Democracy and sustainability: a joint cause

A new manifesto argues that the advance of democracy and of sustainable development is at heart a shared endeavour. Halina Ward & Clare Shine explain the initiative’s purpose and invite support.

Halina Ward Clare Shine
3 September 2012

The way democracy works in many countries today, where it is geared to short-term electoral cycles and political comparisons based on GDP growth, makes it badly prepared for the great intergenerational challenges that will dominate the next generation: among them climate change, resource scarcity and demographic pressures (such as aging or expanding populations).  

Democracy as it has evolved over the past two hundred years or so has always been about delivering “more”. It has relied on conventional econometric measurements as its main unit of accounting, rather than on the real values added to society.

The flaws in this approach are increasingly clear as the environmental pressures and impacts of the human thirst for “more” intensify. From local to global level, as accelerating environmental degradation strains food, energy and water resources, the ability of existing institutions to cope with the resulting social, economic and demographic pressures will be sorely tested – in some regions, potentially to breaking-point.  

The opening words of the summary of the authoritative GEO-5 Global Environmental Outlook (2012), an initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme - namely, that the “currently observed changes in the Earth System are unprecedented in human history” - hint at the scale of the changes required.

Democracy is central to these changes. It is the only political system through which a majority of the world’s people can learn how to determine together and express “how much is enough” (as Robert and Edward Skidelsky would have it). The problem is that we citizens of democracy don’t yet know how to do it - and the time to learn is running out.

What makes this situation worse is that the wider public view of the future, in many parts of the world, is becoming deeply sceptical and pessimistic.  A global poll in 2012 by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) asked adults in thirteen countries - Belgium, Bulgaria, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa , the United Kingdom and the United States - whether they felt future generations would be worse off than their own generation. Overall, 66% said yes. In the UK, the figure was 78%, and in Greece it was 77%. Yet even in the economic powerhouse of Germany, 85% of respondents thought future generations would be worse off; in France, the figure reached a dismal 93%. The contrast with rapidly growing economies - Brazil (24%) and Indonesia (26%) - is striking.  

The connection with a sense of democratic malaise in western states such as Britain is highlighted  by the stresses and strains on democracy recorded in the 2012 report of the research project Democratic Audit. This notes, among other conclusions, that “almost all available indicators suggest that representative democracy is in long-term, terminal decline, but no viable alternative model of democracy currently exists” (see  S Wilks-Heeg et al, How Democratic is the UK? The 2012 Audit [Democratic Audit, 2012).

A time to renew

But a crisis is also an opportunity. After all, if people think the future will be worse but still believe that democracy is the political system best able to deliver improvement - and if the experience of those in non-western states is a lesson that democracy is still evolving and being learned - then the ability of democracy to address serious environmental and social problems remains in the hands of people and their governments.

If democracy is to thrive, however, it also needs to adapt to the reality that it is not the only game in play when it comes to securing improvements in living conditions. Already, some environmentalists are known to sigh wistfully (even naively) at the apparent ease with China is able to exercise leadership on climate change-related issues. Yet most also know that to take sustainable development seriously, democracy is essential. This was recognised in the formal outcome of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, with UN member-states acknowledging that “democracy, good governance and the rule of law, at the national and international levels, as well as an enabling environment, are essential for sustainable development...”.

The best chance of delivering adequate responses to unsustainable development and tackling emerging risks is provided by healthy democratic systems. But if democracy is to flourish during the difficult years ahead, fresh thinking will be needed to motivate and harness the power both of individuals and institutions. So we need actively to seek to nurture and renew our commitment to democracy, and the forms in which it is practised.

An opportunity for change

To this end, in June 2012 the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD) launched international public consultations to develop a Manifesto for Democracy and Sustainable Development.

The open consultation runs to mid-November 2012. The FDSD welcomes all ideas. There’s a short online consultation form here  (and, in the case of the Spanish version, here); but we’d also like to hear from groups or organisations that might like to get involved via a consultation workshop.  

November will mark the transition from consultation to drafting. A first discussion draft of the Manifesto for Democracy and Sustainable Development, highlighting key differences of perspective, will be thoroughly debated at a workshop to be hosted over two days by the Salzburg Global Seminar in December 2012. The Seminar has a sixty-five-year track-record of supporting multi-stakeholder dialogue and leadership development around long-term issues related to democracy and governance, social and economic justice, sustainability and education for global citizenship.  

The FDSD aims to launch the manifesto for sign-on early in 2013. It will set out a vision, principles and actions for a practical agenda for change. It will be a short document with which people or institutions can associate themselves, pointing to workable changes that are needed to ensure that democracy around the world is equipped to deliver a healthy environment and fairness for all, now and in the future.

This is an opportunity for all concerned to help create the ripple effect that’s needed to equip democracy to deliver sustainable development. The job of ensuring that democracy is resilient needs to begin now.

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