Opinion

Ecological Democracy: Always Greener on the Other Side?

Ecological democracy promises to fuse two vitally important societal values: protecting environmental interests while safeguarding citizens’ participation in decision-making.

Towards the end of the hottest year on record, one of the world’s largest democracies elected a President who has dismissed climate change as a hoax. With the world facing increasingly urgent environmental threats ranging from local water pollution to global climate change and biodiversity loss, it is more important than ever to ask whether democratic institutions have the capacity to respond.

The idea of ecological democracy promises to fuse two vitally important societal values: protecting environmental interests while safeguarding citizens’ participation in decision-making. For Robyn Eckersley, the ideal of ecological democracy requires that ‘all those potentially affected by ecological risks ought to have some meaningful opportunity to participate, or be represented, in the determination of policies or decisions that may generate risks’.

At times, the ideal of ecological democracy has had a bright future ahead of it. The 1980s and early 1990s saw both growing scholarly interest in theories of ecological democracy as well as broader awareness of environmental concerns, as reflected in the rise of green social movements, political parties and new forms of global environmental cooperation. Since then, the field has continued to expand and diversify. Some studies find that democracies are more likely to favour environmental protection. Yet the ideal of ecological democracy continues to face challenges both to its conceptual foundations and to its practical realisation.

At a conceptual level, some theorists argue that ecological democracy involves a fundamental tension: it is impossible to protect democratic freedom of choice while also ensuring that people will collectively opt for green outcomes. In response, eco-authoritarians urge the need to dispense with democratic processes as the only way of confronting environmental problems quickly enough. In practice, while majorities in many countries support action on issues such as climate change, the environment often remains low on the list of people’s most pressing concerns.

To better understand these challenges and explore ways of addressing them, the University of Sydney, University of Canberra and Stockholm University are co-sponsoring an international research workshop to be held on 20-21 February 2017 at the University of Sydney. The workshop will seek to focus on new insights and directions for ecological democracy, while looking back to examine the impact and viability of its founding texts as well as empirical studies of the relationship between democracy and sustainability.

A key task for participants will be to review the foundations of ecological democracy in the light of new challenges to society. Ecological democracy, as John Dryzek argues, is ‘democracy beyond boundaries’: it transcends the boundaries of nation-states as well those between the human and non-human world. The increasingly widespread notion that humanity has entered the Anthropocene epoch—marked by humanity’s pervasive impact on ecosystems worldwide—prompts the question whether ecological democracy needs to be recast in light of conditions that may not have been foreshadowed fully in earlier theorizing. This includes thinking of ecological democracy on a planetary scale.

In addition, participants will re-assess prospects for ecological democracy amid broader concerns about whether democratic institutions can be sustained. Disenchantment with political institutions is widespread. And even if the rise of social media has opened up new ways for environmental movements to emerge, it has also helped to spread misinformation that has strengthened the hand of vested interests keen to block action on pollution.

Key questions for the workshop include:

  • Are ideals of ecological democracy feasible in light of broader challenges facing democratic institutions?
  • Can deliberative forms of governance help to reconcile ideals of democratic legitimacy and environmental protection?
  • Can democratic innovations in global environmental summits reduce the global ’democratic deficit’?
  • What bearing, if any, does the concept of the Anthropocene have for theories of ecological democracy?
  • How can theories and practices of ecological democracy be more diverse and inclusive of indigenous and other cultural perspectives on relations between humans and the non-human world?
  • What examples of real-world environmental states, ecological democratic practices and institutions can be found and what can be learnt from them?

The workshop will contribute to the work of the Task Force on the Conceptual Foundations of Earth System Governance, coordinated by the Earth System Governance Project. While the list of participants in the workshop is now closed, a public Sydney Ideas Panel on ‘Ecological democracy: looking back, looking forward’ will be held on Monday 20 February, from 6-7.30pm. Registration details can be found here.


Jonathan Pickering is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra, a research fellow with the Earth System Governance project, and a co-organiser (with David Schlosberg and Karin Bäckstrand) of the workshop.

Mark Klotz ‘Rally against Kinder Morgan oil pipeline on Burnaby Mountain’ – Flickr Commons