By Jens Ambsdorf
In the last twenty years, we have made tremendous progress in imagining ways to create a better, more sustainable world. We see this vision documented in the declarations and guiding principles the UN and other governing bodies have created. But this vision has yet to become reality — how little has changed in the way we approach development. We are stuck in old habits, old structures, old territorial and ideological thinking that is so deeply rooted in our history that change is too slow to come.
The urgency of the agenda for the UN Conference on Sustainable development in Rio this June cannot be understated—we face unprecedented and linked economic and environmental crises, and the delegates in Rio have a tremendous opportunity to address these crises by reshaping the institutions that govern international development. Instead of trying to fix a system that itself is the cause of the dilemma we are in, we have to step out of the box and rethink that system entirely.
National governments are increasingly unable to deliver to their citizens the fundamental services they are designed to offer. The gap between poor and rich, those who have and those who have not, those who participate and those who don’t, is widening worldwide; and that gap is created and strongly enhanced by national politics, taxation, and other factors which effectively restrict choices. Even in established democratic countries, the gap between national governments and the people is widening and participation in traditional political systems is dwindling.
On the local and regional level it seems clear what the goal of governance should be: our own wellbeing and that of our fellow citizens. But on the national level, a constant conflict of interests blurs this fundamental goal and the wellbeing of individuals and communities becomes more and more obscured.
The dwindling power of national governments in comparison to international corporations and financial markets only increases this risk. Today, ever increasing national deficits transform public assets into private profits, and on the flip side, convert private risks into public debts. National and international governance supports the interest of capital and markets against the interests of the people; limiting individual freedom and options for individuals to be active and self-determined parts of society.
We need governance that returns to the commons; governance that rises from its people, and focuses on the fundamental wellbeing of its societies. These fundamental needs are tangible and diverse, and best understood within particular cultures and the regions they inhabit.
The challenges we face are global, but the solutions can only be found on an appropriate scale: the regional scale.
The sense of place and belonging has always been important for human beings. Our sense of place is rooted in a geographical context and also in how our culture emerges from that place — how our community relates to one another. This is as true for people in the Siberian tundra as it is for people that call New York City their home. This relationship is reciprocal– it is not only that you belong to a place, but that place also belongs to you.
When land and resources no longer belong to the majority, the disconnect between people and place discourages responsible behavior and the stewardship that is needed to support vibrant, healthy societies.
Responsibility without ownership is weak and ownership without responsibility is arbitrary.
Regions are the largest and yet smallest unit that people can feel an active part of. It is where individuals still matter and where ownership and responsibility can still be meaningful. But regionalism in this sense is not only bound to the traditional borders of culture and idioms. It can be far more–varying in size and boundaries depending on the particular characteristics of the land and its culture.
What is a region?
A region in this sense is the dynamic geographical expression of a common set of qualities, conditions, questions, and opinions of people in that area. This definition includes but is not limited to the traditional idea of a region. This traditional approach is mainly territorial and historic and does not reflect the multiple dimensions of human existence today.
Nor does this understanding of regions neglect the need for structure and order. One of the great advancements of the last century was that on a global scale, we have achieved a broad consensus that demands human rights. We have seen in Somalia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and elsewhere what the unmediated and complete removal of order and common values creates. It supports the expression of the darkest parts of human behavior and cannot be tolerated. We desperately need good governance on all levels.
National governments have been the cornerstones of global stability in the world as we know it. But our world has changed and we can’t overcome the challenges we are facing with institutions that are living in the past. Not only do we need to redefine our economic models, but we also need to rebuild our models of governance. To chart the way towards these new models into a future we all want, we need to remap the world.
What does remapping mean?
Remapping is to reconsider our relationship to the places we live. Since the current borders of nations cut through many historical, cultural and bio-geographical landscapes, they are not suitable to address the challenges the current state of the world demands.
Remapping means a radical reorientation centered around people and place, where people take ownership of the places they live. Ownership also implies the ownership of a problem and the responsibility for solving it. Remapping in the first place means people living within their geographical context. At another level, it means to also integrate wider tangible and non-tangible relations.
Bioregions offer a starting point for this approach.
The European Wadden Sea does not end at the borders of Germany, Denmark or the Netherlands, but the political borders result in different management schemes, different rights for land users, different results in the protection of its natural resources. Even while there is a high degree of coordination between those nations, this region could be governed much better if it were mapped by regional, not political boundaries.
Or, if we look at watersheds like the Euphrat that include several nation states, how can it be that one nation consumes the commonly shared resources of all the people up and downstream without even consulting with them? This is clearly unjust.
Similarly, fishing fleets are destroying the future of coastal communities in East Africa for the short-term profit of far distant fleet owners.
On a larger scale we see how the temperate forest ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and Canada are totally dependent on the current climate pattern that leads to the rainfall and cloudy skies there. This is a long evolved natural pattern that we as humans are currently changing with an uncertain effect.
A regional perspective sheds light on the imbalances of capital flows and resulting economic fragility. Money flows into regions like Africa to capitalize on abundant resources, but the profits flow out just as quickly. Profits are neither reinvested locally or used to offset the social and environmental costs of the activities.
So remapping allows us to better understand where the costs and benefits of economic activities are born between different regions. It can facilitate burden sharing as well as benefit sharing. What is clear from these examples is that the definition of a region has to be broader than a geographical one.
Remapping is not the solution towards a better world. Remapping is a thematic tool and concept that enables us to better understand the context in which we live — the vulnerabilities we face, as well as the opportunities.
And it may contribute answers to the overarching question: how are we going to live on this planet in the future in peace together, well and happy?
Jens Ambsdorf is CEO of the Hamburg-based Lighthouse Foundation.