City States Rising!
Globalism’s associated and accelerating complexity of interconnected crises from migration to terrorism, from pandemics to climate change, define the new context of our 21st-century reality. Unmanaged technological change and an outdated economic ideology compound the already unfair burden these crises impose on global citizens. One need only consider the 18 percent approval rating of the United States Congress, the recent U.S. election, the EU/Euro fiasco, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Turkey (and more) to question whether the Nation State, a 400-year-old response to a different challenge in a different context, is up to the task.
Ideological rather than pragmatic, a political abstraction that has no grounding in the concrete reality of where and how we live and how life-supporting ecosystems function, the Nation State, together with its political party structure, is not well equipped for today’s most important globally interdependent challenges that cannot be solved through inter-State rivalries where self-interest and might rule the day.
The “City State” predates the Nation State; it endures. Rome is older than Italy, Alexandria is older than Egypt. Cities are expanding as we know. They are already home to more than half the world’s population, and 80% in the developed economies. They are home to 85% of the global economy (and associated greenhouse gas emissions) and much of the evolution of our culture. Like it or not, we have become an increasingly urban species. Visionaries like Jonathan Rose are showing the way to regenerative cities with his timely publication of A Well-Tempered City. At the same time, rural culture, small towns, and life-sustaining rural landscapes, historically understood as essential extensions of the City State, have never been more vital, as I will discuss below.
Cities are also where many of the world’s great challenges must be met. The migration crisis and terrorism are urban affairs. Since most cities are on coastlines or rivers, climate change will increasingly dominate the agenda of cities. And cities will be the target of a nuclear attack if dangerous men go unrestrained. Wise and competent city governance is a matter of life and death, not political theater among self-important globalist and nationalist bureaucrats.
In response to the governance failures of the global system of Nation States, political theorist Benjamin Barber wrote an important book in 2013 called, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. The Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM), which he inspired, held its inaugural meeting in The Hague, two months before rural America elected Donald Trump against the wishes of a strong democratic majority of citizens living in America’s cities.
Mayors must be pragmatists first. Ineptitude, ignorance, and ideology give way to the concreteness of real problems of real people living in real communities. New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia once famously said, “There is no Democratic or Republican way of fixing a sewer.” So too for dealing with rising sea levels or, God forbid, a nuclear attack.
When our centralized governing bodies fail to uphold their responsibilities, a power vacuum ensues, creating an opening for dangerous “strongman” responses, as we are now witnessing in the U.S and abroad. Our present moment is particularly dangerous, with the simultaneous failure of other critical and powerful institutions — banking and the media in particular — to uphold their civil responsibilities and serve the health of the whole rather than their narrow self-interests.
Banking’s consequential leadership failures are now a matter for the history books. But the media’s complex leadership failures are still unfolding, perhaps best epitomized by CBS CEO Leslie Moonves’ shamefully cynical comment at a Morgan Stanley analyst conference earlier this year:
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he said of the election circus. “Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Well, the young crowd at Morgan Stanley chuckled, “Donald kept going,” and we have elected a man to the highest office in the land who numerous respected psychologists believe has a (dangerous to the world) incurable mental illness known as “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.”
Not so funny, is it, Mr. Moonves? Enjoy your good quarterly profits. Just as the reckless behavior of Wall Street was not funny, its ongoing consequences leading directly to the rise in authoritarian movements across the globe are not funny.
A core principle of sustainable systems is that a system must adapt to its changing context or it will collapse. The current context of accelerating, unpredictable (by definition) complexity and too powerful, dysfunctional critical institutions — Nation States, banking and finance, and the media, together providing much of the essential fabric of our modern democratic and free society — creates the pressure for real change and the very real prospect of possible collapse.
Our response most certainly lies in the concept of subsidiarity, one of four tenets of Catholic social doctrine, balancing power away from the center and closer to where the inclusive and democratic will of the people is still expressed: the modern City State. Rise up Mayors! And, rise up regional banks and community newspapers!
Looked at through a regenerative systems lens, this is a return to the natural “fractal” ordering of things, demanding an emergent network of City States to counterbalance the corrupted power at the center. Indeed, such a response is already underway with the numerous networks of city-based initiatives such as the prescient GMP, the C-40 focused on climate change, UN-Habitat, the Strong Cities Network, and numerous “Smart Cities” initiatives.
Rural communities, too, have a vital role to play. In addition to preserving the ageless wisdom embedded in the diversity of rural cultures and communities, they have the critical responsibility to steward our essential landscapes — our forests, our soils, our watersheds, all under threat from our short-sighted, extractive, industrial economy. Critically, the regenerative management of forestry and agriculture, with the potential to massively increase natural carbon sequestration, now holds perhaps the missing critical dimension of our ability to respond in time to climate change. Therefore, City States have a self-interest in valuing and supporting the culture of land stewardship, the very foundation of human civilization and still very much alive in rural communities. No soil, no water, no life.
We are passing from the 500-year-old Modern Era in which great progress including the Nation State emerged in response to pressures from a different context. We are entering the “Integral Era,” in response to new pressures and a new context. Power is shifting from corrupted institutions of an extractive and overly powerful center to a regenerative and more distributed network of interconnected City States.
Happy New Era!