Benjamin Barber, "City-based Global Governance"

This lecture was presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

If Mayors Ruled the World

Tuesday June 5, 02012 – San Francisco


Video is up on the Barber Seminar page for Members.


Audio is up on the Barber Seminar page, or you can subscribe to our podcast.


City-based global governance – a summary by Stewart Brand

Sovereign nation states have conspicuously failed to cooperate well enough to deal with increasingly global problems such as climate change, environmental degradation, and organized crime, Barber said. Nations focus on their borders, which are seen as competitive zero-sum games. “But if we shift our gaze, in thinking about global governance, from nation states to cities, things suddenly become possible that seemed impossible. Cities are apart from one another, separated by wide spaces. Their relationships are based on communication, trade, transportation, and culture. They are relational, not in a zero-sum game with one another.”

Cities are inherently pragmatic rather than ideological. “They collect garbage and collect art rather than collecting votes or collecting allies. They put up buildings and run buses rather than putting up flags and running political parties. They secure the flow of water rather than the flow of arms. They foster education and culture in place of national defense and patriotism. They promote collaboration, not exceptionalism.”

An honoring of all that practicality is shown by polling results of confidence in various levels of government. Only 18 percent of Americans have confidence in the US Congress (“the lowest in a long time”). The Presidency gets 44 percent. Americans have 65 percent confidence in their mayors. They can see clearly that city governments are less distorted by party politics, less responsive to massive lobbying. They see mayors getting things done.

New York City’s “hyperactive” mayor Michael Bloomberg says, “I don’t listen to Washington very much. The difference between my level of government and other levels of government is that action takes place at the city level. While national government at this time is just unable to do anything, the mayors of this country have to deal with the real world.” After 9/11, New York’s police chief sent his best people to Homeland Security to learn about dealing with terrorism threats. After 18 months they reported, “We’re learning nothing in Washington.” They were sent then to twelve other cities—Singapore, Hong Kong, Paris, Frankfurt, Rio—and built their own highly effective intelligence network city to city, not through Washington or Interpol.

Last year following the meeting in Mexico City on climate, where little progress was made by the national delegations, representatives from 207 cities signed a Global Cities Climate Pact pledging to pursue “strategies and actions aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” The cities did what the nations could not. There are many existing bodies of robust cooperation among cities—the International Union of Local Authorities, the World Association of Major Metropolises, the American League of Cities, the Local Governments for Sustainability, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, the United Cities and Local Governments at the UN, the New Hanseatic League, the Megacities Foundation—200 such networking organizations. “They are dull sounding, but they are fashioning global processes that work.”

Global governance needs no great edifice with unitary rulers. It can be voluntary, informal, bottom-up. Barber recommends forming a global parliament of cities, because nation states will not govern globally. Cities can. They already are.

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