Prioritizing the Poor in Earth System Governance

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

A pro-poor focus in earth system governance research is still missing.

As someone who has worked on global environmental issues for over 25 years, I am amazed to see the rapidly growing literature on planetary stewardship and transformative change towards earth system governance. Also, it is wonderful to observe the growing ‘justice turn’ in our research communities, with many studies now focussing on climate justice, planetary justice, and so on. And yet, this literature often stays at the level of ideal conceptions and abstract arguments drawing on normative theories of justice. What is missing is a clearly articulated pro-poor focus in earth system governance research.

Artwork by Alexandra Bowman @scripta_bene/ NY Times

This is the core argument in a short Perspective paper that I have written this summer with Prakash Kashwan, Aarti Gupta and Chukwumerije Okereke. In short, we argue in this paper that while any type of planetary stewardship requires planetary justice, what is urgently needed are better theoretical approaches and differently focused empirical studies that put the needs of the poor first when it comes to analyzing and advocating governance responses to planetary ecological crises.

Inspired by Gandhi’s Talisman (Khosoo 2002), we argue that this requires powerful actors across all scales of governance to abide by three tenets of pro-poor planetary justice: That the poor and marginalized majority shall not be made worse off; that the lot of the poor must improve; and that the poor be recognized as legitimate participants (whether directly or via representation) in decisions that affect them.

In our view, these three tenets are necessary and non-negotiable elements of any strategy for earth system governance and planetary stewardship. Yet we find few analyses so far that lay out what such a pro-poor focus within planetary justice could look like. In our Perspective paper, we hence