THE BLOG
05/09/2016 11:00 am ET Updated May 10, 2017

Saving the Planet From Governments And Markets

Countries have been signing the pledges they made last December at the Paris Conference on Climate Change. Think back to that time and ask yourself which had greater influence on your personal behavior: the TV clips you saw from that conference, or the ads that sponsored those clips?

Governments imagine that pledges and plans will deal with the problem while markets barrel ahead with business as usual, namely the consumption of goods, and of this planet. We are hooked on a malignant model of more. To paraphrase Hannibal facing the Alps, we shall have to find another way, or else make one.

The politicians pledge so that their professionals can plan, in the hope of driving actions on the ground. But consider all the talk required before any feet can walk on that ground: all the discussions, debates, and deliberations, all the planning, programing, and budgeting that have to work their way through countless public agencies, private businesses, and plural associations. Such a top-down process may have been fine for building coal plants, but is it any way to deal with the environmental consequences of these plants?

Meanwhile economic globalization continues to undermine the sovereignty of nations around the world. New trade pacts even give international corporations the right to sue countries that legislate contrary to their private interests. Can we expect the corporations that benefit from the warming of this planet--for example in coal and petroleum--to cease their covert lobbying if not their overt litigating?

The private sector does offer another way to deal with the problem: markets. The very same markets that have been firing on all cylinders with carbon energy are now supposed to save the planet from that energy--as if the money to be made in fossil fuels will wither away because there is money to be made in solar panels, or in trading carbon credits. The International New York Times reported from the Paris conference on December 11 that "diplomats and policy experts" believe that, for any accord to work, it will have to convince "companies and investors that it would be more profitable to invest in renewable sources of energy" than traditional fossil fuels. On this the survival of our planet is supposed to depend!

The problem is not markets per se, but the fact that markets have become so dominant in a world that requires balance across social, political, and economic forces. Many countries were closer to that balance before 1989. Then the Berlin Wall fell, and pundits in the West had a ready explanation: capitalism had triumphed. They were wrong, dead wrong. As a consequence, that wall has fallen on us.

It was balance that triumphed in 1989. While the communist regimes had been severely out of balance, with so much power concentrated in their public sectors, the successful countries of the West had maintained sufficient balance across their public, private, and what can be called plural sectors. But a failure to understand this has been throwing many countries out of balance ever since, skewing them in favor of their private sectors. Capitalism has indeed been triumphing since 1989, and the consequences are now proving fateful, not least in our failure to deal with climate change.

If not governments or markets, then what other way can there be? Look in the mirror: you could be seeing the answer. We buy, we vote, we march. We can refuse, we can reduce, we can replace. As consumers, voters, and doers, we can change our own behaviors while driving our governments and markets to face their responsibilities--if we can act together, by getting past our obsession with individualism.

This will require recognition that there are three consequential sectors in society, not two. The battles that have raged for so long over public versus private--governments versus markets, left versus right, collective needs versus individual rights--have obscured the importance of this other sector, which functions largely at the community level. Where to put it between left and right? Indeed what to call it, when its usual labels are so inadequate: third sector, civil society, the home of not-for-profits, and of non-governmental organizations. Calling it the plural sector can help it take its place alongside those sectors called public and private, where it will have to play the key role in dealing with climate change

While many of us work in the private sector and most of us vote in the public sector, all of us live in the plural sector--in our many groups, communities, and associations--these neither publicly owned by governments nor privately owned by investors. Some are owned by ourselves, as members (cooperatives are example), while others are owned by no-one (foundations, congregations, NGOs, and many more). This sector is also home to mass movements and to the many community initiatives we see around us, whether to encourage recycling or support the poor.

Is it utopian to expect us to rise up in this hitherto marginalized sector in some sort of groundswell? This question needs to be put differently: Is it really utopian to mobilize ourselves for the survival of our progeny and our planet?

We have seen such groundswells before, significantly so: in 1776 in the American colonies, in 1930 in the Indian salt march, in the civil rights movement that began in the southern U.S. in the 1950s, in the Prague Spring of 1989. The best example may be the "Quiet Revolution" of Quebec in the 1960s, because of its remarkable shift in collective behavior. As the people threw off the yoke of the Catholic Church, in that one decade the birth rate fell from among the highest in the developed world to one of the lowest.

In none of these movements did public pledges, commercial markets, or established leadership play the major role. People did, together. Tom Paine wrote in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense that "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." How true that was. How true that will have to be now.

It is not plans from some abstracted "top" that will begin the world over again, but actions on the ground. We are the feet that will have to walk all the talk, connected to heads that will have to think for ourselves. We shall have to confront he perpetrators of climate change--and that includes ourselves--not with violent resistance or passive resistance, but with clever resistance. Some years ago, the angry customers of a Texas telephone company paid 1 extra cent on their telephone bills. This tied the company in knots. It got the message.

Beyond resistance will have to come the replacement of destructive practices by more constructive ones, as has been happening with wind and solar energy. There will be more of this when we "human resources" pursue our resourcefulness as human beings. Imagine, for example, an economy based on growth in qualities instead of quantities, of better instead of more--in education, health care, and nutrition.

The conference in Paris was not a wake-up call so much as an event. Pledges and plans will not wake us up, nor will markets. We wake up when our house is flooded, or our crops fail. But surely we cannot await the pervasion of such calamities to drive our actions. Addressing the specific problem of climate change, and the broader problem of imbalance, will have to begin with ourselves, together--locally and globally.

Henry Mintzberg is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal and the author of Rebalancing Society...radical renewal beyond left, right, and center. (henry.mintzberg@mcgill.ca)