Three factors have brought about the demand for global, multilateral change in national societies with varying impact degrees, and all of them are tragic. First, climate change is an umbrella disaster held over nasty little wars, floods, and firestorms followed by infectious diseases. Second, inevitability is well recognized as a fact for centuries. The questions are only about when. Third, the world’s leadership is beginning to understand that much of this was and remains preventable in each new cycle for the lack of enforceable global agreements.
Ironically, a fourth global factor is a conservative viewpoint expressed as the tragedy of the commons. The negative impact on a common pasture and the relationship among households raising grazing animals is real. The rules must change if the entire earth becomes that metaphorical pasture. Losing entire portions of massive coastal cities worldwide to surging ocean tides and entire biomes (forest to coral reef) will become a lived experience. If millions of people could see billions of tons of waste that float and sink in the global ocean, would it feel like a shared resource? Would the “dead zone” of the Gulf of Mexico procure a voice? Societies pay for these disruptions with children starving, the scream of a helpless parent, and the stunned dismay of families who falsely believe they are saved with compensatory access to wealth.
The global climate has been stable for only the last 2,000 to 3,000 years. There should be no expectation that it would remain constant. The global climate is in many ways barely stable as a system, and a single push of added gases, heat, would make change inevitable yet still feel inconsequential as a threat. The demand for alternative ways of living is unimaginable as the swell of cheap energy continues to make everything, including faith in a quick tech-fix, easy to expect. In this psychological climate, finding replacements is difficult. Forcing amelioration by changing the price with substitutes violates the status quo. When assessed in the “commons” framework, two new categorical thinking patterns emerge as environmental and emotional intelligence.
Ostrom’s Answer is Occam’s Razor
A problem that exists in the future has two elements, one to design a defense, the other is to alter the future to make that unnecessary. The leaders involved may have had the skills of the legislative lawyer and personality for political leadership, but to produce solutions essential to create trust, the science part of our minds and the science professions will form a new community. A scientist can tell you the future is already here, just not everywhere. To do that, the change in the mode of problem-solving begins with a process that Elinor Ostrom has already figured out in a Nobel prize winning way.
Our ancient brains in various shelters for the night knew of beasts, enemies, and trouble. That sense of big trouble is real, but the community may never experience its pain because of that sense alone. What we have done, from the cave to the laboratory, is to define problems we believe might be unlikely to occur, but we solve them anyway. The quality of thinking, in this instance, is an old tactic still in use by scientists today called Occam’s Razor. As Albert Einstein notes, a theory of a threat with the fewest variables requires problem-solving work where “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
The first of Elinor Ostrom’s core design principles began in Governing the Commons (1990) and regarding implementation, she is as optimistic as an economist can be in her research for the World Bank. In 2009 her paper, A Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change
, considers the possibility of a non-tragic global commons (pdf here). It is here that she gives her life-long partner Vincent Ostrom an attribution to a central observation. She quotes his definition of polycentric as “one where many elements are capable of making mutual adjustments for ordering their relationships with one another within a general system of rules where each element acts with an independence of other elements.” It is an excellent definition of the inner workings of catalytic cooperation and written with Charles Tiebout and Robert Warren (Economic Base and Local Expenditure Theory).
Ostrom’s work with problems uses clearly defined boundaries because they are well understood. In strictly economic terms, such boundaries would be needed everywhere for everything and difficult to implement. On the other hand, this first rule is essential to working with big global problems such as thermonuclear war or climate change and a pandemic threat. Defining a boundary in a categorically new way offers promise as the concept is simple and easily understood as a system condition altered from one state to another.
Because purely economic solutions are easy to argue and difficult to implement, start with a simple physical entity such as a city as that category. Cities are places with a fixed boundary and a legal process for expansion or contraction. The city is an excellent place to begin implementing the remaining seven parts of Ostrom’s solution. It is a “back to the future” type of problem.
A city is an outstanding place to begin implementation. The city with a boundary offers proportional equivalence and a clear, constantly improving data stream to monitor processes beginning with the measurement of benefits and costs in every imaginable center capable of giving itself a boundary. It is ongoing but without mutual benefit consent. Proportionality within multiple geographies of a dense polycentric city of neighborhoods, cultural groups, ideologies, genders, and so on can become a transparent way to understand variables fully. In this way, it is possible to put the equality sign (or not) between two or more in the social and economic expressions.
The city also offers multiple platforms for “collective choice agreements.” The center of Ostrom’s argument recognizes the practical use of carefully implemented sanctions. The city’s boundary offers a set of measures from price restrictions to penalties, incentives, and subsidies designed to meet goals such as a good balance of affordable housing or lower per capita energy use. In New York City, neighborhood-level participation in governance is voluntary and advisory, but it expands the central government’s capacity to understand issues experienced locally. As these practices contribute to local autonomy, they are also capable of interpreting them globally. Coming to the resolution of problems begins with the kind of efficiency and quality of data feedback that empowers local autonomy through participatory governance.
The last piece of Ostrom’s change-the-world puzzle looks to resolve existential threats with the ability to grow a polycentric rulemaking authority so that global rules are instantly recognized because they are already well-organized and in use locally. The only element missing is the lack of political recognition of this as an urban fact. Ostrom’s groundbreaking approach is not built on how people think but on how they will eventually organize their thinking. Hopefully, this work will escape its decade of discussion where it floats in the partial oblivion and trappings of its academic Nobel Prize (2009). It needs to find a city to live in as a permanent place of proof. I recommend New York City, and you know why. If you can make it here, you can make it everywhere. Again, the city with a strong existing boundary has these systems in place. The only element is the lack of political recognition of this fact.