Citizens of the world now grapple with many common horrors: climate change, pandemic disease, cybercrime and income inequality are among the biggest.
For solutions, it’s natural that we look to the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank or many of the other international organizations designed to provide remedies.
But the world has changed since these groups began convening in the 20th century, in the wake of two catastrophic world wars. Authoritarianism and nationalism are once again on the rise, making cooperation between nations more difficult. Underfunding is a major issue. And trading blocs based on Western ideals did not anticipate the rise of economies in the East.
The most unforeseen problem of all has been globalization, with its fluid flow of ideas and people across borders — both actual and digital. In view of all this, is it time to think about new ways to tackle global problems?
Justin Jennings thinks it is. Curator of World Cultures at the Royal Ontario Museum, Jennings is also an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Researching different societies — some of them thousands of years old, others far more recent — he has learned a great deal about their methods of resolving difficult issues and maintaining order. His new book, Rethinking Global Governance, argues that we can learn from them.
“The book is structured to say that global governance could benefit from some of these lessons,” Jennings says. “Other societies had political, social and economic ideas that could be very useful as we look at the decades ahead of us.”
It’s a fascinating exercise, considering that before colonialism and the rise of the nation-state, people often governed themselves in a more flexible, borderless way.
I quote from John Adams in the book, who said the framers of the constitution could learn a lot from the Haudenosonee. And then they didn’t — because those ideas weren’t in their wheelhouse.
One such society was the Haudenosonee Confederacy, a group of First Nations peoples living in the northeastern region of North America. The Confederacy’s constitution, known as The Great Law of Peace, outlined a detailed, thoughtful process to be used when seeking consensus on important decisions. Jennings says that when crafting their own constitution, the founding fathers of the United States were initially curious about incorporating ideas from The Great Law of Peace.
“I quote from John Adams in the book, who said the framers of the constitution could learn a lot from the Haudenosonee,’” Jennings said. “And then they didn’t — because those ideas weren’t in their wheelhouse.” A wheelhouse that was Western, hierarchical and unconcerned with universal consensus.
Jennings points out that some ancient societies were indeed hierarchical as well, cracking that ancient Egypt, for example, was a “pyramid society in more ways than one.” But he asks whether a more decentralized governance model, where power is more equitably shared, might not be more responsive to our changing times.
“The Galactic Polities of traditional Southeast Asian kingdoms were often organized around a centre, with different groups in and out of the orbit of that centre. There wasn’t a lot of effort towards creating rigid connections between that centre and other places. Now, is this a good idea? I’m not sure. But it’s a different idea, and one that should be explored. Because putting patches on the big bucket that is the nation-state isn’t proving very effective.”
Decentralization is certainly an idea worth considering in the case of climate change, where some of the most affected regions are located far from the centres of decision-making.
“Perhaps we can start to build new coalitions of impactful groups and provide them with the capacity to work through solutions that adapt to local conditions,” Jennings says. “Then get funding for them that isn’t tied up in red tape.”
In other parts of the book, Jennings describes the ways in which not only modern but perennial problems were managed in the past. He shows how the Enga people of Papua New Guinea defused warfare and resolved economic inequality through a system known as the “tee cycle;” and how societies such as the Pomo of northern California organized daily life by creating order out of anarchy.
Anarchy was something with which hippies in the 1960s also experimented. “But communes often failed because members weren’t looking at solid examples of communal, collective, egalitarian structures that lasted millennia,” Jennings notes.
Human history is all about trying to solve problems together. We’ve been doing it successfully for many years. Now, as we take on some of the biggest challenges that humans have ever faced, it would be wrong for us not to be looking at other ways that people can come together to solve issues.
Of course Jennings is looking at smaller societies, not ones that spanned entire continents. Could their lessons be applied to not only local, but global governance as well?
“Certainly there are scalar elements,” he says. “As a community gets larger it does tend to get more hierarchical, and the decision-making process changes. But this book suggests there may be alternative pathways. Those New Guinea tee cycles, for example, created vast amounts of wealth moving from one side of the country to the other. Thanks to a solid overarching structure, they had a playing field that was much larger than the village where they lived their day-to-day lives. This allowed them to interact with and organize hundreds of thousands of people doing things hundreds of kilometers away.”
As our world changes and our concerns mount, Jennings insists that it’s critical to find new solutions now instead of falling back on ideas that clearly aren’t working.
“Human history is all about trying to solve problems together,” he says. “We’ve been doing it successfully for many years. Now, as we take on some of the biggest challenges that humans have ever faced, it would be wrong for us not to be looking at other ways that people can come together to solve issues. Especially because the context in which some groups used to, and in some cases still continue to, live is in many ways parallel to where are societies are going in this increasingly globalized world.”