Architectures of Earth System Governance in context: revisiting Marine Spatial Planning in the EU's regional seas in light of the Anthropocene

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The Anthropocene poses unprecedented challenges for humankind that call for a profound revision of Holocene governance paradigms. Earth System Governance (ESG) hence seeks to devise innovative patterns of politics to achieve socio-ecological reflexivity and attune institutions and legal systems to planetary timescales and rationales of the Earth System. In this perspective, deliberative democracy theory underpins calls for democratising complex, multilevel and polycentric governance in the Anthropocene. From a normative angle, moreover, ecosystem-based approaches (EBA) are considered as promising regulatory strategies for putting eco-sciences in dialogue with the material needs and cultural aspirations of human societies in specific socio-ecological spaces. Hence, EBA provide a suggestive framework that demonstrates potential for hosting deliberative decision-making and shaping concrete solutions for enabling the reproduction of human societies within the planetary boundaries and rationales of the Earth System.
In this paper, we seek to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of EBA for ESG with reference to a relatively novel policy area: Marine Spatial Planning (MSP). To this end, we will appraise the governance processes that the European Union (EU) – one of the most active propagators of MSP discourses and practices at the global level – is putting in place to facilitate the sustainable co-existence of different ocean-uses in its regional seas. These processes reflect the Union’s long-standing experience with decentralised, transnational, and integrated approaches to strategic planning, aimed at promoting the ability of regions – defined in terms of their ecosystemic specificity – to formulate a shared ‘vision’ for their spatial development. However, although their polycentric architecture is aligned with the rationale of ESG, these processes remain dominated by closed epistemic communities, in which the knowledges of techno-scientific and economic actors dominate. We will argue that this flaw stems from structural path-dependencies which hinder the articulation of strong forms of citizen participation and contestation. The latter are key preconditions for the operationalisation of ESG, insofar as they promote the twin objectives of democratising expertise and expertising democracy. We will proceed to problematise the wider implications of this ‘tunnel vision’ by critically discussing the official position held by the EU and its Member States within international law-making processes relating to the (sustainable) use of marine natural resources. In view of the current debate on a new ‘European Green Deal’, we will conclude with reflections on the institutional and regulatory innovations needed to enhance the capacity of MSP processes taking place in Europe’s regional seas to respond to Anthropocenic concerns.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 7 Sept 2021
EventEarth System Governance in turbulent times
: Prospects for political and behavoral responses
- Bratislava, Slovakia
Duration: 7 Sept 20219 Sept 2021


ConferenceEarth System Governance in turbulent times
Abbreviated title2021 Bratislava Conference
Internet address


  • Earth System Governance
  • EU
  • marine spatial planning


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