Failed Governance

In the headlines, we read of international meetings to address the continuing degradation of the environment, both land and sea. Kyoto, Copenhagen, and Mexico City where the climate agenda was addressed, and stalled. Now Rio de Janeiro, where the world policy community will gather to review the lack of progress to meet conservation goals set at a similar meeting at that place two decades ago. More than 130 heads of state will attend; papers, presentations, and plans will abound; resolutions will be proposed, edited, possibly declared; but to what avail? I have attended these meetings, but no longer. I cannot bear the disappointment, the optimism so cynically betrayed so quickly thereafter when the triumphant announcements become hollow echoes, the specifics compromised, or worse deliberately ignored by national and private interests vested in no change, no sustainability, seemingly no future.

I have great admiration for the policy-makers and activists from the United Nations, certain nations, and the large community of non-governmental organizations that are the originators and perpetuators of progressive concepts, structures, and proposals to demonstrate best practices built on conservation principles and values. They are, of course, paid to persevere, but, nonetheless, without them there would be no successes to point to, nothing but a continuing consumption-based reality careening toward implosion and indifferent to the earth’s capacity to support its equally accelerating population growth and demand.  This is beyond entropy, in that it is a deliberately chosen strategy for immediate gratification selfishly motivated and dismissive of ensuing generations.

I recently read an excellent report, Protecting the Marine Environment in Areas beyond National Jurisdiction, prepared by one such NGO, the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development, a team of international lawyers based in London. Prepared no doubt in anticipation of the Rio + 20 global meeting, the report analyzes the challenges for conservation and management of biodiversity in marine areas outside the exclusive economic zones of nations, an extremely important area of interest under severe pressure by the fishing and extraction industries among others. The report is comprehensive, instructive, well-organized and reasoned; it outlines the essential principles for protection and management; it concludes with recommendations that reflect the best thinking of the international conservation interests and with this final note: “But while the international community debates ways forward, and negotiations around a new international agreement may begin, meaningful marine protection efforts need to be taken by all stakeholders within the existing legal framework as a matter of urgency. With a view to the rapid creation of a system that will ensure the effective use of area-based management strategies… and thus contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of the world’s oceans as a whole, action needs to be taken now – before it is too late.”

If the global community is unable to respond in time, perhaps we can look to more local governance, national ocean policies that will put in place structures and approaches that will at least mitigate local contribution to the larger international challenges. Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union have established such plans and are addressing the problem in the context of national or regional management and regulation. The United States seemed to be heading in that direction when President Obama created a National Ocean Policy by Executive Order. Now, however, as Congress must address funding for these activities, twenty-three Republican representatives have sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee objecting not to increased funding for the plan, but to the redirection of existing funds toward these new progressive objectives. Their letter concludes, “We urge you to impose a "time out" so that these questions can be answered before more federal funds are reprogrammed towards the implementation of the National Ocean Policy. We request that language be included in all relevant appropriations legislation for FY 2013 that would prohibit the use of funds for implementing the National Ocean Policy.” And so it goes in what passes for governance in the US.

There are too many such examples. The point here is that international and national governance of ocean issues has mostly failed, either directly or by inadequacy of urgency and action. We need to tell ourselves so. We need to stop clinging to shreds of false optimism that somehow it will all change just in time. We need to understand that hope now lies only in ourselves, in the power of “citizens of the ocean” who are prepared to act individually and collectively to demonstrate by our example and insist by community action that we will no longer accept behavior as usual and will withhold the consent of the governed.

To listen to this episode of World Ocean Radio, click here.