Can democracy save the planet?

John Elkington John Lotherington
24 April 2008

This article reports on a Consultation on Democracy and Sustainability held at the Science Museum in London on 18 March 2008. It was convened by the Environment Foundation, the 21st Century Trust and SustainAbility, and was supported by the Esmée Fairbairn FoundationIs democracy necessary for sustainable development - or does it get in the way? The political world is full of evidence that can be used to argue for either view. The lengthy and lively United States presidential competition between Senators Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama has, for example, engaged an unusually high proportion of citizens in debating some of the great issues of the day; it also offers the unprecedented and hopeful spectacle of all three candidates for the presidency acknowledging the vital importance of global climate change.

At the same time, the character of much of the campaign has so far been conducted - the huge amounts of money involved, the point-scoring, the attack ads, the media concentration on stray remarks and surface details - highlights the way that modern democratic conduct can ignore environmental issues at the very moment when they should be central to the debate.

China, too offers evidence for both sides of the argument. The ability of a centralised power to mobilise resources and will behind an environmentalist agenda can be contrasted with the messy populism and selfish consumerism of democratic states (see David Shearman, "Democracy and climate change: a story of failure" [7 November 2007]). Yet the idea of China as a potential green model is belied by the reality of environmental degradation - from urban air pollution to the Three Gorges Dam project - and by the way that the absence of accurate, reliable information and a culture of routine political dissent and democratic argument leaves citizens in the dark.

Democracy's double edge

This double edge underscores how relevant the links between democracy and sustainability are, and this makes it surprising how little debate there has been on the topic. Yet early voices in the sustainability debate acknowledged the intractable nature of the problems in this area, and the need for democratic politics to make an imaginative leap. The Brundtland report of 1987, for example, argued that: "The next few decades are crucial. The time has come to break out of past patterns. Attempts to maintain social and ecological stability through old approaches to development and environmental protection will increase instability. Security must be sought through change... Yet we are aware that such a reorientation..is simply beyond the reach of present decision-making structures and institutional arrangements, both national and international."

Twenty-one years on, these words of Norway's former prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland are as potent and relevant as ever (see John Elkington, "Brundtland and sustainability: history's balance-sheet" [12 April 2007]). In fact, the situation is arguably far more serious. For as globalisation has transformed markets and mindsets, politicians and governments have struggled even to begin to forge the political tools capable of addressing the problems of global sustainability. It may not be late - as former United States vice-president Al Gore argues, "political will is a renewable resource" - and Gore also (in his book The Assault on Reason) makes the case that democracy is indeed a crucial component of these tools:

"The last two centuries have demonstrated the superiority of free market economies over centralized economies and the superiority of democracy over forms of government that concentrate power in the hands of a few. In both cases, the root of that superiority lies in the flow of information"..."The metaphor of massive parallelism, or ‘distributed intelligence,' offers an explanation for why our representative democracy is superior to a governmental system run by a dictator or a king. Where totalitarian regimes rely on a ‘central processor' to dictate all commands, representative democracies depend on the power and insight of people spread throughout the society, each located adjacent to the part of the society in which he or she is most interested."

John Lotherington is director of the 21st Century TrustTo catalyse thinking on these topics, a Consultation on Democracy and Sustainability was held at the Science Museum in London on 18 March 2008. It was convened by the Environment Foundation, the 21st Century Trust and SustainAbility, and supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

The questions addressed included: can a world of 9-10 billion people vote its way to a sustainable future - or are new forms of leadership (even forms of authoritarian rule) going to be necessary? Are the rising global powers (China, India and Brazil among them) best placed to move towards more sustainable forms of development?

Democracy has a central role to play in any discussion of the future of the planet. But democracy is in trouble in many parts of the world, and must - if it is to deliver, remain relevant and meet people's needs and aspirations - mutate and evolve (see Larry Diamond, "The Democratic Rollback", Foreign Affairs [March-April 2008]). Can democracy indeed help deliver sustainability, or can it be an obstacle? Does sustainability need democracy?

From policy to politics

The opening session attempted to assess how far sustainability had come since the Bruntland commission (see Stephen Browne, "Whatever happened to 'development'?" [18 April 2007]). Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), argued that the balance at the planetary level is poor and deteriorating. In the area of climate change in particular, she argued, humans are compromising the ability of future and current generations to meet their needs.

There are a huge number of summits, studies, commitments, and publications - but for all the talk, the pace, scale, and scope of change remains inadequate. An important factor here is that the focus on market-based mechanisms to address these problems means a reliance on the same paradigm as caused the difficulties in the first place.

There are, however, positives as well as negatives in the current situation.

On the positive side:

* Activists have abandoned outdated assumptions about government, business, and citizens, as the reaction of each to important sustainability issues is no longer predictable

* Huge amounts of information on the environment, geophysical processes, and the social implications of environmental change are now available and accessible; so too are sophisticated mechanisms to monitor changes in key variables

* There has been a great strengthening of the intergovernmental process in addressing these issues - although as bargaining has become tougher, progress has tended to slow.

John Elkington is founder and director of SustainAbility, chairman of the Environment Foundation, and founding partner and director of Volans Ventures. He blogs here.

Also by John Elkington in openDemocracy:
"Why I'm going to Davos" (16 January 2003)

"Biotechnology: the case for sustainability" (20 August 2003)

"It's the system, stupid!" (5 February 2004)

"Globalisation's reality check" (7 September 2004)

"After Stern: let's get technical" (2 November 2006)

"Climate change's right and wrong fixes" (2 February 2007) - with Geoff Lye

"Brundtland and sustainability: history's balance-sheet" (12 April 2007)

"India's third liberation" (21 August 2007)

"Anita Roddick: outsider rules" (24 September 2007)

"Davos 2008: ends and beginnings" (31 January 2008)On the negative side:

* Activists, and the world in general, have grown more used to increasing levels of inequality, both nationally and international

* Current politics are not yielding the outcomes which are desirable for sustainability

* Popular understanding of the scale of change, and the investment required to avert disaster, remain incomplete. The Stern report on the economics of climate change was overly optimistic in that regard. People have not yet begun to take on board the scale of shifts in investment and of transfers that would be necessary.

In the future, Camilla Toulmin argued that the most important task for advocates of sustainable development would be to shift from an emphasis on economics to one on the principles of justice (see Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change, global justice: letter to Al Gore" [27 July 2006]). Instead of focusing on policy, they must engage with people and electorates, and reinvigorate the political process.

The public lens

Doug Miller, president of Globescan, talked next about the significance of data from a poll on climate change his company had undertaken for the BBC World Service. Most people had concluded, the poll found, that climate change was happening, was induced by human activity, and that it required major steps to address. Climate change had also put broader environmental questions back on the global agenda. The current wave of interest differed from the widespread environmental interest of the 1980s because it now encompassed both the developed and the developing world. It was also noteworthy that, rather than reducing interest in other sustainability issues, climate change was increasing it: in particular, concern about poverty remained high.

But the poll finding on democracy were a contrast. Trust in politicians was now at all-time lows, as was confidence in national governments to deliver necessary solutions. Only in a handful of countries did respondents believe that government decisions took the views of the people into account - even though this should be a fundamental aspect of democracy.

What of the link between democracy and sustainable development? Most respondents held that voter pressure meant that democracy was of benefit to sustainable development. Yet consultation with a more specialised group of experts found that only 28% believed that capitalism (often paired with democracy in its liberal variant) aided sustainable development, against 36% who said that capitalism inhibited it. Overall, Doug Miller saw in the figures an activation of people's survival instinct: as the planet "speaks" through extreme weather events, citizens are starting to listen.

The participatory future

Jenny Pidgeon, a consultant at Upstream, and a graduate of the Forum for the Future scholarship programme, then outlined a view of the next twenty years from the perspective of younger generations. She emphasised that the scale of the challenges - most evidently climate change, but also declining resources, collapsing ecosystems, growing inequality between the rich and poor, and widespread lack of trust and engagement by democratic publics in their political systems - made radical and speedy change essential.

She recalled the words of Britain's foreign secretary David Miliband in a landmark speech on "the democratic imperative" on 4 March 2008, that there was a danger of public scepticism of politics turning into cynicism. People increasingly will vote on television talent shows such as The X-Factor and Strictly Ballroom, but they feel disengaged from the white, male, middle-class politicians they see wearing suits on News at Ten. There needs to be genuine diversity among politicians - with, in particular, involvement by far more women; while voting should be easier and in tune with a younger generation who are at home with texting and the internet.

Jenny Pidgeon underscored what Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project, has said on the subject: that societal and economic change over the next ten or twenty years needs to be at least as great as during Europe's Renaissance. To ensure that this happens, she argued, we need a much more dynamic, inclusive, participative and values-driven democracy. The gestures made by politicians towards sustainability have to be replaced by real commitment.

Power needs to be distributed in a different and properly inclusive way. A good example is Porto Alegre in Brazil, where a significant portion of the city's budget is allocated through neighbourhood deliberations, leading to a reduction in corruption, and to increased efficiencies, and fairer communities. Britain has the beginning of something similar in the "transition town" network, which now includes thirty initiatives, and tentative participatory- budgeting initiatives in cities like Manchester and Newcastle.

The wrong link: four propositions

The conference themes were debated in a session open to the public. Tom Burke, co-founder of E3G and adviser to Rio Tinto, delivered a presentation which was followed by a roundtable discussion chaired by Chris (Lord) Patten, with John Elkington; Samantha Heath, director of London Sustainability Exchange; Sara Parkin, founder-director of Forum for the Future; and Charles Secrett, special advisor on environment and sustainability to the mayor of London and Visit London.

Many of the issues the roundtable addressed had been highlighted in a keynote paper commissioned ahead of the meeting from Ian Christie. This made four basic propositions about democracy, ecologically sustainable development, and environmental/sustainability campaign organisations (SD-NGOs). He argued that together, these phenomena offer a paradox about the relationship between democracy, civil society and sustainability; and that resolving it is now an urgent and complex task - for the west, for newly industrialised democracies, and for emergent democratic civil society in the global south.

Here are Ian Christie's four propositions, in his own words:

* Proposition 1: Democracy is crucial for humane and just sustainable development. Democracy can be shown to be very closely associated with high standards of ecological protection and effective implementation of environmental law. We cannot begin to tackle big environmental challenges without democracy and all it is based on - the rule of law, an open society, free media, experimentation and low levels of corruption. The worst cases of unsustainable development at local and regional scales are being exacerbated above all by the misrule of authoritarian regimes. The many non-democracies can tackle unsustainable development only by adopting democratic processes and moving to open societies based on the accountable rule of law

* Proposition 2: Democracy poses huge problems for sustainable development. In the advanced liberal capitalist states, democracy is tightly coupled to the promise of economic growth, ever-rising consumption and individual freedom. Democracy in such states now entrenches the interests of the affluent majority and well-funded lobbies in the political system (a point analysed by, among others, JK Galbraith and Mancur Olson). Representative democracies have become sclerotic and there is a widespread problem of public trust and apathy in the OECD world. Politicians cannot challenge vested consumer and producer interests for fear of losing votes, lobby and media support, and associated funding. This makes democracies incapable of mobilising citizens to tackle collective-action problems on a big scale - above all, climate disruption and the need for deep emission cuts. The worse the performance of democracies in dealing with the "hard politics of the environment" (a phrase used by Tom Burke), the greater the temptation to see authoritarian command economies as the key to pushing societies on to sustainable development paths

* Proposition 3: Environmental/sustainability campaign organisations (SD-NGOs) are a massive success for civil society worldwide. Without them, we would not have anything like the progress we have seen in the past half-century in protecting the environment, cutting pollution, raising resource efficiency, highlighting linked issues of environmental and social injustice, and saving wildlife and habitats from destruction. Without them, the discourse and practice of sustainable development would not have become established in governments worldwide, and huge issues such as climate disruption would not have been acknowledged or tackled sufficiently by governments and businesses. SD-NGOs have been at the forefront of civil society's emergence in authoritarian states and have played a key role in fostering democratic trends and challenges to abuses of power

* Proposition 4: SD-NGOs are a massive failure by their own standards. For nearly fifty years they have campaigned and educated citizens and governments and businesses worldwide; yet ecological damage continues on a vast scale, environmental injustices abound, and dangerous climate disruption seems to be unavoidable. SD-NGOs have achieved limited gains in specific areas of policy but have failed to mobilise and energise citizens on a large enough scale to put real pressure on politicians and businesses in the west and beyond. Moreover, they lack clear answers to challenges to their own legitimacy and accountability, and have sometimes spoken as though they were representative voices of "civil society", when in fact they constitute a small and highly unrepresentative section of it in many countries.

Ultimately, Ian Christie concluded, democracy is crucial and necessary for decent and equitable sustainable development, but is currently coupled tightly to the established "growth model" - to a degree that raises deep questions about whether it can deal with the risks stemming from the excesses of that model.

The parallel future

Chris Rapley, director of the Science Museum, observed in his closing remarks that the debate and the public's close involvement were themselves a reflection of how seriously the democracy-sustainability connection was being taken. How fast can politicians catch up with, and articulate effectively, citizens' concerns? How also can citizens themselves seize the initiative and remake politics so that democracy can realise its potential to advance sustainability?

In this connection, Ian Christie offers an imaginative suggestion: "Why see nation-states as the key level of ratification and legitimation? What if NGOs and businesses and local governments developed a ‘People's Kyoto', a declaration of intent at every level to cut emissions in the next twenty years so that we would be on course for an 80% global average cut from present levels by 2050? Already many cities and states in the United States have taken up a similar challenge from Seattle to adopt Kyoto targets despite the US federal government's rejection of the protocol. If national governments are laggards in innovation, they need to be out-competed by parallel frameworks, which in turn could spur them to take up the leadership role they need to embrace. We need widespread innovation to create more of these parallel systems now."

There is an enormous collective challenge here. But bringing democracy and sustainability into a common frame may be one of the key steps in meeting it.

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