Editorial: The 'Governing in the Nexus' issue

Zora Kovacic

Over the last 4 years, the MAGIC team has engaged with policy-makers in the European Commission, European Parliament, national and local governments, establishing a dialogue about the challenges that the nexus poses to governance. Some recurrent questions are: How can we make sure that improvements in one area (say, support for agricultural production) do not negatively affect other areas (for example, water supply and water quality)? How can policy-makers identify the synergies and handle the trade-offs created by the nexus?

We have come to learn that the governance of the nexus is not just a matter of identifying and managing trade-offs, but often requires a balancing act between different policy goals. For this reason, in the project we now speak of governance IN the nexus. The interconnected nature of water, energy, food, climate and biodiversity policies creates challenges of governance that include, but go beyond, the negotiation of multiple interests that any policy faces. In this issue, we suggest that the nexus creates a new situation in which governance has to let go of the paradigm of control – and act in an adaptive way in a changing world.

In order to grapple with the complexities of governing in the nexus, some articles of the present issue refer to works of literature, seeking for alternative guiding principles to the “prediction and control” paradigm. Other contributions assess some of the tools of governance, such as pricing externalities and the use of indicators. Collectively, the articles point at the importance of critically assessing the narratives that support decision-making.

Articles:

By referring to the novel Ishmael by Quinn, Renner and Di Felice reflect on the role of narratives in sustainability policy and suggest that paradoxes may be a helpful tool in breaking unconscious thought patterns, which they refer to as “epistemic boundaries”. Some paradoxes already exist in EU policy: the notion that economic growth can be decoupled from resource use – or abuse, as the authors suggest – is highly contested by biophysical economists, and supported by neoclassical economists. They conclude that adopting the complexity paradigm requires accepting value pluralism and engaging with creative dialectics – just like conversations with the gorillas do in Quinn’s novel.

Manrique, Cabello and Pereira critically reflect on the Illusion of Control theory, by psychologist Langer. They argue that the reliance on technology gives such illusion, sometimes by turning a blind eye on the unsustainability of the current economic model. The authors analyze the issue of water scarcity in the Canary Islands, which is “solved” by producing alternative water resources, through the use of technologies such as desalination and reclaimed wastewater. While the technologies may help overcome scarcity, the techno-fix overlooks underlying sustainability issues, such as: population growth, strong competition among economic sectors (industrial, tourism and agriculture), and the gradual decrease of the average annual rainfall, anticipating the effects of climate change. The article argues that alternative water resources create overconfidence in technological solutions and create the illusion that the status quo can be sustained.

Jones and Sindt take a closer look at how the nexus is governed in the reductionist paradigm, and explain that the market is used as the main mechanism to internalize externalities. This mode of governance relies heavily on scientific advice. Targets and benchmarks for climate change mitigation, for example, are established through scientific models, and are defined outside of the political system. Scientists, however, are not accountable to the public in the same way as politicians are. As a result, the authors argue that the nexus poses a problem of accountability – not of complexity. This is why it is so important to critically assess the narratives that guide decision-making. By examining narratives, it is possible to identify the assumptions on what should be valued, thus improving the accountability of scientific advice to policy.

Völker and colleagues take a closer look at the use of indicators in the governance of the nexus. Based on interviews with policy-makers from the European Commission, this study shows that indicators are seen as a way to make the nexus visible by relying on scientific evidence – but at the same time, the creation of indicators leads to a managerial approach to the governance of the nexus, which is reduced to governing metrics: setting targets, monitoring statistical data, and so on. The article is an extract of a recent publication of the MAGIC project, which can be found in open access at this link.

Opinion:

In line with the spirit of this issue, the coordinator of the MAGIC project, Mario Giampietro, wrote an opinion piece on the current coronavirus crisis. The coronavirus is, unfortunately, a clear example of both the limits of the paradigm of control, and of the difficult balancing act required of policy-makers when faced with trade-offs: how should a country balance public health emergencies and the menace of an economic recession? Giampietro takes us through some reflections about the fragility of our identity, the risk of societal collapse and the need to rethink the role of science in governance.