A ‘New Global Institution’?

Klaus Bosselmann

Ours are proving to be interesting times – going quite beyond lockdowns and bubbles.

Covid-19 reminds us that Nature is in charge of human destiny, not governments.

Countries the world over are trying to meet unprecedented challenges that are all occurring at once. Faced with such complexity, some political leaders have reacted like headless chicken; others in a more rational manner – all with a sense of urgency, yet unsure what to do next.

For the moment, they rely on experts of health risks, but they may increasingly need experts of systemic risks.

So, what is systemic risk?  And what is systemic change?

Systemic risk

A systemic risk is the possibility that a singular event may trigger instability or collapse of an entire system – in this instance, a global economy focused on consumers of goods (including tourism) rather than real people in their interdependences of each other and the natural world.  See Rod Oram’s column below of 22 March – almost ‘a lifetime of experience’ ago….

If a jumping virus can bring the entire economy to instability and potential collapse, this tells us a lot, not only about the fragility of such a system but also the way we humans govern ourselves.

To start with, epidemiological statistics show that Covid-19 is just one of countless (zoonotic) diseases that originate in animals.

  • They account for billions of illnesses and millions of deaths annually. Global wildlife trade has been a main driver. In China alone, the trade with wild animals has an estimated annual value of US$ 18 b.
  • In 2007, leading epidemiologists described the presence of coronaviruses in bats in combination with the culture of eating exotic animals in Southern China as ‘a timebomb’.

Clearly, a worldwide ban of wildlife markets is now overdue.

Connected with the disastrous commodification of wildlife is the ever-growing, economically-driven, appetite for land and wetlands, forests and natural resources. This is blurring the line between wildlife and human spaces, accelerating loss of biodiversity, destroying the natural world and deteriorating the climate.

Each of these environmental issues deserves our full attention, but they are interrelated and can only be tackled systematically.

Its effect on human thought

It would be too simple to blame politics, or capitalism, or over-population. The systemic problem goes deeper.

We need to rethink human-nature relationships. Humans are part of the natural world. Boundaries between species are not absolute, but mere markers for the continuum of life in constant ‘becoming’. The virus reminds us of that.

So when will ‘modern society’, supposedly educated in evolution and ecology, find a way out of the human-centred (anthropocentric) worldview that has dominated Western thinking for centuries?

Nature is not ‘the other’, and life is not something disconnected from humans. Over the last thirty years, scholarship in environmental science, philosophy and law has adopted non-anthropocentric strategies that recognise the intrinsic value of Nature and the life-supporting essentials of Earth’s ecological systems.

Is this of purely academic interest?  Not at all; in over twenty global agreements, nation-states have expressed a fundamental duty to co-operate in order to protect and restore the integrity of Earth’s ecological systems (atmosphere, biosphere, oceans, water and land).

Talk is cheap, of course, especially at levels of global diplomacy and rhetoric. So far, hard economics have consistently trumped soft duties of caring for Earth. If taken seriously, however, this duty would revolutionise everything we know about economics. It would mean that the integrity of ecological systems sets the parameters for social and economic development – not the other way round.

Systemic change

The defining moment with Covid-19 will occur when we come out the other end.

That moment will do one of two things:

  • It will bring us back to where we had been before (business-as-usual), or
  • It will lead us to continue and advance the low-consuming, low-energy, low-mobility lifestyle that was forced upon us, but which may have been experienced as ‘not all bad’.

Maybe there is merit in exploring more sustainable forms of consumption and production. This could be what political philosophers refer to as a ‘constitutional moment’ – when society begins to think about the fundamentals of how it wishes to be governed and what kind of policies and laws it expects from its government.

Thanks to the ‘Greta effect’, climate action has finally become a stronger prospect, not least here in New Zealand. We may also realize a ‘Covid-19 effect’, especially in this country. It has to do with taking Nature seriously as demonstrated, for example, in the Te Awa Tupua Act 2017.

This Act gave legal personality to the Whanganui River and in this way recognised the intrinsic value of Nature. Embedded in the Act is the philosophy of katiakitanga as an expression of deep kinship between humans and the natural world – see Chris Finlayson’s column of 3 March.

A seed only, but PM Jacinda Ardern has promoted katiakitanga to world leaders at the UN in New York and at the Global Economic Forum in Davos. Perhaps now is the time to think further about this, and see how it can work here at home.

Environmental trusteeship would hold rampant destruction of Nature in check.  It would enable social and economic development to settle on firm, truly sustainable, ground.  In his column of 31 March, Colin James noted the recent call by former Swedish PM, Carl Bildt:

“A new global institution … would need to have the authority and the means to intervene as intrusively as necessary to stop a contagious outbreak in its tracks”.

Let us make environmental trusteeship the lasting legacy of this virus.

Prof Klaus Bosselmann is director of the Centre for Environmental Law (University of Auckland) and a member of the NZCGS Board. His two most recent books are: ‘The Principle of Sustainability: Transforming law and governance’ (2017) and ‘Earth Governance: Trusteeship of the global commons’ (2015).

Author: Klaus Bosselmann Klaus Bosselmann

Prof Klaus Bosselmann is director of the Centre for Environmental Law (University of Auckland) and a member of the NZCGS Board. His two most recent books are: ‘The Principle of Sustainability: Transforming law and governance’ (2017) and ‘Earth Governance: Trusteeship of the global commons’ (2015).

April 13, 2020

You May Also Be Interested To Read…

Symposium on Nuclear Deterrence and Disarmament

On 8-9 August, the Centre, in collaboration with the Toda Peace Institute (Tokyo), convened a Symposium at the University of Auckland. The primary subject was: Nuclear Deterrence and Disarmament: Conflicting perspectives in an age of tension The symposium was marked...

Climate Change and Global Governance

The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November 2021. While tangible progress was made both inside and outside the formal negotiations, the world still...

COP26 – Climate Negotiations at Glasgow

NZCGS Board member and reputed business-environmental journalist, Rod Oram, has been attending COP26 in Glasgow these past few weeks, and regularly reporting back through Newsroom. Here are his reports. 14 November       COP26’s inadequate package could still lead to...


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *