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Democracy and sustainability: Can we survive in freedom?

Updated Tuesday, 18th March 2008

‘Can we survive in freedom?’ The relationship between democracy and sustainability was framed in these terms by a prominent political scientist more than fifteen years ago.

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The bluntness of Ralf Dahrendorf’s question (and the pessimism of his own answer) invites a hasty response. I think he anticipates that we will all join him in choosing a very human, and mortal, liberalism.

Ralf Dahrendorf Creative commons image Icon Holger Noß under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
Ralf Dahrendorf

Most people engaged in sustainability debates over the last two decades have shrugged the question off. At most we’ll suggest that sustainability and democracy are necessary partners. We’ll argue that you can’t bring the (mostly) staggeringly wealthy and materially cosseted societies of the developed world to address the downsides of their lifestyles without legitimate agreement on the need for action.

It is assumed this agreement will need to be collective - though not necessarily unanimous. But we are also confident that ‘our’ issue is urgent. Once you’ve read the climate science or the latest on biodiversity loss you look at the phrase ‘the art of the possible’ in a very different light to the squirming ‘realists’ that fill political office. It is not possible to sustain life as we live it into even the medium term future.

But sustainability and democracy are not joined at the hip. Democracy can claim to be more successful than any political system in history: in varying degrees of quality it can now claim to be the dominant form of human organisation beyond families and businesses. Yet it has also served as the perfect seedbed for a virulently successful system of material production and consumption that just so happens to threaten the human habitability of the planet.

For the evolutionary psychologist there is nothing surprising about McDonald’s selling 100 billion burgers and oceans of coke: we are evolved to treasure fat, salt and sugar when we get easy access to it. From this point of view democracy nurtures unsustainability. Looking in the other direction we have plenty of evidence that scarcity and disaster provoke the opposite of stable, plural democratic systems.

Perhaps those of us that insist on binding together democracy and sustainability are living by Gramsci’s dictum: ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’. In other words: ecologically sustainable democracies are our most desirable outcome, however unlikely that goal might seem today. But recognising that we won’t automatically arrive at that point helps us to identify the nature of the work ahead.

And that work doesn’t resemble the careful design of technologies or technique of policy change (indicators; toolkits; audits; a carefully calculated social cost of carbon), or a perfectly refined marketing strategy that will deliver behavioural change. These things may all play their part - but they are bit-parts. Rather we need to recognise that we have some hard work ahead as we try to revise the driving motivations of our societies.

In taking on this work we should recognise after two decades of experience that the language and some of the thinking clustered around sustainability has made almost no impact upon the public imagination. It has all the emotional reach and cultural resonance of a bus timetable. Why is that when we have such powerful rhetorical tools in our hands? Who has a bigger boo-phrase than ‘the end of the world’? The fact is that talk of limits, carbon diets, and self-denial flies directly in the face of some of the dominant cultural trends of our time. Contemporary culture thrives on self-experiment and exploration, personal rewards, a love of the new and on constant processes of self-reinvention. The green movement has at best had an awkward relationship with these trends, and the rare moments of synchronicity can get a bit repetitive (bamboo bicycle anyone?).

We need to recognise that people will only come together in majorities in favour of change (whether as electors, consumers, or as change agents within families, streets or institutions) if they find that the images and language of sustainability sit happily with some of these other values, experiences and ambitions. We need to play with new ways of framing the relationships between environmental change and private and public life. Some of us have found it productive to explore the fact of ecological, social, cultural and economic interdependence. Recalling the Americans that revised the boundaries of politics in the late eighteenth century to such magnificent effect, ‘we hold it as self-evident’ that we need to take a new lens to the world now that we have arrived at Interdependence Day. One of the things this lens must focus on is the quality of many aspects twenty first century daily lives. Health, relationships, pleasures, the things we use, see, places we inhabit – what quality do they have? (and, indeed, what is the quality of our political system?). Some of us have been working on these questions through the Interdependence Day project, including a volume I recently edited: Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth?. You’ll be pleased to hear that we think the answer to the question we set is an emphatic and democratic no.

Footnote: Next week I'm joining a seminar that marks the twentieth anniversary of the Brundtland Report that made sustainable development an influential concept in trying to square economic development and ecological sustainability. I've used this blog entry to get some of my thoughts down in advance.  A number of the folks that have been prominent in the UK environmental policy and politics scene will be at the meeting, and you can see some of their posts on the SustainAbility website.






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