Ecology and Global Democracy

Right now, a constitution is being written for the globe. In it, humans are defining what democracy means for the Earth and all of its inhabitants. In this essay, I want to explore some of the reasons why I think science is deeply relevant to the project of writing a global constitution.

The emerging global constitution is not being written as the United States Constitution was, by a group of men sitting around a table. Rather, it is an unwritten constitution, comprised of a growing suite of institutions—the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, the institutions of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, and many others—that make policy decisions on behalf of the planet as a whole. The rules of these institutions are our new constitution.[i]

One of the key questions regarding these rules is how they place limits on the ideas that will guide global policy decisions. Who will frame global problems, and on the basis of what knowledge? What standards of evidence will the knowledge base for global decisionmaking be required to meet? Who will count as experts in the identification, analysis, and solution of global problems? Who will decide what kinds of models, data, and expertise are relevant and irrelevant to world affairs?

These questions are deeply political. They obviously depend, at one level, on what is required to create robust, reliable knowledge that will enable global decisions to be made well. But they also depend on a wide range of human values: about whose ideas should be heard in the policy process, about how to handle uncertainties or claims that are contested, and about the extent and nature of review processes, who authorizes review, and who participates in review—values, in other words, about what kinds of analyses, carried out by whom, and with what forms of validation should be required before global society acts.

Science is thus extremely relevant to global democracy. Notions of scientific objectivity will be one among many essential elements in the dance of defining limits on the exercise of power in global governance. Science will be called upon, as will other institutions, to help set the rules of evidence in global decisionmaking. Scientific models and data will also be central among the many kinds of knowledges that will ultimately be called on to contribute to the knowledge base underpinning global policy decisions.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, for example, was an effort to establish a base of foundational knowledge that might serve to inform policies to reduce threats to ecological systems that provide critical services to human communities. And, for those who participated in it, I hope it will be easy to recognize that an important challenge in organizing the Millennium Assessment was precisely to answer the kinds of questions that I posed above. Whose knowledge and ideas matter? What standards of evidence and review will apply? How will uncertainties and contested ideas be handled? Who will count as experts for the purposes of conducting assessments and authoring chapters? Who will decide? The Millennium Assessment was thus what I might be tempted to call an experiment in global democracy—an experiment in writing a part of the unwritten global constitution.

I believe we need to give more serious thought to the fact that exercises like the Millennium Assessment help to determine, at least in part, how democracy is structured in global governance. In part, this is necessary because international assessments have not, as yet, fully addressed the problems of credibility and legitimacy they face in many parts of the world. Significant inequalities in scientific resources, often combined with hesitance to acknowledge and incorporate knowledge from non-scientific sources, place key constraints on the ability of scientific assessments to represent the ideas of and communicate credibly to many of the world’s citizens.

Even more importantly, however, I believe we can organize scientific assessments in ways that can go beyond simply enhancing their own legitimacy and credibility. In fact, I believe scientific assessments can go so far as to help compensate for the growing ‘democratic deficit’ in international governance. This ‘democratic deficit’ has emerged as people around the globe have become increasingly skeptical of the ideas used to support and justify the exercise of power by international institutions whose decisions impact their day-to-day lives and livelihoods. The result is growing discontent, punctuated by sporadic but telling social protests, as well as a rejection of global policy decisions and support for political leaders who appear to buck the ‘Washington consensus’.[ii]

What are needed to address these challenges are greater openness, transparency, and accountability in the deliberation of ideas that underpin global policy decisions. Scientific assessments offer one forum where this democratization of knowledge could be pursued. What can assessments do? First, I think it is essential that assessments cultivate a greater tolerance toward diverse methodologies, approaches, and styles of reasoning about global problems. Even among advanced industrial countries, governments regulate the creation and validation of policy-relevant knowledge differently from one another. As the range of people and cultures represented in global policy contexts expands, so too will expectations regarding standards of evidence, norms of expertise, and approaches to validation. An excessive commitment to standardization in such contexts ensures not only that people will feel marginalized and excluded but also that their knowledge and ideas will also be lost from the process.

Parallel to epistemic tolerance are what I see as two additional imperatives. The first is to enhance the capacity of communities all over the world to formulate and reflect critically on policy reasoning in global forums. Epistemic diversification will be a hollow shell if communities do not have the skills and resources necessary to engage in global debates about the ideas that should underpin decisions of global import. The second is to enhance epistemic dialogue and exchange. What is needed is for communities to begin to learn how each other reason about policy problems and, through a process of exchange, to begin to develop shared sensibilities about how it is appropriate to reason about problems of global significance. This cannot be accomplished by imposing tight standards from the outset of assessment processes. It can only be accomplished via thoroughgoing dialogue and mutual deliberation.

Finally, I think it is essential to build accountability procedures into the design of knowledge systems in international governance. I know this will be a controversial idea. Nonetheless, knowledge is a form of power in global society, and the consequences of its improper exercise can be devastating. Failures of knowledge were legion in Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. Without accountability, there is little hope of avoiding similar failures with respect to problems of global significance. Can we afford not to hold accountable those who are responsible for what we know—or don’t know—about global affairs?

I believe that greater pluralism, transparency, and accountability in global knowledge systems will not only strengthen global democracy but also result in better global decisions. There is a need, therefore, for international scientific assessments to experiment with new approaches in the creation of democratic forums for deliberating, refining, and validating ideas of global significance among all of the Earth’s citizens. The organizers and authors of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment have much to be proud of in this regard. More than any its cousins, the Millennium Assessment pursued strategies that sought to embody many of these principles. I hope that a means can be found to ensure that it stays alive, at least as a model for future ecological assessments. Even so, more work needs to be done to take the model even further. The Millennium Assessment’s sub-global activities, for example, which offered the most direct opportunities for strengthening epistemic pluralism and accountability, were at best pilot studies for a more ambitious, more costly future project.[iii] I hope, therefore, that the Ecological Society of America will continue to support new and exciting experiments in bringing ecological knowledges to bear on the making of global policy.

Contributed by Clark Miller, Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes and Department of Political Science, Arizona State University

[iii] A more substantial treatment of this argument can be found in Clark A. Miller and Paul Erickson, “The Politics of Bridging Scales and Epistemologies: Science and Democracy in Global Environmental Governance,” in Fikret Berkes, Tom Wilbanks, Doris Capistrano, and Walt Reid, eds., Bridging Scales and Knowledge Systems: Concepts and Applications in Ecosystem Assessment (Washington: Island Press). In press.