International Environmental Governance as paradigm governance

James Greyson • Aug 19th, 2011
International Environmental Governance as paradigm governance

Rio+20 will mark twenty years since the Rio Earth Summit and forty years of International efforts since the Stockholm Conference of 1972. Despite all this effort and its achievements, civilisation remains increasingly insecure against a range of shocks with a potential for cascading impacts and irreversibility. It looks like the era of gradual problems has passed, as must the era of gradual responses. The future looks set to arrive abruptly; either an abrupt global transformation where multiple societal goals are met or abrupt cascading shocks where no goals are met.

There may still be a large degree of choice between these two possible futures. Although it’s an obvious easy choice there’s a snag. Over the past 40 years our collective problem-solving didn’t actually solve the problems. Albert Einstein’s classic warning applies; how to be sure that we aren’t still trying to solve today’s problems with the same kinds of thinking which causes them? Adam Smith also warned, “When we are in the middle of a paradigm, it is hard to imagine any other paradigm.” With the benefit of 40 years experience since Stockholm we can add, “When we are in the middle of a gradual international problem-solving process, it is hard to imagine other paradigms.”

How to rapidly imagine, design and implement other paradigms? A starting point for this large challenge could be the smallest possible response, to say “Oops!”.  “Oops!” may not sound like much but this acknowledgement of society’s collective failures could be powerful in shifting the dialogue and creating space for new thinking. As an acronym, OOPS! could provide the international community with an informal ‘Out Of Paradigm Space’ to discuss options that haven’t been considered simply because they didn’t fit in the prevailing shared mental models or institutional architectures. OOPS! would ask, “what are we missing here?”.

Would OOPS! need more of a focus besides ‘out of paradigm’? Possibly not. Proposals to define the meaning and scope of paradigms would be valuable within this space but less useful as constraints on the space. Open-ended dialogue is ideal for building a shared curiosity about opportunities that lie beyond the bounds of today’s institutions, sectors, locations, issues and mind-sets. The name OOPS! maintains a gentle reminder that together we’ve apparently not been as smart as we’d hoped. This supports an attitude of humility and flexible thinking well-suited to an outbreak of collective intelligence.

OOPS! could work primarily as a web think tank (an online network), serving the international environmental governance and policy-making community as a shared space for ideas and dialogue. The space would need no formal role in decision-making so long as the content was publicly visible: transparency would allow public debate to influence policy debate. Nations and international institutions would be likely to encourage their officials’ participation to demonstrate a readiness to adapt and collaborate in new ways to rebuild public confidence in governance.

It’s impossible to measure in advance the contributions of OOPS! dialogues to international fora such as Rio+20 and climate negotiations although the aim would be to shift today’s ‘political reality’ fragmented by adversarial entrenched positions to a new reality, hard to imagine today, of seeking and implementing win-win strategies that meet shared goals. Much existing research would be relevant for this shift. One example is my paper published in the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme called Seven Policy Switches for Global Security (author’s link, publisher’s link).

The emerging concept of ‘global security’ recognises that future security anywhere requires all facets of security everywhere. The interdependence of each aspect of security, such as financial security, climate security, national security and water security, allows them to be merged rather than set against each other. This broad goal-set reflects society’s broadly shared goals, encouraging collaborative strategies and discouraging polarised positions. There are no safe havens from threats that affect only other people in other places. And no advantage to be gained by losing one form of security when seeking another.

What does this merged goal-set tell us about approaching global problems? Over the past 40 years just one overall approach has been tried. The intertwined complexity of multi-dimensional problems has been reduced into ‘manageable’ issues such as climate or food or waste. This reductionist approach offered the hope of gradual progress but ironically it instead blocked progress. In this paradigm it can be hard to imagine a non-reductionist approach, “Try thinking about all problems at the same time – OK now what’s the answer?” However a dual focus approach has been available but unexplored and untried, a ‘systems approach’.

A systems approach was neatly described by C West Churchman (1979), “…no problem can be solved simply on its own basis.” Solving problems in complex systems requires action both within the realm of the problem and beyond - on the paradigms that either drive or reverse the problems. Food security for example requires both actions that deliver sufficient food and actions that deliver every other form of security, ranging from rising ecosystem vitality to rising wealth sharing. This dual ‘within and beyond’ focus allows a systems approach to unite with traditional issue-based problem solving.

The paper then asks how could problems be rapidly reversed? Global problems are seen as an indivisible whole that can be solved at source only as a whole system. Systemic behaviours, or paradigms, can be switched from inherently problematic to inherently problem-resolving. How then to change paradigms? Donella Meadow’s (1999) concept of leverage points is adapted to international policy-making as ‘policy switches’ that work in combination like dials to open a lock. Each of them is needed for any symptomatic issue. Each policy switch comprises a shift in worldview (or shared mental model) and a policy initiative to enact the shift.

Seven policy switches were proposed. Switch 1 upgrades society’s scale of ambition. Planning for ‘less bad’ (less carbon, less starvation etc) is not good enough. Switch 2 prescribes curiosity as an antidote to path dependency. Switch 3 offers a simple market-based tool to radically reshape the whole economy, so growth no longer undermines further growth. Switch 4 uses economic competitiveness to phase out overdependence on weapons and conflict. Switch 5 allows nature to be valued without being commodified. Switch 6 matches the world’s stockpiles of wealth to the stockpiles of problems. Switch 7 shows how ever-deepening debt is optional.

The seven policy switches offer a glimpse of a future where our capacity to solve the big problems is no longer limited by a limited approach to them. If international environmental governance encompasses paradigm governance the tough challenge for Rio +30 might be the world’s scarcity of worsening problems!

James Greyson is Head of BlindSpot think tank and works with MIT’s Climate CoLab. Follow James on Twitter @blindspotting

Tags: human security,paradigm change,planetary boundaries,science-policy interface
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Thanks James,

ones again very well written and i agree we have but 2 possible futures, the problem that i see is the time frame for this to happen, and i agree with you reduction in itself is not enough.
Where to start is really the problem, it is not going in my view happen from the top down, to much investment capital in this paradigm to be abolished in any short term (5 to 10 years) and that is going to leave us stuck, if we indeed do wait for a top down approach.

The bottom up approach likewise is not working and we simply dont have the luxury of time for a community at a time to turn bad practices into good practices...  not only do we need to look out of the box, it is time to walk away from the box, forget that there was a box even to begin with.

The only way i see is system development, but as we both know whole systems design is a BIG subject and usually when one start to explain the interrelations the eyes of most listeners glaze over, just to much information that has never being expressed in a relative way before, is for us to structure the elicitation of global communities, resources, potential, problems,  consumer log ect.
To establish a context driven platform that connect the dots through auto context connections so that the data can be digested and then to reposition education that is really geared up for the past paradigm to fit a new paradigm by design, get the children out of the classroom and get  the classroom back into life, based on sustainable models shaped around individual communities within a global framework of zero waste, and responsible management of resources.
If it takes us two years to set up the systems and develop the lesson plans, you still looking at a transitional period of 14 to 15 years, but you would have fundamentally changed the culture through education for the next 30 to 40 years.

neither top down or bottom up

well it's 2012 now and we see where we are...and we're moving faster than light. the "bottom" grassroots are ready to run with what the "top" policy makers feed to the pipe. The "top" has to be informed by the "bottom" to know what to feed through the's a tubular/circular system rather than linear. we need circular thinkng. so, as one who can't narrow my focus to the details of systems change, i will keep my gaze on the whole and say all we need is to be reminded of our own genius and worth in this be convinced that we are each one aong many geniuses and to harm any one of us is an ultimate mistake. that we have been told this before and not quite gotten it, is no matter. Let there be this great purpose to the extent of suffering we now witness, that man once and for all faces up to his own sentience.

top down + bottom up

Thanks Steven! One of the interesting questions for an OOPS! dialogue would be whether policy-makers and decision-makers really cannot change paradigms. Perhaps there is a role for us folk at the 'bottom' to help others see opportunities for fast change that benefit all of us?

Yes whole systems is a big topic but if we're looking at systems change rather than systems mapping it gets manageable. Talking about possible leverage points is more useful than talking about how everything is connected to everything else! 

Education would be another great topic for an OOPS! dialogue. Love the image of getting kids out of classes and into communities. So much effort has been devoted to sustainability lesson plans over the decades that I'm wondering whether there's a lesson for us that the content of education (what gets learned) is more or less the content of the paradigm. (So change the paradigm to change what gets taught?) It would be good also to explore leverage points around process rather than content of education. Predetermined (canned) delivery of schooling is just one way to do it :-)

Whole systems vs reductionism

Good thinking, James. Especially re leverage points.

Our take is that 'strong sustainability' (as opposed to only twiddling the knobs) is essentially transformative, and thus needs to be re-invented in every moment. Indeed, any method or approach we use 'needs to contain the seeds of its own transformation' (Frans Lenglet).

One high-leverage point is our common (in)ability to learn from experience. We've therefore devoted time and effort to create methods and tools - constantly evolving/emerging! - to enable accelerated learning from experience. We've run workshhops now with sustainability practitioners, including lots of ESD people, from... probably over 40 countries. It works! Like dropping a stone in a pool, it ripples.

This is of course a journey of exploration for us as well as all the participants. Feel like joining us some time?


methods and tools

Thanks Marilyn, would be delighted to join you and learn some new ripples. The OOPS! proposal is a lot about learning that's evolving and transformative rather than habit based and incremental/twiddling. We can learn from our experience and also from the experience we don't yet have and the paradigms/mindsets that are not yet explored. This expands the dialogue beyond reinforcing established positions towards synergies, reframing problems, systems thinking and possible leverage points for fast global change. The basic tool of OOPS! is a web dialogue platform and the basic method is mapping our 'how to solve this problem' assumptions so we can explore the 'out of bounds' areas that usually vanish off the edge of the map.

Methods and tools

Next opportunity Amsterdam 14-15 November...

I like OOPS

I really do like OOPS, it's big thinking, it's system thinking and it's different thinking. Can we get government and business to say OOPS? That means admitting a mistake. That means recognising natural laws, and that business is a wholly owned sudsidiary of the environment. How do we get business and government to change its approach? Maybe, just maybe OOPS is it. Good luck - James, we are all with you!

Admitting 'mistakes'

One of the cornerstones of our 'Learning for Change' method/approach is that we follow the Essene principle of 'joy of discovering mistakes'. When I discover something that I or we or someone could have done better, I'm on a learning path. This goes for governements too - after all, politicians are also people... How do we transmit this age-old principle in modern terms?

It's not a matter of exonerating fraud or folly, but of generating insights that lead to doing things differently. Am I makiing sense?

Perfect sense

Yes this is the reason for choosing an acronym that embraces our collective mistakes as a framework for a more reflective dialogue about correcting them. If any international body takes up OOPS! as an initiative then I'd hope to see your methods incorporated into the process. 


Super slogan "business is a wholly owned sudsidiary of the environment". 

I hope that everyone's natural aversion to admitting error won't stop a dialogue where the whole society can admit a collective error of unsustainability.  A good topic would be how to avoid embarrassments being roadblocks to change. For example how will governments explain the need for switching money creation away from banks without appearing to have been in the pockets of banks all this time? One option might be to point out that it's now obvious that the old paradigm isn't even working for banks!

End of all blind spots ?



Your thinking here synchs with mine in my book Life Rules ( A new analogy is needed to help prompt new ways of thinking about our present mutually reinforcing economic, environmental, social and political crises and determining viable ways of solving them. Eg, they are a syndrome of conditions triggered by a global economy that has gone viral, undermining the capacity of Earth's natural and human communities, the planet's equivalent of an immune system, to protect, defend and heal themselves--that is, compromising their resilience--the way HIV undermines the capacity of the human immune system to protect the body. As a consequence we are exceeding, living entirely beyond, Earth's means of supporting us as untreated HIV eventually exceeds its host's means of supporting it. The global economy is now too big not to fail. Life is not at risk; Life as we know it and a lot of us are. Solution: upscale human societies' (deliberate plural) ambition and curiosity for the task of retaking control of their provisioning and governing in the particular places where OOPS finds them. Every complex system, like the global economy, is dependent on the governing influence of the largest complex system of which it is a part. The largest complex system on this planet is not the global human economy. The largest complex system on Earth is the biosphere, Life itself. Some say "nature bats last." I say Life rules, and unless we learn to play by Life's rules -- which establish the context for all forms of life on Earth -- Life will rule us out, or at least whittle us down. Survival depends on our learning and obeying Life's economic rules for survival on a finite planet. They are a sort of ten commandments of genuine sustainability which can be consolidated into Six D-gress of Seaparation from the Global Economy: Dropout, Downsize, Diversify, De-carbonize, De-materialize, Democratize. Etc..............

Separate from global economy?

Hi Ellen, I'm curious about the approach of separation from the global economy. Is that 'dropout'? Suppose every community became sustainable would you then have in sum a global economy that would be sustainable? Great to explore options for making things work at a variety of scales - thanks. 

How do you find people respond to being presented with rules to obey? Frances Moore Lappe has a chunk of her book Liberation Ecology about that - maybe of use for you.

BTW impressed how you could use the word rule in 3 ways!