A Cultural Shift towards an Ecological Democracy

The first issue of Environmental Values in 2019 (Vol. 28) will be a Special Issue on Ecological Democracy. Marit Hammond’s article ‘A Cultural Account of Ecological Democracy’, can be previewed here. In today’s blog, adapted with thanks from cusp.ac.uk she asks: are sustainability and democracy in conflict? Some argue saving the planet cannot be left to the whims of the democratic vote; yet democracy must remain open to all possible outcomes, ecological or not. Her article shows how these dilemmas can be overcome, and democratic political foundations created for a cultural shift towards a sustainable society.

The question of whether ecological sustainability and democracy go together or are in conflict has been debated by political theorists for a long time. On the one hand, there is the argument that today’s environmental crises – climate change, biodiversity loss, overconsumption of resources – are so urgent societies simply cannot afford to wait for lengthy and fickle democratic processes to yield the required policy changes. Because these tend to imply material cutbacks (such as less resource-intensive lifestyles), people are unlikely to demand sufficiently stringent environmental policies. Instead, ‘enlightened’ environmental leaders are needed to enforce the necessary measures through centralised, top-down steering. Likewise, environmentalists therefore arguably make bad democrats – for they are by definition committed to particular outcomes (namely ecological ones) over others (say, material growth) as opposed to leaving the democratic process open to whatever the people might demand.

On the other hand, however, stands the reality of environmentalists’ unyielding commitment not just to democracy, but grassroots, participatory, and other ‘deep’ forms of democracy. Green parties and activists typically endorse democracy as part of their fundamental principles, and theorists regard democracy as part and parcel of a commitment to ecology. Is this actually a conceptual impossibility – and thus only pretence?

People’s Climate March in 2014. Source: public domain image by South Bend Voice at 

I argue it is not. Abjuring democracy for supposedly ecological reasons misunderstands ecological sustainability as a set of definite outcomes that must be achieved by any means necessary (which environmentalists would thus be unable to compromise on, and governments in their right to enforce against people’s wills). This is a mistake: sustainability is not a fixed outcome that either is or isn’t achieved, but a forever ongoing process of constructing a collective future that is both ecologically stable and meaningful in a normative sense. Because ecosystems are in constant change, so can sustainability only be understood as a dynamic concept: it is about societies’ learning to adapt to changing ecological realities in such a way as to retain prosperous, socially worthwhile forms of living for their members. Naturally, this can only happen with their involvement – not forcefully against their wills.

This insight opens up an alternative approach to sustainability. If sustainability is a normative concept, this means it partly consists in the values and meanings people attach to it as a vision; and these can change as a result of people’s own reflections. For example, one aspect of current unsustainability are high-consumption lifestyles driven by a growth-based economy and the consumerist values it propagates. Were an undemocratic government to forcefully restrict people’s consumption to meet certain sustainability indicators, this might make the society look a bit better in one moment in time, but it would leave the underlying cause of the problem – the meaning society attaches to consumerist lifestyles – unchanged. The momentary improvement on the corresponding sustainability indicator would give only an illusion of sustainability; it would only mask the lack of a deep-seated ecological concern in the society’s ‘hearts and minds’ and deeper structural characteristics. Yet if people themselves reflexively changed their values away from material consumption and towards greater ecological balance, the resulting lifestyle changes would not need to be undemocratically enforced, as they would be meaningful to people themselves.

This is sustainability as a cultural process. Instead of regarding sustainability as specific outcomes in need of enforcement, it can be seen as a process of cultural change, or ‘meaning-making’. Ecological values being seen as meaningful is key to sustainability as a normative vision of prosperity. Yet genuine meaning cannot be fabricated or imposed; it springs from people’s identities. Therefore, shifts in meaning constitute a much more deep-seated and consequential process.

The bad news is that this means there is no easy shortcut towards sustainability. But this is what brings democracy back into the picture – albeit in a different role: inclusive, engaging forms of governance are what provides the foundations for new learning, reflection, and ‘meaning-making’ in society. Collectively creating new visions from the bottom up has the power to expand what we even perceive as possible pathways towards the future, and inspire change out of intrinsic conviction as opposed to mere enforcement. A growthless yet still prosperous society might become imaginable the more we engage with the idea; and this in turn might shift the very meaning of ‘prosperity’ in people’s understanding and genuine concern.

Of course, this is not a guarantee. Meanings might also shift in unsustainable directions, and – as has long been documented – cultural change work to entrench privilege and inequality rather than promoting societal flourishing. This twofold potential makes the realm of culture a decisive arena from which sustainability governance must be addressed. As meanings constantly adapt, what matters is how this process is driven by the socio-political environment it takes place in – what institutions and settings shape how we create new meanings. When it comes to sustainability as a normatively meaningful vision of the future for the society at large, it will be vital to unmask and counteract narrowly elite-driven, interested cultural interventions, and instead support broad imagination and reflexivity through a vibrant, inclusive public sphere. For this, democracy – as the political embodiment of a commitment to listening to the whole society equally, and facilitating fair participation in shaping its future – is not an inconvenience, but the only conceivable foundation.

Marit Hammond is Lecturer in Environmental Politics at Keele University. A Co-Investigator in CUSP’s P-theme, she conceptually explores the political foundations of sustainable prosperity. Her research lies at the intersection between green political theory and normative democratic theory, with recent work having appeared or being forthcoming in journals such as Contemporary Democratic Theory, Democratization, Environmental Values, Policy Sciences and the Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy.

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