Democracy and Sustainability

Opening the discursive arena – Struggling for an innovative debate

Can the transformation of modern consumer societies towards sustainability be achieved by democratic means? Does the worsening sustainability crisis represent a threat to democracy? How can democratic institutions be reformed so as to address the challenges of sustainability more effectively? – The debate about the relationship between ecology and democracy; the question whether global warming, the continued decline of bio-diversity or the excessive exploitation of natural resources might justify, indeed necessitate, authoritarian forms of governance has powerfully re-emerged. This isn’t a new debate. In fact it reaches back to the very beginning of the modern environmental movement with many of the core arguments (e.g. democracy’s tendency to discount the future) being so well rehearsed by now that it is hardly necessary to restate them. But in many respects the context for this debate has changed quite significantly, and this gives it a new and distinctive quality.

For example, in the wake of the recent banking crisis, the on-going economic crisis and the factual bankruptcy of several European economies, the old hypothesis of the limits to growth has become more plausible and daunting than ever. The environmental crisis has evolved into a multiple sustainability crisis (climate, natural resources, public debt, economic standstill, social inequality etc.) which has instilled a new sense of urgency and emergency. Evidence of ecological disaster is mounting; social tensions are rising. Effective and radical counter measures are required now. Yet, democratic systems seem structurally incapable of finding effective responses: As strongholds of democratic, consensus-oriented, co-operative patterns of governance, specific European countries and the EU as a whole had claimed global eco-political leadership and presented themselves as an example of international sustainability politics. But on many of their promises they have failed to deliver, and in their struggle against the economic downturn European governments have once again subordinated eco-political objectives to the ever-dominant goal of economic growth. China, in contrast, seems to have deployed its authoritarian apparatus quite successfully for eco-political purposes, inter alia in developing its renewable energy sector at a breath-taking pace.

Other factors setting a new context for the debate about democracy and sustainability include that the social movements and the civil society which had once forced environmental issues onto the political agenda have meanwhile largely been side-lined. For the grassroots social movements environmentalism had been an important symbol and vehicle of democratic citizen empowerment. Yet, as scientific institutions, international regimes and technocratic managers have acquired key roles in defining environmental problems, setting targets and devising related policy approaches, the environment (and sustainability more generally) has metamorphosed from an essential tool and justification for a radical shift of power towards the emancipated citizenry into an issue that may justify the disempowerment of citizens and exposes them to a host of new levies, restrictions and regulations which are imposed from the top down. In other words, not only have citizens lost control of the issue and with it a means of challenging the established elites, but the sustainability crisis seems to be turning into a lever for the authorities to exert tighter control themselves. Unsurprisingly, concerns about government intrusions into what citizens perceive as their private sphere proliferate; allegations of eco-dictatorship are a regular feature in public debate.

Furthermore, the paradigm of sustainability, which as a supposedly science-based eco-political Leitidee had, in the 1980s, replaced earlier aesthetic (protecting the beauty of nature) or ethical-moral (reverence to the intrinsic value of nature) norms of reference, today seems to have become exhausted itself. At least it has become a very blunt eco-political instrument. This concept was supposed to provide a reliable basis and facilitate democratic decision-making in environmental policy. Yet, the sustainability strategies which have been adopted by all major organisations and governing bodies have never delivered the drastic change in social values, structures and practices that is required, if the logic of accelerating resource depletion, species decline, habitat destruction and social inequality is to be suspended. On the contrary, it has become increasingly evident that contemporary sustainability policies are, more than anything, concerned with restabilising the established values and structures, which have come under pressure from the multiple crisis. These policies focus on enhancing the resilience of the existing order, i.e. its ability to absorb external challenges and reproduce itself in adverse conditions. Especially since the sustainability concept has been extended to include an economic and a social dimension, policy makers are interpreting the term, first and foremost, as sustaining economic competitiveness, profitability and growth.

At least equally important is the widespread realisation that the techno-managerial approaches of ecological modernisation will not be sufficient for achieving sustainability (however defined). The proponents of these approaches had once reassured policy makers and the public that a radical break with the established socio-economic order would not be required, but that sustainability can be achieved within this order, if new efficiency-technologies, market instruments, consensus-oriented strategies of stakeholder governance and even the consumer culture are wisely and strategically used. These promises resounded with the widespread commitment to consumer capitalism and liberal democracy and were, therefore, readily taken up. Yet, despite all technological innovation and resource efficiency gains, the strategies of ecological modernisation have never succeeded in stopping, let alone reversing, the over-exploitation of natural resources, the decline of bio-diversity, the advance of global warming or the increase of social inequality. They have helped to sustain the unsustainable for an extra couple of decades but, ultimately, they have only reinforced and radicalised, not suspended, the demand for policy measures which are less compatible with the principles of both liberal democracy and consumer capitalism.

And finally, a significant new contextual factor is that democracy itself, quite irrespective of the multi-dimensional sustainability issue, is currently experiencing a profound crisis or transformation. Phenomena such as the decline of voter turnout or party membership have been observed for some time. But more recently a vigorous debate has emerged about an alleged end, death and even new hatred of democracy. The terms post-democracy and post-politics have become firmly established in public discourse. The proponents of such concepts come from a variety of ideological backgrounds and pursue diverse political agendas. But what most of them share is the diagnosis of a certain democratic disillusionment or exhaustion, and of the proliferation of practices of depoliticisation and delegation which transfer power and responsibility towards non-majoritarian expert bodies and, by implication, progressively suspend the ideal of popular sovereignty. This incrementally turns contemporary democracies into a new form of hybrid regimes which critics have – somewhat one-sidedly – described as leader democracy, democratic authoritarianism or inverted totalitarianism.

Thus, the new debate about ecology and democracy is set in a context that in a variety of respects differs substantially from the one that framed its precursors in earlier decades. The on-going process of socio-cultural development has comprehensively reconfigured prevalent norms and understandings of democracy. And the normative foundations and strategic agenda of modern eco-politics have changed quite dramatically as well. This has significant implications for the relationship between democracy and sustainability. But, as yet, even the social sciences, not to mention the popular debate, have barely taken account of these changes. Instead, they remain stuck in old patterns of thinking, keep reproducing questionable norms and assumptions, and continuously reiterate the ever-same arguments. In fact, in its current shape, the debate probably contributes more to obscuring than to clarifying the relationship between democracy and sustainability. Consciously or not, it does more to cement than to change the established order of unsustainability. But the question for the relationship between democracy and sustainability is crucially important; and to expose implicit assumptions, question underlying normative commitments and remove existing intellectual blockages are essential steps towards a more differentiated and constructive debate.

Common questions which, in addition to the ones cited at the beginning of this essay, figure prominently in the current debate include: How does the eco-political performance of democratic systems compare to that of authoritarian systems? Will our democratic systems collapse under the pressure of the environmental crisis? May the achievement of sustainability necessitate a change of political regime? Like those cited earlier, these questions make a range of implicit assumptions which are themselves not subjected to any critical enquiry. They pre-structure the debate in ways that, from the outset, preclude certain lines of investigation. For example, such questions, in a simplifying and generalising manner, juxtapose democratic and authoritarian systems. However, given that both democratic and autocratic systems come in a large variety of shapes and that, furthermore, contemporary democracies are, as outlined above, rapidly acquiring expertocratic-authoritarian features, while authoritarian systems like China are experimenting with strategies of decentralisation and local empowerment, such a simplistic binary distinction is manifestly unhelpful – if not outright ideological. It ignores factual political developments and instead focuses public attention on a hypothetical alternative. In fact, if there is any truth in the diagnosis of a post-political condition, democratic and autocratic modes of government might find themselves located on the same side of the new cleavage between the political formulation and implementation of competing visions of societal organisation and development and the purely managerial execution of systemic imperatives which are non-negotiable, self-legitimizing and allow for no alternative. In any case, the alleged choice between democratic and authoritarian policy approaches does not occur in practical day-to-day politics. And given that in eco-political matters democratic and autocratic forms of government both have a frighteningly poor performance record, ecologists may feel they are being offered the choice between a rock and a hard place.

These observations also raise doubts about the ever renewed academic efforts to compare the eco-political performance of democratic systems to that of autocracies. Prima facie, these efforts are triggered by demands for eco-authoritarian policy approaches which some environmentalists had already articulated in the 1970s and which have regularly been reiterated ever since. Studies undertaking such comparisons commonly specify a number of performance indicators (e.g. resource preservation, land use, biodiversity protection, renewable energy), undertake an elaborate comparative analysis and then, more or less predictably, come to the conclusion that claims about the eco-political effectiveness of authoritarian policy approaches are unfounded and that democratic systems, whilst displaying undeniable weaknesses, are performing better than non-democratic systems. However, such studies not only run into problems regarding the factual hybridisation of democracy and its assumed counterpart, but their eco-political confirmation of the Churchill Hypothesis may, as indicated above, also not be particularly helpful, if the sustainability crisis is really becoming as alarmingly acute as many have suggested. Moreover, such comparisons are problematic in that they cannot easily account for the massive externalisation of ecological as well as social costs (e.g. relocation of energy- and resource-intensive industries) which in the era of global interconnectedness is endemic – and which is an integral part of western (democratic) strategies of ecological modernisation. Thus one may wonder what exactly such comparisons between democratic and non-democracy systems actually achieve. More than anything they may serve to provide reassurance that western capitalist democratic post-industrial societies are, at least in principle, on the right track, and just need to fine-tune their democratic institutions and policy instruments so as to fully realise the untapped sustainability-potentials of the established order.

Closely related is that the lead-questions which frame the contemporary debate on democracy and sustainability implicitly suggest that we know what sustainability actually means and what targets need to be achieved, and only need to decide about the most appropriate political means for getting there. Yet, as the concept does not provide any specification of exactly what is to be sustained, at which level, for what reason, and for how long, the meaning of sustainability has so far remained as intangible as the beauty of nature, the intrinsic value of nature or any other entity that environmentalists have placed at the centre of their concern and political efforts. Beyond this, the focus of attention on the means, i.e. the How?, entirely eclipses the question of Whether?. Indeed, the current debates about democracy and sustainability notoriously claim that categorical ecological imperatives will render a transition towards sustainability inescapable and that in one way (democratic) or another (authoritarian), sustainability will have to be achieved. Time and again, reference is being made to supposedly objective bio-physical limits or tipping-points which purportedly make the transition towards sustainability inevitable, because transcending these limits would trigger ecological collapse and put the survival of the human species under threat. Undoubtedly, natural resources are finite, bio-physical limits do exist, and the sustainability crisis does render responsive action inescapable. Yet, the one-dimensional fixation on the alleged choice between democratic versus authoritarian pathways towards sustainability obstructs the view of what for the foreseeable future is the most likely scenario: sustained unsustainability.

As a matter of fact, the asserted alternative between sustainability and collapse is just as hypothetical as the one between democratic und authoritarian ways towards sustainability. For the established order of unsustainability can, for better or worse, still be sustained for some considerable time – though certainly not indefinitely. To be more precise, it can – and most probably will – be sustained as long as (a) ways can be found to reduce the ecological and social side-effects of the order of unsustainability (e.g. by means of techno-managerial fixes or policies of displacement); (b) strategies can be found for managing the social conflicts which these side-effects may trigger (e.g. by means of displacement, externalisation or enhanced security systems), and (c) social norms and expectations can be adapted in such a way that the social inequality and ecological destruction which sustained unsustainability invariably implies appear less unacceptable (e.g. by reframing notions of justice, equality or personal responsibility). These strategies are constitutive of the modern politics and governance of unsustainability, and as long as the debate on democracy and sustainability, rather than exploring this governance of unsustainability, conveniently confines itself to discussing largely hypothetical alternatives, it is not only one-dimensional, but also very ideological.

The highly sensitive, and politically inconvenient, question that a more differentiated and constructive debate on the relationship between democracy and sustainability will need to ask is exactly what role democracy plays in this scenario of sustained unsustainability. This necessitates a shift away from the currently prevalent, but rather unhelpful, normative statements about what democracy and eco-politics ought to look like and achieve. Instead, descriptive-analytical accounts are required of what democracy and eco-politics in contemporary consumer societies factually do look like. As regards the condition of democracy, such descriptive-analytical accounts will acknowledge, firstly, that today prevalent understandings of democracy have evolved well beyond the ideals in which the emancipatory social movements had still firmly believed. From the perspective of contemporary society these ideals of authentic democracy have become too cumbersome, inflexible, demanding and restrictive. Secondly, such descriptive-analytical accounts will recognize that democracy is not nearly as frail and vulnerable as the warnings about the threat posed to it by the sustainability crisis suggest. In fact democracy is, and has always been, highly adaptable to changing societal conditions, and it also has strong and reliable allies – who are well aware that democracy is the best possible political shell for consumer capitalism. And thirdly, an academically rather than mainly politically committed perspective on the relationship between democracy and sustainability will also be more perceptive of the fact that the defence of democracy can actually become reactionary: it does so when it fails to take account of the degree to which contemporary notions of democracy have actually emancipated themselves from the progressive, egalitarian project and have instead turned democracy into an essential tool for defending and legitimating personal lifestyles and societal structures which are predicated on ever rising levels of social inequality and on the continued degradation of the natural environment.

For the new debate on democracy and sustainability all this represents a most challenging task. The questions which have framed this debate so far contribute little to tackling this agenda. With their implicit assumptions and normative commitments they obstruct rather than facilitate a realistic analysis and constructive discussion. They cultivate notions of democracy and autocracy which are largely unrelated to socio-political reality. They contribute to the construction and maintenance of societal self-descriptions which reassure us of our profound democratic and ecological commitment. They mobilise for the defence of democracy and against the threat of eco-authoritarianism without ever realising to what extent the prevalent understandings of democracy have emancipated themselves from the egalitarian-progressive agenda, and to what extent the spectre of eco-dictatorship is really just a tool in the campaign for sustained unsustainability. Therefore, the first objective for a new debate on democracy and sustainability must be to break away from these established patterns of discourse. The assumptions and normative commitments which have framed and constrained the debate so far need to be subject to radical scrutiny. This will open up the discursive arena and create space for genuinely innovative and constructive thinking. Given that this debate concerns the very foundations of the established societal consensus, we must not expect it to deliver quick answers and easy solutions. Indeed the demand for quick fixes will most reliably choke the debate before it gets going. The hope that a few institutional reforms might turn contemporary democracies into ecocracies is just as unfounded as the belief in an expertocratic-authoritarian pathway to sustainability. But this only re-emphasises the need to open the discursive agenda and struggle for a genuinely innovative debate.


Dr Ingolfur Blühdorn is Reader in Politics/Political Sociology at the University of Bath. His work combines aspects of sociological theory, political theory, environmental sociology and environmental policy analysis. His most recent work has focused on the specific nature of contemporary environmental politics and the ongoing transformation of democracy in modern consumer societies. Forthcoming publications include 'Simulative Demokratie. Neue Politik nach der postdemokratischen Wende' (Suhrkamp Mai 2013), and 'The Governance of Unsustainability. Ecology and Democracy after the post-democratic turn', in: Environmental Politics 22/1 (2013).


Dieser Artikel ist Teil einer Reihe zum Thema Nachhaltigkeit und Demokratie, die von FES Sustainability und SGI News veröffentlicht wird. Im Rahmen der Artikelserie werden wir der Frage nachgehen, welche Faktoren den Erfolg oder Misserfolg von Nachhaltigkeitspolitik beeinflussen. Dazu setzen sich jeweils zwei Autoren mit einer gemeinsamen Fragestellung auseinander und präsentieren Ihre Ergebnisse parallel auf FES Sustainability und SGI news.

In Teil 1 unserer Artikelreihe fragen Ingolfur Blühdorn und Stefan Wurster, ob Nachhaltigkeit eine Regimefrage ist und suchen nach Erfolgsfaktoren einer gelingenden Nachhaltigkeitspolitk.

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Zu Teil 2 der Serie: Sustainability and Civil Society Engagement in Russia
Zu Teil 3 der Serie: Bildung an den Grenzen des Wachstums
Zu Teil 4 der Serie: Climate Change and Energy in Vietnam
Zu Teil 5 der Serie: The dispute surrounding social participation in the discussions on development in Peru