This paper is directed towards answering questions such as the following:•How can policy makers develop agreement on what constitutes and supports well-being of the planet rather than the gross domestic product of a nation state (Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi)?•How can nested forms of participatory democracy and systemic governance do the following: (i) support the appropriate distribution and consumption of resources; and (ii) protect social and environmental diversity and justice at the local and regional levels? To this end, the paper addresses pathways to redress the commodification of relationships across human beings, the voiceless and the environment, on the basis of considering the consequences for the next generation of life on the planet. It makes the case that the ‘technologies of humility’ for social and environmental justice (Jasanoff) need to be informed by a caretaking approach. Many kinds of knowledge need to decentre anthropocentricism (Wynne) to protect biodiversity (Rose Bird, Freya Mathews, and Haraway). Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.