The People and Ideas of Bellagio/

Nils and Jonathan on the Government Systems Needed to Tackle 21st-Century Challenges

Since 2010, the Berggruen Institute has been developing ideas about reshaping political and social institutions in the face of great global transformations across cultures, disciplines, and political boundaries. Nils Gilman is an author and Senior Vice President for Programs at the Berggruen Institute, as well as Deputy Editor of Noēma Magazine, a Berggruen Institute publication. He oversees the Institute’s research and fellowship programs. Jonathan Blake is a political scientist and author. He is the Associate Director of Programs at the Berggruen Institute, where he leads research for the Planetary program. He is also the Associate Editor of Noēma Magazine. During their March 2022 residency at the Bellagio Center, Nils and Jonathan worked on the forthcoming book Children of a Modest Star: Governing in the Planetary Age. The book is set to be published in the spring/summer of 2024.

Jonathan: Bellagio gave us a chance to present our work to others, and the feedback was different from the feedback we’re used to. There we were, trying to write a book with crossover appeal to both kinds of audiences – specialist and general interest. We thought it would be great if the book were accessible and influential to policymakers. Being at Bellagio was a chance to test that.

Nils: The reactions of our cohort were almost universally positive. That was encouraging because we were writing – have written – a book that is somewhat wild and imaginative. But, as with the cohort, we hope it will enable people to think about the possibilities of the future, starting with imagining a whole new institutional order for planetary governance.

Jonathan: The Planetary program is our new vision of world politics and governance. It is based on emerging scientific and philosophical thought that acknowledges the fact that human life and human politics take place on a planet. This fact has many implications when considering how we live collectively.

Nils: We started writing the book in early 2021, but felt stuck by early 2022. With the generous support of The Rockefeller Foundation, we got to work at Bellagio, which gave us the time and inspiration to finish the manuscript.

Jonathan: Yes. The book discusses the possibilities of governance through the lens of systems biology. The term we’re using is ‘planetary boundaries,’ which emerges from the context of politics and governance, and also from discussions on the philosophy of science, or Earth system science.

Nils: This type of science recognizes that human beings are deeply biogeochemically embedded in planetary systems of various sorts, upon which we rely and depend. So, if we want to sustain ourselves, we need to take care of the planet in ways that we haven’t historically.

Jonathan: And we haven’t done so historically, in part because we were not yet scientifically aware of the ways in which we were interconnected and embedded.

Nils: Yes, and as that scientific awareness has deepened – in a process that we refer to as ‘emerging planetary sapience’ – it’s become clearer to us that we need to have governance systems that are appropriate for it. For instance, though humans have been changing the chemistry of the atmosphere at scale since the 19th century, mainstream science didn’t understand this until the second half of the 20th century. There wasn’t even a firm understanding of the “global climate” existed until the 1960s. Without this knowledge about the nature of our world, there was no way to conceive of projects to govern something like the global climate. We had to know the world – through theories, evidence, instrumentation, large-scale scientific infrastructures, computing power, etc. – before we could hope to govern it. The challenge, now, is that the major systems of governance that historically evolved did so long before this new scientific awareness existed. Those systems were built around the national state, which became the overwhelmingly dominant unit for delivering governance services.

Jonathan: But it’s not fit for purpose in contemporary society. That’s one of the reasons we’re facing such challenges in dealing with various environmental phenomena because that’s not what the national state was designed to do and we’re asking too much of it.

Nils: And, despite the fact that the legacy institutions we inherited are the best that have ever been invented, we need to think about the ‘problems without passports,’ as Kofi Annan [Former Secretary-General of the United Nations] described. For example, carbon doesn’t care about our borders, nor does the virus care about our national health systems. We need new institutions. The major issue is that current governments are not very effective at dealing with the local effects of these planetary problems. For example, the planetary (or the environmental and ecological) challenges that Los Angeles faces are akin to the challenges faced by Lisbon or Cape Town, as opposed to a city like New York. This is despite the fact that New York and Los Angeles are in the same country.

Jonathan: So, we need to develop systems that intertwine all these things so they can work towards dealing with these planetary-scale phenomena in a way that is currently not possible to do because of the fragmented nature of national sovereignty. We believe that there are many possibilities for what we refer to as ‘trans-local collaborations’ between subnational actors to share ideas, methods, and possibly even resources over the longer term. But this can only be possible once we unlock the frame of assuming that the national state is the natural and only choice in terms of the delivery of governance.

  • We need to learn more about how the world actually works and, through the development of scientific knowledge, our institutions should adapt.
    Jonathan Blake
    Political Scientist and Author, Associate Director of Programs at the Berggruen Institute, Associate Editor of Noēma Magazine

Nils: The book discusses many topics, but it’s animated by two emblematic planetary challenges: the pandemic and climate change. We framed our work within a long historical context. In the book, we highlight how our proposals fit into much longer stories about scientific understanding, political change, and institutional change. When writing it, we were also resolutely looking forward to trying to make normative arguments about the way we believe things should be done, not just the way things can be done.

Jonathan: That’s why spending time in Bellagio was critical for us. We had almost finished the full manuscript, but the residency gave us the perfect opportunity to step back from the day-to-day of writing and pull out a bigger picture for the project.

Nils: The way the Center was organized around a routine, combined with the quiet of the surroundings, really set us up for getting a great deal of work done in just a couple of weeks. Bellagio is an excellent example of the notion that a geographical setting can really help to inform intellectual work.

Jonathan: Another helpful aspect was the fact that there were residents involved in other disciplines, particularly in the public health sector – one of the topics in the book. It was useful to hear how the pandemic played out in their countries, for example. It was great to meet such a range of people.

Nils: I find that generative ideas happen at the intersection between people with different kinds of expertise, disciplines, experiences, backgrounds, and diversities across all dimensions. Whether those differences are cognitive, intellectual, or social, that’s where opportunities emerge and new ideas take form because things that seem obvious in one domain are actually not at all obvious in another. But if one is open-minded, one can learn a lot from those with different experiences.

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Find out more about the Berggruen Institute and Noēma Magazine.

For more about Nils, you can visit his Berggruen Institute profile, or follow him on Twitter.

For more about Jonathan, you can visit his website, Berggruen Institute profile, or follow him on Twitter. You can also listen to Nils and Jonathan’s guest lecture with the Strelka Institute for Media Architecture and Design or read their essay “Governing in the Planetary Age” in Noēma Magazine.