Opinion

Reflection of Ecological Democracy – Looking Backward and Looking Forward

The need for ecologically-oriented and socially-just governance is more urgent than ever before.

Is the slow, tug-of-war approach to problem-solving that is typical of democratic nation states, ill-suited to the urgency of today’s environmental issues? This was the central question at the Ecological Democracy – Looking Back, Looking Forward lecture, co-hosted by SEI and Sydney Ideas.

Professor Robyn Eckersley, head of political science at the University of Melbourne, contextualised the problem with a historical narrative describing how the spreading of democratisation during the 1980s-1990s ground to a halt sometime in the past decade and has since begun a sharp backslide. For Eckersley, this tendency is symptomatic of the murmuring panic spreading across a warming planet. She also sees its ironic double in purportedly environmentalist rhetoric calling for authoritarian, technocratic planetary management techniques, including geoengineering and ‘minilateral’ climate negotiations that eschew inclusive multilateral deliberations for closed-room talks among major emitters.

While both are worrying tendencies of dangerously elitist governance, Eckersley too finds contemporary liberal democratic process inadequate to the task at hand. She accuses Western liberal democratic governance as too temporally constrained by short-term election cycles, too exclusive in its inequalities of political participation favouring corporate lobbyists and too spatially limited to the nation state. Consequently, the welfare of those most affected by environmental crisis are ‘non-citizens,’ such as non-human species and future generations.

Another group worth considering are refugees, who are increasingly prominent in discussions of climate displacement, and who are caught in the crossfire of increasing geopolitical tensions. Without the protections of state citizenship, refugees are both the unfortunate canaries in the coal mine and the trigger that has tested the resilience of liberal democracies to far-right xenophobia  worldwide.

Bringing the discussion into the present was Professor John Dryzek, an original theorist of ‘deliberative democracy’ at the University of Canberra, and Karin Bäckstrand, Professor of Environmental Social Science at Stockholm University. Dryzek consternated about the proliferation of ‘post-truth’ politics, in which the policy positions adopted by donor and lobbyist-bound politicians have become increasingly decoupled from the recommendations of the scientific consensus. He proposed ‘sortition’ for Senate office, the jury-like random selection of politicians, as a workaround of the ritual obduracy of party careerism in a Westminster system. Bäckstrand suggested that a reinvigoration of science communication was necessary to stymie the growth of ‘alternative facts.’

Bäckstrand also reflected upon the fortunes of the Swedish Greens Party, which had achieved parliamentary success by partly constituting the current coalition government, and yet suffers from a sharp decline in its national popularity, polling well below the ascendant far-right nationalist party. In accounting for this, she suggested that the Greens’ turn toward technoscientific management of economic and political problems, and the betrayal of its core participatory-democratic principle, had separated its representatives from the concerns and sentiments of their constituent electors.

The greatest point of agreement shared by each panelist was their rejection of authoritarian-technocratic impulses in providing urgent solutions to climate change, and instead doubling down on the importance of inclusive and deliberative democratic practices. In order to promote a transformative vision of ecological democracy, there must be a reinvigoration of the public sphere, to widen its spatial, temporal horizons, as well as the kind of community that it can foster.

And yet, the greatest tension between panelists arose regarding how important each speaker believed the overcoming of capitalist economic practices would be in order to achieve the substantial democratic reforms they endorsed. Bäckstrand believed that reform to contemporary modes of economic production, rather than their abolition, would be more productive. This could be achieved through leveraging the possibilities of positive alternatives that have arisen out of it such as the ‘sharing’ economy.

Conversely, Eckersley emphasised the importance of coupling our ecological demands alongside popular democratic movements demanding economic justice and egalitarian wealth redistribution. In broad agreement, Dryzek suggested that the intimate linkage of growing income inequality and environmental degradation in the 21st century provides the basis for a popular egalitarian ecological-democratic movement, one which may tackle both issues through synergistic policies.

While none of the panelists ventured into what such policy may look like beyond rhetorical formulations, it certainly remains a promising and growing area of concern in the ‘Trumpocene’ era, when the need for ecologically-oriented and socially-just governance is more urgent than ever before.


Andrew Brodzeli is an Honours Research Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute. He is undertaking Honours at the University of Sydney, in the Department of Political Economy. Andrew is currently researching the interdependencies of populist political movements and fossil fuel interests in liberal democracies.

Image: Susanne-Nilsson ‘Looking-back’ – FlickrCommons