If Planet Earth is to survive in the coming decades as we know it, we must find new ways to protect our planet from the unsustainable growth imperatives of neoliberal economics and politics.  This will require a new architecture of “green governance”―laws, public policies, and social practices that can honor human rights and commons-based management of natural resources large and small. Read more

Green Governance:
Ecological Survival, Human Rights, and the Law of the Commons

The vast majority of the world’s scientists agree:  We have reached a point in history where we are in grave danger of destroying Earth's life-sustaining capacity.  But our attempts to protect natural ecosystems are increasingly ineffective because our very conception of the problem is limited; we treat "the environment” as its own separate realm, taking for granted prevailing but outmoded conceptions of economics, national sovereignty, and international law.

Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights, and the Law of the Commons, published by Cambridge University Press on January 17, 2013, is a direct response to the mounting calls for a paradigm shift in the way humans relate to the natural environment.  It opens the door to a new set of solutions by proposing a compelling new synthesis of environmental protection based on broader notions of economics and human rights and on commons-based governance. Going beyond speculative abstractions, the book proposes a new architecture of environmental law and public policy that is as practical as it is theoretically sound.

The book also includes a proposed Universal Covenant Affirming A Human Right to Commons- and Rights-based Governance of Earth's Natural Wealth and Resources, which can be used to advance the vision of Green Governance.

Advance Praise for Green Governance

Here are what environmental and human rights legal scholars are saying about Green Governance:

James Gustave Speth, Former Dean, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Professor of Law, Vermont Law School:

“When a vital body of existing policy and law has run its course, the need for reinvention becomes urgent. So it is with environmental law and policy. It is therefore exiting that two enormously well-informed and creative thinkers, Burns Weston and David Bollier, have joined forces to produce this breakthrough in environmental governance. Their book is a landmark in our thinking about rights-based environmentalism and the law of the commons and how these fields can combine in a powerful synthesis. We must take these ideas very seriously indeed. Highly recommended.”

James Hansen, Director, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University:

“Our well-oiled, coal-fired governments have failed to protect the rights of young people and future generations. The best hope for young people, and other life on the planet, may be the judiciary, presumably less influenced by fossil fuel money. Weston and Bollier provide a valuable perspective on how that may be possible."

Richard Falk, Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University:

“This indispensable book, written with passion and a sense of urgency, responds creatively and convincingly to the greatest ecological threat that has ever faced the human species. Relying on their profound knowledge of environmental issues, law, and human rights, Burns Weston and David Bollier brilliantly depict and propose a drastically new paradigm of governance that has the potential to save the peoples of the world from a catastrophic future. Their proposal is a major scholarly addition to the climate change literature that deserves the widest possible readership.”

Dinah Shelton, Manatt/Ahn Professor of Law, the George Washington University Law School:

“This important new work by Burns Weston and David Bollier transcends any narrow categorization with the wide range of disciplines and knowledge it reflects. The authors creatively re-think how to understand and respond to the critical challenge of halting destruction of the Earth’s rapidly degrading ecosystems, a threat to the very survival of humankind. Combining economics, emergence of the Internet, international law, and human rights into a new approach of commons-based green governance, the book is at the same time a profound and practical framework for how everyone in the present can help to preserve the future.”

Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Former Prime Minister and Minister for the Environment, New Zealand

“Burns Weston and David Bollier have written a bold, imaginative and ambitious book. The planet is in peril and its capacity to sustain life under threat. Market economics, international law and state sovereignty have all failed us. A new approach is needed and that lies in a twin approach: a rights based governance system for the Earth’s resources and development of an ecological commons template for environmental management. The book is well researched and closely argued. It deserves our rapt attention in the struggle to find a way through.”

Mary Christina Wood, Philip H. Knight Professor, Environmental and Natural Resources Law Program, University of Oregon School of Law:

“This book is a tour de force. Bold and visionary, yet intensely practical, this book transforms the "tragedy of the commons" to the promise of the commons. At a time when leading voices call for a paradigm shift in how humans live and organize their economic behavior, this book actually tells us what that shift could look like, and how to begin it. It is a game-changer, a must-read for anyone concerned with the future of the planet.”

David W. Orr, Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics and Executive Director of The Oberlin Project, Oberlin College

“The ecological crisis is first and foremost a problem of governance and Green Governance is by far the best summary of the issues and solutions that I've read. It is a brilliant and visionary book that is also practical. Its message is that we must learn to wisely manage in common what we have in common: our Earth, our future, and each other.”

To buy Green Governance, go to the Cambridge University Press website or Amazon.com. A Kindle edition is available.


Regenerating the Human Right to a Clean and Healthy Environment in the Commons Renaissance

Our 2011 essay about these same themes―from which Green Governance is derived―can be read below.  “Regenerating the Human Right to a Clean and Healthy Environment in the Commons Renaissance” is a 229-page draft essay that can be downloaded as pdf files by individual sections (below) or in two parts (at right).  The entire essay and associated documents are all available for copying and sharing under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

The Case for Green Governance

If the human species is to overcome the many interconnected ecological catastrophes now confronting us, this moment in history requires that we entertain some bold modifications of our legal structures and political culture.  We must find the means to introduce new ideas for effective and just environmental protection―locally, nationally, regionally, globally and points in between.

It is our premise that human societies will not succeed in overcoming our myriad eco-crises through better “green technology” or economic reforms alone; we must pioneer new types of governance that allow and encourage people to move from anthropocentrism to biocentrism, and to develop qualitatively different types of relationships with nature itself and, indeed, with each other.  An economics and supporting civic polity that valorizes growth and material development as the precondition for virtually everything else is ultimately a dead end―literally.

Achieving a clean, healthy and ecologically balanced environment requires that we cultivate a practical governance paradigm based on, first, a logic of respect for nature, sufficiency, interdependence, shared responsibility and fairness among all human beings; and second, an ethic of integrated global and local citizenship that insists upon transparency and accountability in all activities affecting the integrity of the environment.

We believe that commons- and rights-based ecological governance can fulfill this logic and ethic.  Properly done, it can move us beyond the neoliberal State and Market alliance―what we call the “State/Market”―which is chiefly responsible for the current, failed paradigm of ecological governance.

Our Essay, “Regenerating the Human Right to a Clean and Healthy Environment in the Commons Renaissance”

Part I

I.  Introduction
The regeneration of the right to a clean and healthy environment is entirely feasible if we can liberate ourselves from the tyranny of State-centric models of legal process; enlarge our understanding of “value” in economic thought; expand our sense of human rights; and honor the power of non-market participation, local context, and social diversity in structuring economic activity.      Download section

II.  The Status of the Human Right to a Clean and Healthy Environment
The human right to a clean and healthy environment can be a powerful legal tool for improved ecological governance, but none of the three main State-based interpretations of this right are adequate.  Two alternative legal approaches – “intergenerational environmental rights” and “nature’s rights” – hold great promise, but have complexities of their own.  Download section

III.  Making the Conceptual Transition to a New Paradigm
New and powerful trends in economics, digital technology, and human rights point to a new synthesis that can help us address our many ecological crises.  These trends include a growing interest in holistic economic frameworks that can help us name and manage “value” more responsibly than neoliberal economics and policy; new types of commons-based governance that provide practical ways to honor and manage non-market value, including in environmental contexts; and a reconceptualization of human rights as a key element of socio-ecological governance and justice.  Download section

Part II

IV.  The Commons as a Model for Ecological Governance
Far from being a failed management system or quaint vestige of pre-modern life, the commons is a governance system that can help humankind serve as a responsible steward of natural resources.  This fact has been confirmed by Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom and other social scientists who have studied commons for farming, forests, fisheries, water, and wild game, among other resources, around the world.  With the proper design, a commons regime can help communities establish rules and norms for managing resources, set limits on resource exploitation, sanction rule-breakers, and assure long-term sustainability.  Download section

V.  Imagining a New Architecture of Law and Policy to Support the Ecological Commons
It is urgent that we develop new legal principles and strategies that can support rights-based ecological commons in their many varieties.  Law must help protect the commons against enclosure, assure their responsible operation and unleash their generative stewardship.  This requires that we pursue certain legal strategies to foster the creation of commons and to push the State/Market to use its authority and resources to do the same.  Download section

VI.  Coda
If we are truly going to regenerate the human right to a clean and healthy environment, we must gird ourselves for some ambitious tasks:  imagining alternative futures; mobilizing new energies and commitments; deconstructing archaic institutions while building new ones; devising new public policies and legal mechanisms; cultivating new understandings of human rights, economics and commons; and reconsidering some deeply rooted prejudices about governance and human nature. 

Universal Covenant Affirming a Human Right to Commons- and Rights-based Governance of Earth's Natural Wealth and Resources
Download section

Burns H. Weston is the Bessie Dutton Murray Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus and Senior Scholar of the Center for Human Rights, The University of Iowa.  He is also a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, and a long-time ― now honorary ― member of the Board of Editors of the American Journal of International Law.  In recognition of his human rights scholarship and programmatic innovations bridging human rights and the environment, he was awarded the degree of Honorary Doctorate of Law (LL.D.) by Vermont Law School in 2009.

David Bollier is an author, activist, blogger and co-founder of the Commons Strategies Group who studies the commons as a new paradigm of economics, politics and culture.  He is the author of ten books, including the Silent Theft, Brand Name Bullies, Viral Spiral and the forthcoming The Wealth of the Commons.  Bollier is also co-founder of Public Knowledge, a Washington advocacy organization for the public’s stake in copyright law and Internet policy, and Senior Fellow at the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Bollier blogs at www.bollier.org.


Related Commentary by Weston and Bollier

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