communities’ such as The Well, which influenced digital culture. Environmentalism and ecology were important inspirations for the Digital Commons revolution – which you can see from the language and terminology: ecosystems.

For over twenty years I have worked with the International Institute for Sustainable Development at the UN-sponsored negotiations on all the main Multilateral Environmental Agreements. The IISD’s reporting services is a virtual organization dedicated to working with UN Secretariats to bring unprecedented transparency, in real time, to international negotiations. We were pioneers in making use of the Internet to make this new level of transparency possible, disseminating our reports and analyses from the formal and informal exchanges.

What we have learned, however, is that ‘information’ alone is not sufficient.

A new ethos of participation and civic engagement will require a whole new style of government and a re-animation of civil society for effective engagement in decisions on: spending, legislation, and policy delivery.

Information and openness is a first step.

With the rise of the digital commons and commons-based collaboration across international networks, we are at the earliest stages of a timely transformation in the possibilities for a democratisation of governance and economic decision-making.

We are witnessing the emergence of a movement that envisages parts of government adopting the ethos and operating principles and practices of the Internet (e.g. blockchains), acting as a platform for collaboration and co-production:

  • Permissionless: highly decentralised, responsive;
  • Open: inclusive, facilitative of peer to peer predicament resolution and collaboration, and
  • Generative: from problem solving to predicament resolution (ethics, values, and technology combined)


See Otto Scharmer’s work at:

Deborah Doane, 2015, ‘The Protest Movement is Failing: It is Fighting the Same Old Battles With the Same Poor Results’: Accessed: 19 September 2015.

Rockstrom, Johan, et. al., 2015, Planetary Boundaries. See the work of the Stockholm Resilience Institute:

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