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Managing the Earth System: Why We Need a Poly-Scalar Approach

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Abstract

Human activity is altering critical natural processes beyond global limits. The way we manage the global environment over the next few decades will be a major determinant for the state of the Earth for the next epoch—the “Anthropocene”. Current efforts at managing the environment often use a top-down approach, an idea based on out-of-date theories of environmental management. Efforts at different levels are often piecemeal, with no cohesion or common direction beyond a general goal of reducing environmental impacts. Moreover, most people have a relatively small sphere of influence. Global environmental problems can feel overwhelming—it can be difficult to see how the efforts at smaller scales could influence global outcomes.

Three areas of social science, observed human behaviour, commons management, and change theory, can be used to show that a different approach is needed. These theories highlight the benefits of breaking down our global environmental problems into smaller pieces so that they can be tackled at the scale of magnitude that is most effective. They show the value of an approach that is integrative across different scales of society (i.e. individual, community, city, small and large business, and government at all scales) and across different timescales (from short term to long term). Further, they demonstrate the importance of an approach that is not overly prescriptive—that defines the “what” but allows people to determine the “how”. Finally, they convey the necessity that the approach should instil trust in others that people are working to the same end.

We thus propose a new “poly-scalar” approach that uses a general system of rules to generate trust that others are working towards the same goal. The system of rules needs to have the resolution to communicate what is needed at different scales of magnitude, the flexibility to let people determine how to achieve this, and the mechanisms to enable the integration of different timescales and scales of activity in society. It is our position that a poly-scalar approach would enable more effective management of the global environment. It could help us to return to and live within the planet’s limits as it links Earth sciences with the social sciences.

Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons

Hardin ( 1968 , p. 1244)

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Meyer, K., Newman, P. (2020). Managing the Earth System: Why We Need a Poly-Scalar Approach. In: Planetary Accounting. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-1443-2_4

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