Sustainability and Democracy

Sustainability as Living Democracy

For some it is a moral duty, while for others it is merely a means to an end. Yet others regard it as a threat to freedom and democracy. Ultimately, however, sustainability comes down to being one thing: profoundly political.

The potency achieved by the concept of sustainability, despite all the criticisms, is reflected not least in the power increasingly attributed to it within the framework of numerous public debates as strongly influencing freedom, justice and democracy, the major achievements of our time. Some suspect that sustainability is merely a codeword used by an elite whose aim is to restrict people’s freedom, not only today but also for future generations, on the authority of scientific fact, and thus to abolish democracy, understood as national sovereignty, in one go.  Yet others emphasise sustainability as a condition of justice and a self-determined life.

What is interesting in these controversies, however, is not in the first instance the disputes about the meaning and scope of democracy, freedom and justice in the context of sustainable development carried out along traditional lines of conflict. More decisive is that in these disputes and in the return to traditional fronts, one thing becomes perfectly clear: sustainability is profoundly political. Instead of playing sustainability and democracy against one another, therefore, or reducing them to an end and means relationship which does not do justice to either notion, it is much more a matter of recognising that the idea of sustainability is where the contestation we call democracy, a contestation which is necessarily based on power and only ever comes to rest temporarily, is already taking place. Because sustainability in particular cannot take the place of a determinate ideology, but it can be the idea on which we agree as the basis of our society, even though we argue about its implementation and specific form.

However, that does not mean that the demand to make sustainability the general orientation for our society is illegitimate or undemocratic. Despite all conceptual difficulties sustainability, as a key action-guiding principle, cannot be avoided, if not only future generations but parts of the world population today are not to have their right to a decent life curtailed. At the same time, it must be recognised that »a definition of what sustainable development means is not only a question of viewpoint, but also a question of influence. There is no recipe, sustainability is a process on which a society must agree«.[1]  

The aim of the sustainability portal is precisely to promote these efforts to reach agreement and to encourage the continual examination of standards of truth and rationality, as well as of the power structures that inevitably underpin the great discourses of a given era and are inextricably linked to them.


 [1] »Bildung für die Zukunft – von Anfang an«, by Farid Gardizi, German Commission for UNESCO, June 2009,  available at: [10.1.2012]



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