The environmental crises and the coming regime shifts

When the biodiversity crisis, global climate change, degradation of soils, and the other dimensions of environmental destruction now unfolding are viewed together, it is often suggested that our civilization is rushing headlong toward collapse.  Sometimes this is articulated through the language of complex adaptive systems and more specifically resilience thinking:  namely that we have undermined the resilience of the coupled social-ecological systems within which we live and surpassed critical thresholds of what our planet and its ecosystems can bear.  I have no doubt this is true.

Resilience, however, is a characteristic of systems that is entirely dependent on what scale you choose to focus and on how you delineate the system.  And one of the reasons that halting these global environmental crises is so difficult is that the political and economic systems that are eroding resilience and propelling us toward collapse are themselves very resilient.  On the scale of centuries or even just a few decades these political-economic systems are hopelessly fragile.  They will eventually be undone by the hard facts of temperature rise, dying ecosystems, and the impossibility of perpetual growth.  But on the shorter timescale of years, they are quite resilient and are able to reorganize themselves and adapt to the meagre political efforts toward sustainability that have been seen thus far.

Expressed in the language of resilience thinking, this all means that the unsustainability of our economic system and modes of living are making regime shifts inevitable.  By delaying meaningful change, we are ensuring that when the changes come they will be drastic.  The planetary social-ecological system, and many of the more localized subsystems within it, will inevitably shift from one “basin of attraction” to another.  We have already crossed several dangerous thresholds, and the inertia of the system means we are certain to cross several others.  If our current trajectory is not redirected, the new social-ecological system into which we will descend—the new basin of attraction—is likely to be more impoverished and less productive than what we have now, and generally quite unpleasant.


Transformative governance

But we have not yet descended into that new state, and so there is still reason to hold out some hope for a better world.  If a regime shift away from the current way the world is organized is inevitable, then what is needed is a transformation.  Mere tinkering and reform will not be enough.  We need a transformation in our economic systems, in our relationship as human beings with nature, and in governance.

So it is that the term transformative governance is gradually making its way into discourse on sustainability.  The term implies both that governance itself needs to be transformed, but also that we need modes of governance that are capable of steering transformations.

In the terminology of resilience thinking, transformative governance is governance that not only adapts to change, but that is capable of responding to, managing, and even triggering regime shifts[1]Transformative governance refers to modes of governance that are able to proactively steer social-ecological systems to more desirable states.  It is governance that has the capacity to disrupt the current drivers of the system and replace them with other drivers.


Identity, community and culture

Here, however, I want to look at transformative governance through a different lens—a lens that focuses on identity, culture and community.

Identities are important because they shape how people understand their interests, and those interests and identities are then brought into governance processes.  We all have all have multiple, overlapping identities: I have my nationality, my culture, my religion, my role as a father, my role as a husband, my profession, and a few other identities, and other people each have their mix of different types of identities.  In day-to-day life these different identities coexist latently, any one of them being activated at appropriate times.  However, in recent decades a common pattern has made different categories of social identities to coalesce into clusters in opposition to other clusters of identities.  In many countries of the West, this takes the form of political and cultural polarization in which Christian, conservative, rural, and nationalist identities are wrapped up together in opposition to a humanist, progressive, urban and cosmopolitan package of identities.  And more generally, it seems that our cultures have become less able to accept multiple, overlapping and coexisting identities, and that the boundaries of some identities (nationality, politics and religion particularly) have become more rigid and more distinctly defined in terms of opposition to some caricatured other.

This is a problem for sustainability transformations.  The current crises make it clear that our interconnectedness to each other as human beings and our interconnectedness as human beings with nature is (or at least should be) undeniable.  Part of what is needed to steer our social-ecological systems toward completely new arrangements is the crafting of new identities that recognize and embrace that interconnectedness.  Transformation will require that we embrace diversity and overlapping identities while at the same time cultivating new, all-encompassing identities.  This can be uncomfortable, because we are trained to think of identities in opposition to other identities.  These days, the difficulty is compounded because these oppositional identities are increasingly brought into governance processes.

My point here is that the cultivation of new kinds of identities that are not defined based on opposition to other identities, that are comfortable coexisting with multiple other, overlapping identities, that see interconnections to diverse people with diverse identities as a positive thing, and that also include an identity of global citizenship that embraces them all, could help to transform governance.  My point is also that transformative governance must take as one of its tasks the crafting of such identities.  Governance processes have increasingly been hijacked by identity politics; it is time for governance to fight back by proactively working to create new, shared identities.

We can also think of transformative governance in terms of creating community. Shared values, identities and culture can result in an emergent phenomenon—something that is greater than the sum of its parts—something called community.  The atomization of modern life, and the erosion of community that it brings, has been a major factor in undermining resilience and in allowing economic systems to evolve away from healthy interconnections to local ecosystems.  I recognize that the concept of community has drawbacks and has been misused (see one of my recent posts for some reflections on that debate).  Nevertheless, I suspect that it is in creating real community, while avoiding the pitfall of ignoring differences within communities, that I think we can reverse this atomization.  The creation of community is a process of embedding interconnectedness into our cultures.  This is not only about communities at the local level, although there is something powerful in real community connected to local ecosystems and based a shared identity and a sense of place.  But the problems we are facing and the interconnectedness of the systems we live in mean that now we desperately need to create community from the local all the way to the global.  So I’m not primarily talking about giving more support, scope and power to local communities, although that is part of it; I’m more talking about mobilizing communities and building community at the global level—working toward a community of communities.


Looking beyond “good governance”

Culture and community are important for transformative governance because culture and lack of community are inherent in the drivers pushing our current system toward collapse.  Many of the drivers of our current system are drivers only because of the inertia of human practice, and once certain practices have enough inertia, they become part of culture:  “that’s just the way things are done”.  Alternative practices become unimaginable.  And so, even if people acknowledge the crises, their capacity to envision different kinds of livelihoods, a different kind of economic system, a different way that governance could work has been hog-tied.

On the other hand, when community is formed through a culture in which people have a shared identity (one that also embraces their many diverse and distinct identities), then it becomes easier for people to see the suffering and disadvantage of others as real. It is easy to ignore the suffering of someone who is far away and is “other”; but when it is happening to “one of us”, to someone who is part of my community, then I start to feel an emotional need to take action.  Community becomes a driver of decision-making.  As new patterns of decision making based on these ideas of interconnectedness get repeated, they can begin to become part of the culture, and a new “that’s just the way things are done” may take hold.  In this way, culture also becomes a driver pushing the system in a new direction.For governance to be transformative, it needs to do more than simply improve how it resolves tradeoffs and mediates conflicting interests…. Transformative governance … proactively shapes shared identities, creates community, and… Click To Tweet

For governance to be transformative, it needs to do more than simply improve how it resolves tradeoffs and mediates conflicting interests.  For those of us whose work is governance, we need to look beyond criteria such as accountability and transparency, as important as those may be.  Transformative governance is not simply “good governance” in the conventional sense; it is governance that proactively shapes shared identities, creates community, and promotes a new culture.


[1] Chaffin, B.C., A.S. Garmestani, L.H. Gunderson, M.H. Benson, D.G. Angeler, C.A. Arnold, B. Cosens, R. Kundis Craig, J.B. Ruhl, and C.R. Allen. 2016. Transformative Environmental Governance. Annu. Rev. Environ.Resour. 41:399–423.