Book Review: Brown and Garver’s Right Relationship

Published online 9 July 2009.

Recent events have made it somewhat evident that the current system of global governance is inadequate for the problem of abrupt climate change. A suggestion that is slowly becoming more popular is that of a new system of global governance, and so this is a review of Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver’s (2009) book Right Relationship: Building A Whole Earth Economy. Right Relationship is, to a significant extent, a “Quaker” outline for the reconcilement of economy with ecology; meaningfully, its transformative suggestions do seem quite apropos of the need for post-capitalist environmental design.


OK, this is a book review, and these things rarely get a lot of recs or respondents on DKos, especially on big news days. But please at least grant me a chance to show the relevance of this volume. It’s already been covered in Huffington Post: take a look at what they’re putting out there and you can see that it hits all of the blind spots of the capitalist system. “Unlimited growth on a finite planet makes no sense,” “uconomic policy must promote not more affluence as currently defined, but rather fairness and sufficiency for all citizens,” we are “accelerating toward ecological catastrophe,” “look beyond technological fixes.”

Two news pieces bring a reading of Right Relationship into focus. One is a Wednesday piece in Time magazine, Obama’s Global Warming Pragmatism, Cont’d In Italy. The spirit of current global governance at the G8 meeting in Italy is reflected in the opening paragraph:

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked to define success in international global warming negotiations. “Well, look,” Gibbs said, as he braced himself through a patch of rough turbulence on Air Force One, which was at the moment crossing Europe on its way to Rome. “I think in many ways success for us is going to be getting something through Congress and to his desk that puts in place a system, a market-based system that lessens the amount of greenhouses gases in the air. Look, that’s going to be the true measure of things.” It was a classic statement of Obama’s governance style: Success was defined as passing a broad concept through Congress. The details, as in the exact rate of greenhouse gas reduction, did not matter as much.

(Kudos to racerx for pointing this out)

Market-based system, eh? Anyone can see that the previous market-based system, the Kyoto Protocol, didn’t really do anything substantive — a quick glance at Raupach et al.’s key paper in PNAS should tell you that. Even the enforcing Kyoto signatories haven’t succeeded in reducing “carbon emissions.” At any rate, it’s easy to see why — systems of political economy (i.e., neoliberal political economy) which depend upon economic growth are simply not going to sacrifice any of that growth to reduce carbon emissions. And so when it comes time to regulate “carbon emissions,” nation-states which are locked into economic competition are simply going to print too many of “carbon credits.”

Also, Thursday’s piece in the Los Angeles Times (print edition), “Climate Impasse at G8 Summit Leaves Nations Mired,” suggests that even the G8’s more modest goals are imperiled, or at least that’s what the Times’ key pundit suggests:

Obama’s climate bill, which narrowly passed the House, could send a strong signal if it becomes law, said Dirk Forrister, who was chairman of the White House climate change task force under President Clinton and now is managing director of the financial firm Natsource LLC. But, he said, “the U.S. Senate will not go along with anything unless it sees some pretty serious action from developing countries.” That, analysts say, sums up Obama’s conundrum as he tries to push for a meaningful climate agreement during formal treaty negotiations in Denmark this winter.

So what’s the concrete goal of all this?

The G-8 countries also set a global goal of 50% emissions reductions by mid-century, and declared that they recognized “the broad scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above preindustrial levels ought not to exceed” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). They did not announce any specific plans to cut emissions or adopt any short- or mid-term reduction targets. The United States pushed, and failed, to get developing nations to join in the reduction pledge.

Feh! These are sweeping (if empty) gestures. They promise very little now, so that each politician’s successors will be able to repudiate their promises. Whomever is President in 2050 will be able to say “I didn’t say I was going to do that.”

A recent book by two Canadians suggests a solution to the dilemma represented by the G8 negotiations. Their credentials, to a certain extent, reveal what sort of opinion they represent: Brown is a professor at McGill’s School of Environment in Canada, and Garver is a “member of the Board of Trustees of the Quaker Institute for the Future. Thus Right Relationship is a sort of Quaker perspective upon the environmental crisis.

Their book, Right Relationship, suggests that “the way that people provide for themselves is in growing conflict with the integrity of Earth’s ecological and social systems” and that “the disconnect is so severe tha tit is now easier to imagine Earth’s life-support systems breaking down than to imagine that our ecologically incoherent and destructive economic system will be significantly altered.” (xi) The authors’ understanding of the economic problem is that the mentality which guides economic decisionmaking casts us in a “wrong relationship” to planetary “life-support systems.” Their solution to this problem: “Our purpose is to offer people from all walks of life an ethical guidance system based on ‘right relationship.’ (xi) What this means, in practical terms, is a new system of global governance.

In practical terms, what Brown and Garver are suggesting is that there be four new systems of global governance, so as to square the world-as-it-is with realities of environmental crisis:

  1. a “global reserve,” which would “guide the economy based on the biophysical laws that govern the planet”, meant pretty much as a replacement for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund
  2. a set of “trusteeships of Earth’s Commons to protect the ozone layer, the atmosphere, the oceans, and the other systems necessary for life’s flourishing,” an idea proposed by Peter Barnes and others most recently in his book “Capitalism 3.0”
  3. a “Global Federation, modeled in part on the European Union,” which would “ensure fairness among persons and between humans and other species.”
  4. and, lastly, a “Global Court,” which would resolve disputes and hold all of the other institutions to their charters. (112-113)

Brown and Garver hope to use the new mechanisms to replace existing structures of global governance, which they suggest has failed — because, as they say, the existing structures are too rigidly focused upon growth and are not willing to grant money or power to “environmental” structures of global governance which propose other goals.

As Brown and Garver come from two principled traditions, the first of environmentalism, the second of the Quaker tradition, there is a background of ethical principles backing up the authors’ proposals. Inspiration for this book comes from the Moral Economy Project. The work being outlined in Right Relationship is based upon the ideas of a fair distribution of Earth’s resources, provision for Earth’s future, generations, and “developing the means for noticing when growth has gone too far” (90).

The conclusion suggests “four steps to a Whole Earth Economy,” suggesting that the work to be done on how, exactly, to bring about the authors’ suggested blueprint for global governance. As I suggested in a previous diary, all schemes for world-improvement must confront the realities of power. From this perspective, perhaps the book’s suggestions for a massive global redistribution of wealth will be the ones to meet the greatest amount of empowered resistance. Our authors’ suggestions are as follows: “the people of the world can bring about a right relationship between the human economy and the earth’s commonwealth of life if we come together and take four steps:”

1) Grounding and clarification: respect “life’s commonwealth.”

2) Design: change our institutions to reflect that respect.

3) Witness: commit to personal and social change — here the authors suggest a “mass epiphany”

4) Nonviolent reform: create a movement.

At the end of her book Globalization and its Terrors, the late Teresa Brennan suggests that some sort of new spiritual movement (Brennan 166-167) will be necessary to stabilize what Karl Marx called “the metabolism between man and nature.” This seems to be an advocacy of something like that. Sign me up.

And, as for those of their audience who are getting libertarian cold feet about all of this global governance talk, the authors suggest:

To oppose a Global Federation because it sounds like Orwell’s “Big Brother is to allow actual control of the planet to remain in the hands of the current de facto Big Brother of unelected, unaccountable commercial leaders and entities that recognize no responsibility for the public good. Governance must be exercised at a global level for global issues, but must have local grounding to ensure relevance and accountability.(129)

Of course, once the hegemony of the commercial leaders is dismantled, we may wish to see the “Global Federation” go too. The problem is that the logic of expanding capital has brought us to this moment of global governance, ineffectual where it counts and domineering where it profits them the most. Even if a vast majority of the world’s people were to get together and say ENOUGH! ENOUGH OF YOUR COMMERCIAL CRAP!, this, too, would represent a gesture of global governance.

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