Friday, October 20, 2023

Governing for the Good Life

            When contemplating the “good life” in connection with planetary boundaries, one might presume that a group of law professors would think BIG – something along the lines of how to save the world by developing international policies that reduce consumption and change our collective lives for the better. Yet, the discussion quickly shifted to individual notions of the good life and local consumption patterns. Is this inclination because we are inherently individualists who happen to live in a global society or do we simply believe that effective change begins at home?

            When we do think BIG, we praise the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for considering climate impacts on a global scale and champion the United Nations for gathering the Conference of Parties annually to try and tackle the thorniest of issues. But how effective are these insights in the absence of legitimate government buy-in and enforcement mechanisms? During a final group discussion, someone posed the question “Can law lead?” The limitations of the United Nations might suggest that it cannot, particularly not at a global scale. Even when scaling down to a national level, governing for the good life seems fraught.

            Will the United States, or any country for that matter, rise to the occasion and govern for the good life, however it may be defined? Maybe the ethos of the good life is prioritizing inter- and intragenerational justice, managing transitions equitably, distributing benefits and burdens such that cycles of harm are not perpetuated, and establishing resilience as a tenet for communities and ecosystems. Maybe governing for the good life starts small, establishing a sense of collectivism by exploring individual perspectives about the goods and resources we consume and why we consume them. Maybe it encourages thoughtful engagement with principles of sustainability from both an educational and practical perspective. If so, then perhaps incorporating these quintessential elements at a community level can expand broadly to states, regions, and nations. From this place, climate challenges can be managed globally with dynamism and collaboration.

            This sounds like a lofty, and unlikely goal. But, even if the good life as I’ve described it is not a likely outcome, should we forego the possibility of governing in a way that at least promotes a better life for the collective? Of course not.

As with any complex law or policy, priorities can be reassessed in ways that allow for incremental changes. This may be perceived as ineffective or insufficient given the intensity of the climate crisis and the calls for urgent action. If left unaddressed, the dichotomy between urgency and equity may result in a better life for particular people in particular places while leaving those who are under-resourced the least protected.

            Finding consensus is at the crux of governing for the good life. Yet, building consensus in a local community, not to mention in a country as vast and diverse as the United States, is a daunting task especially in the current political climate. Scholars and other experts have suggested incorporating new voices (in addition to scientists, environmentalists, and liberal politicians) and framing issues around economic development or disaster resilience as a means of building consensus around environmental policies.

Even when providing guidance to its international partners, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified public participation as critical to environmental governance. In July 2023, EPA updated its public participation guide’s toolkit on consensus building and emphasized the need to build trust in order to reach agreements. Specifically, the Tools for Consensus Building and Agreement Seeking prioritizes small group meetings ranging from ten to a few hundred people. The groups vary in size depending upon how contentious a particular decision may be. These public sessions create opportunities for open and honest dialogue and knowledge sharing, which in turn promotes an informed electorate that shapes the values of its government.

Law alone cannot lead. To reconcile the intricacies of the good life with the need for expedient climate action, small changes and shifts in perspective have to be part of the governance strategy. Transitioning toward renewable energy sources, sustainable agriculture, and resilient development will require new governance priorities. Making big changes often starts small. Change requires consensus. Consensus takes time. 

            The impending climate crisis may dictate an expedited timeline, but it does not guarantee an expedited change in human nature. In the United States, a shift from individualism to collectivism may be warranted if we are to define the good life to include the current and future generations and govern in a way that meets their needs. In the meantime, small steps can be taken on a local level to shift us towards a life that is good.

--Danielle Stokes

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