The Transition Movement discussion

Discuss: State of the World 2013 > Chapter 26. Governing in the Long Emergency.

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Ted (last edited Dec 03, 2013 09:37PM) (new)

Ted | 348 comments Mod
Chapter 26. Governance in the Long Emergency

For comments about chapter 26.

message 2: by Ted (last edited Dec 03, 2013 09:34PM) (new)

Ted | 348 comments Mod
David W. Orr, Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College in Ohio.

The phrase “long emergency” comes from the book The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler. Orr describes it as a “crisis of crises”, and as “a collision of two non-linear systems – the biosphere and biogeochemical cycles on one side and human institutions, organizations, and governments on the other.” He asserts that to continue to fail to address this crisis “is the largest political and moral failure in history … a crime across generations for which (crime) we have, as yet, no name.”

The Problem of Governance. Orr reviews four possible approaches that society could take to addressing the crisis. Note that by “addressing” he means not so much “avoiding”, which he apparently assumes to be unlikely if not impossible at this late date, but rather as providing a means for society to continue functioning, during the time in which the long emergency will play out.

1. Larger, more powerful central government. This he characterizes as a likely slide toward authoritarianism. He clearly thinks this alternative has little to recommend it, noting that “The performance of highly centralized governments … is not encouraging.”

2. A different approach, another familiar one in contemporary socioeconomics, is to lessen the power and regulatory control exercised by government, instead relying on markets, innovation, and advanced technology to provide a form of pseudo-governance (my term). Orr states that the “reasoning and data” that have been advanced to support this relegation of the function of government to the freedom of the marketplace are “formidable”, but it seems that he finds the basic idea, though perhaps workable, not credible. “But why would corporations, particularly those in highly subsidized extractive industries, agree to change as long as they can pass on the costs of climate change to someone else?”

He cites both the Bill McKibben’s 2012 Rolling Stone article (see for a summary), and Robert Reich’s book Supercapitalism, in which Reich argues that “the alleged convergence of social responsibility and profitability is unsupported by any factual evidence.”

The author thinks there are “still larger questions about how large corporations fit in democratic societies”. In exploring these, Orr references both Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation and Michael Sandel’s What Money Can t Buy The Moral Limits of the Markets.

3. Another possibility “may lie in the emergence of national and global networks abetted by the Internet and advancing communications technology.” These are touted as “decentralized, self-replicating, and sometimes self-correcting”, and have been advanced by some analysts as capable of subsuming the power and influence of nation-states in coming years. Orr here references such works as Nicholas Christakis’ Connected, Steven Johnson’s Emergence and Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest. But despite the optimistic and sometimes persuasive views of these authors, it must be admitted that if the time for this path is on the way, it has not yet arrived; and whether it will arrive or not can’t be foreseen. (I would characterize these movements as being more something to be worked for by the committed ones, than something to be counted on by the searching ones. I think Orr would probably agree with this. At any rate he doesn’t seem convinced that this path will be the one to provide reliable governance in the long emergency.)

4. The last alternative Orr describes is one derived from a Nation article by Naomi Klein, “Capitalism vs. the Climate”. ( ) This he characterizes as a blend of increasing the power of the state, and a strengthening and deepening of the practice of democracy. Klein writes that responding to climate change
requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency. We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, relocalize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South. Of course, none of this has a hope in hell of happening unless it is accompanied by a massive, broad-based effort to radically reduce the influence that corporations have over the political process. That means, at a minimum, publicly funded elections, and stripping corporations of their status as “people” under the law.

This is, in the context of contemporary politics in the U.S., about as inflammatory as could possibly be; perhaps comparable to the abolitionist position as seen by slave-holders in the years leading up to the Civil War.

So having brought the narrative to this fever pitch, Orr backs off and goes wandering down a serene path into the underbrush. Less metaphorically, what follows (without the slightest hint at where he’s going, or why), is a staid (and long) section (not separated from any of the previous) on various political theorists’ notions of “democracy”. “Strong democracy”, “deliberative institutions”, a new national holiday called Deliberation Day.

This leads to a further sidetrack about the need to fix “structural flaws” in the U.S. Constitution. Some of the concerns Orr expresses about the Constitution certainly seem reasonable enough: the fact that it emphasizes private rights over the “public good”; the lack of any mention of the environment, or the need to protect soils, air, water, or wildlife (though these deficiencies have been at least partly remediated by legislation, and could at any rate not conceivably have been thought of or addressed until quite recent times).

He also discusses perhaps more serious flaws, from a modern perspective: posterity being mentioned only in the Preamble, but not thereafter; one generation of citizens (the current) being able to deprive future ones of life, liberty, and property without due process or even good cause.

The ramblings of this section of the chapter are largely redeemed by two quotes Orr gives from the “theologian” Thomas Berry(view spoiler) These come from his 2007 book Evening Thoughts
It is already determined that our children and grandchildren will live amid the ruined infrastructures of the industrial world and amid the ruins of the natural world itself. … We have established our human governance with little regard for the need to integrate it with the functional order of the planet itself.

Orr then summarizes this difficulty in his own words, as follows:
In fact, from our bodies to our global civilization we are part of a world-wide parliament of beings, systems, and forces far beyond our understanding. We are kin to all that ever was and all that ever will be and what learn what that fact means for governance.

This conclusion links Orr’s narrative with those given in chapters 20 and 21, in which Big History and the building of a moral imperative on environmental action were discussed.

(view spoiler)

Building the Foundations of Robust Democracies. This, the second and concluding section of the chapter, I have found to be impossible to organize and summarize in my mind. After wasting a lot of time on it I’m giving up. If anyone wishes to engage in a conversation about it I’ll be glad to oblige.

I wind up being disappointed with the experience I’ve had of first reading Orr’s essay, and then attempting to “report” what it is he has said. I fear the fault is probably with me.

back to top