books globalisation politics

Book review: Global Planet Authority, by Angus Forbes

“I am absolutely convinced that in order to protect the biosphere,” writes Angus Forbes, “we need a specialist global authority to do the job.”

This is the central argument of this short and punchy treatise on how to deal with climate change. The nation state is a government structure that has served us for some things, but that now holds us back. “We have been addressing a global obligation through the prism of just the distracted nation state, which is a fatally flawed approach.”

Instead, we should create a Global Planet Authority (GPA), and hand the responsibility to them. They would be in charge of climate change and the other planetary boundaries, and governments would do as they say. In fact, we will do this, says Forbes. The whole book is written as if it’s inevitable, as the subtitle suggests – ‘how we’re about the save the biosphere’.

Competitive nation states aren’t good at solving problems that need global cooperation. We were discussing this in my international relations lectures 16 years ago. And yes, a global authority of some kind may be able to overcome those problems. I broadly agree with Forbes on the inadequacies of the nation state and the usefulness of global governance. But on the details of how the GPA would work and how it could be set up, that’s another matter.

Forbes imagines a sweeping role for his GPA. It would have “powers over all human organizational forms: over countries, corporations and of course, all of us… It could close down companies and even move a medium sized populace if necessary.” He imagines it setting up global carbon taxes, creating huge global nature reserves, taking control of all river basins, and possibly overseeing a huge wealth transfer to the poorest. The GPA would be scientists, appointed for tenures of 25 years, and thus could supposedly take decisions “without consideration of politics, economics, religion or national borders.”

Forbes admits that “I am not a specialist in governance structures and have not sought specialist advice”. I wish he had. While I’m not a specialist either, but what Forbes describes sounds to  me like a global technocracy with no democratic accountability, and one that would be just as susceptible to elite capture, corruption and ideology as any other. (See the global governance of FIFA, for example). The GPA would be making decisions about entire countries that they would have to obey, forever. He even gives an example, imagining the GPA phoning up the president of Madagascar and telling them the whole country has been designated as a global reserve – which Madagascar would then do, despite it being effectively the end of the country and all local decision making.

What’s bizarre is that Forbes never considers the fact that no government on earth would countenance what he proposes, and yet you would need governments to cooperate if the GPA were to work. Every action would be carried out at the national level. What if a government says no to creating the GPA – which they would – or no to something they’re asked to do? Forbes wonders if the GPA would need its own armed forces and never answers the question.

Given that no government would agree to a GPA, how should we create it? The book argues that the internet has now connected everybody, so if we all decide to create a GPA, we can just vote for one. “There is no one to ask except ourselves” the author insists. You start by getting 150 million people to say they want a GPA. Then you get philanthropists to write “perhaps a $5 billion cheque” to organise a global vote. Local ‘Vote Execution Teams’ organise local advertising and advocacy. Then everyone votes on their phone. A hopeful 2 billion people vote for it, “not presenting that as a petition to some existing body”, but entering global governance “by ourselves.” At that point, the book suggests that everyone just runs around and creates it.

But that obviously won’t happen. As the campaign gathered steam, most countries would declare in advance that they don’t recognise the legitimacy of the vote. In several countries I could name right now, those Vote Execution Teams would be arrested and imprisoned. If it ever came to a vote, nothing would happen. The whole plan still depends completely on the nation state to make it happen. Even if most of them agreed, you’d only need one major power – take your pick of the US, China, India, or Russia to say no and it’s no longer global or able to manage the biosphere.

To be fair, I expect that at some point humanity will create global governance structures. I suspect they are more likely to come about through regional cooperation first, such as the EU, and then cooperation between regions. Even that seems a stretch with today’s trends. And yet Forbes writes “we are friends, five billion of us connected and in the one global village… We can form the GPA today with just one click on our phones, and I believe we will”.

It pains me to criticise someone taking a punt on a bold and unorthodox idea, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more hopelessly idealistic book.

4 comments

  1. Jeremy, let us not be too quick to dismiss ideas just because they lie outside the “Overton Window”. Global solutions may well be the future. It seems that it is impossible to tackle the coronavirus situation by simply adopting a “sovereign state little bubble” approach. Perhaps in many countries there will be a realisation that a ‘wealth before health’ approach is not wise. Health of humans and of the planet. In the past viral outbreaks have passed, it seems unlikely that the climate crisis will pass without global action.

    1. I agree on the need for international cooperation and the need for global structures – it’s just this particular formulation of it that I think isn’t really thought through or realistic. And it pains me to say it, as an idealist who spends so much time trying to push unorthodox ideas towards broader acceptance!

      The book would have been a lot stronger if it looked at existing structures of global governance, what works and what doesn’t, and how change has happened in the past. Instead we have a general idea and a lot of assumptions that won’t be taken seriously by anyone with any experience of global diplomacy.

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