The law – a ball and chain, or a catalyst for social change?

The recent article “Can a Collapse of Global Civilization be Avoided?” explores how close the planet is to a global collapse and whether it can be prevented.

Climate disruption, inability to feed the growing global population, global toxification, nuclear war and super viruses could all spell the end of human civilization. All these issues have at their root a failure to respect and protect the natural environment – land clearing leading to loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services; release of toxic materials into land, air and oceans, the depletion of natural resources such as groundwater and the unprecedented release of greenhouse gases, to name a few.

As the authors note, rapid political and cultural change is needed to avoid collapse. The authors provide some discussion of how society might do this, but a notable omission is any discussion of the law.  Do our laws allow rapid change? Will they help us get to where we need to go, or be the ball and chain that prevents us from making the necessary leaps? Laws usually reflect the needs and expectations of the community, but their complexity and rigidity means they can often lag behind when norms change, even when that change is slow. An example is Australia’s biodiversity laws which are not strong enough to respond to the threats posed by the rapid development and continued growth we are currently experiencing in Australia, or adaptable enough to cope with the complex impacts that climate change is having on species.

However occasionally laws can embody the goals that society aspires to, and be the catalyst for social change. An example is greenhouse emission reduction laws that set an emission target that is not currently achievable, but must be worked towards over time. In such a situation law is essential to achieving change. Non-binding policy and community aspirations rarely provide the necessary impetus.

The authors talk of the need to develop ‘foresight intelligence’ – defined by the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere as “the ability to implement behavioral, institutional and cultural changes necessary for humans to ensure a sustainable and equitable future for all”.

With respect to the law, this would require deep thinking about what is needed to shift society onto a sustainable footing, then careful construction of laws that embody the ultimate goal, and facilitate the actions that are needed to achieve it. In many cases the actions that must be taken to achieve sustainability goals will not yet be known, meaning that although goals are fixed (so that we all know where we are heading), laws will have sufficient flexibility to allow innovation and rapid responses in how to get there.

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