2011 Person of the Anthropocene

It is that time of the year again. Who will win the coveted Person of the Anthropocene Award? The award is open to anyone: scientists, politicians, writers, musicians, revolutionaries, all seven billion of us. Except me.

World Trade Organization Director General Pascal Lamy

Ladies and gentlemen. The moment you have all been waiting for. I am proud to announce the winner of the 2011 Person of the Anthropocene Award. He’s a Gallic intellectual…a central figure on the world stage…you guessed it, it’s head honcho of the World Trade Organization, Pascal Lamy!

Wait. Don’t go. I can explain!

2011 really was an incredible year. The Occupy movement and the Arab Spring dominated politics and the media. Both demanded legitimacy and a more open, transparent governance from the powers that be. Curiously, to me at least, throughout 2011, this call for legitimacy was echoed in speeches given by the figurehead of one of those powers that be, WTO Director General, Pascal Lamy.

On 19 February 2011, Lamy spoke at the European University Institute in Florence challenging the dominent theory of global governance. “What does this dominant theory tell us? That the international system is founded on the principle of national sovereignty…. that global governance is the globalization of local governance. This theory of governance, which has not substantially changed for centuries, is based on the transitivity of both coherence and legitimacy: as states are coherent and legitimate, global governance is necessarily coherent and legitimate as well.”

He argued this is not longer tenable: “Today’s world is confronted with major global challenges. We cannot afford to stay still…Pragmatic solutions need to be found now to enhance global governance and better address the problems that our world is facing.”

In a speech during a UN debate on global governance on 28 June 2011 Lamy made similar called for increased legitimacy.

“Legitimacy at the international level is much weaker than at the national level. This is not surprising as legitimacy is inversely proportional to distance. The specific challenge of legitimacy in global governance is to deal with the perceived too-distant, non-accountable and non-directly challengeable decision-making at the international level.”

“International organizations only provide for what I call “secondary legitimacy” — as opposed to the “primary legitimacy” conferred by the direct participation of citizens. While it might be possible to make up for this lack of legitimacy through a sense of belonging, of community, of solidarity, based on common values, such sense of belonging does not yet exist on a global scale.”

Lamy’s final point is the crux of the matter. Occupy and the Arab Spring indicate the sense of belonging at the global scale has arrived. They hint that the digital revolution and information technology have the potential to forge a sense of community and common values internationally. There is a sense of a new and powerful form of social mobilisation on the scene. Could they even point to new ways of political representation and governance?

The kind of self organization witnessed in the Middle East and Occupy is the kind of behaviour expected in complex interconnected systems. Large well-connected networks allow random small incidents to trigger major events. Thanks to social networking — Facebook only began in 2004 – and mobile phones we now have a global complex interconnected system like never before. We are really just beginning to grasp what this could mean.

It seems possible that in future, the global explosion in social media and mobile networks may facilitate a wholly new type of collective behaviour. With civil society now demanding and achieving a new oversight of governance, the beginnings of mechanism for a major transformation in governance may be emerging.

According to the Earth System Governance project, moving global affairs in a sustainable direction will require nothing short of a constitutional moment akin to events immediately following the Second World War. It was then the global elite created the proto UN, IMF, World Trade Organization and others.

Behind closed doors several senior advisors and experts on international processes mutter that only an environmental catastrophe on an unprecedented scale will spur the kind of action required. But the digital revolution looks set to be the wildcard.

With several bottom up movements testing the boundaries, and leaders at the top like Lamy openly advocating change, something new is stirring. This may augur well for the kind of transformation many scientists argue is essential to reduce risk of destabilizing the Earth system.

For showing this leadership, itself a catalyst for change, I award Pascal Lamy the award, 2011 Person of the Anthropocene. Ok, so Lamy may not be the most popular choice, or arguably even a good choice. A more erudite, fair and learned jury may have picked one of the many scientists who tirelessly promote the concept of the Anthropocene.

Or, maybe such a jury would plump for  Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing executive who became a hero of the Egyptian revolution. Perhaps a left-field choice would be Chilian student Camila “Don’t call me Che” Vallejo.

But I didn’t choose any of these. I chose Lamy. And I chose him for stating the obvious. He did it with such Gallic charm and charisma, though.

Ok, I hear you. It goes to Paul Crutzen.

Note to WTO PR people: I have absolutely no authority whatsoever to make such an award.

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