Desktop version

Home arrow Political science arrow Sustainability of Agro-Food and Natural Resource Systems in the Mediterranean Basin

Box 22–2. Building a Culture of Engagement

In modern nation states, democracy seems to be the most widely preferred form of government. This impulse has expressed itself again and again, most recently perhaps in the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East. The last quarter century has witnessed a proliferation of governments that are at least nominally democratic.

The inherent appeal of distributed and accountable power no doubt explains much of this, and is surely among democracy's strongest justifications. Is democracy also biased toward sustainability? That is, are democratic nations more likely to be sustainable than those run by other forms of government? Further, would deepening democratic engagement lead to more vigorous pursuit of sustainability? Can that deepening be accomplished outside of political theory textbooks, in the real world? In all cases, the answer appears to be “maybe.”

Strictly speaking, relatively few countries (and none in the industrialized world) are now sustainable no matter how they are governed, if that means living within per-capita carrying capacity. So to explore these questions, we have to settle for which forms of government seem most conducive to sustainability or active in pursuing it. Here, the evidence—somewhat tepidly and with many qualifications—seems to support the claim that democracies are better than autocracies or mixed forms.

There are several dimensions to this. For example, democracies are probably better equipped to cope with climate adaptation, as power inequalities tend to be less extreme and the poor are therefore less likely to suffer from related environmental harm. Democracies are generally better at disaster response (notwithstanding conspicuous counter-examples such as Hurricane Katrina in the United States), a capacity that will become more significant as a warming climate increases weather extremes. This responsiveness arises mainly from the greater need of elected leaders to answer to voters. For example, Peru suffered devastating earthquakes in 1970 and in 2001; the first killed 66,000 people, the second fewer than 150. The vastly greater 1970 death toll was due partly to higher population density, but mostly to the unresponsiveness of the ruling dictatorship compared with that of the democratically elected government 40 years later.

However, the broad, creeping challenges of sustainability, such as planetary warming and biodiversity loss, to date have not evoked the same sort of response. As political scientist Peter Burnell writes, “[w]hatever other aims democracy might serve, increase in the number of democracies does not seem an obvious solution to global warming, especially if democratization actually promotes material economic advance.”

Voters everywhere are understandably concerned about their material well-being, and the very accountability that spurs democratic governments to rush aid to disaster sites also can lead them to privilege economic concerns, especially short-term ones, above all others. If voters do not clearly demand action on problems (such as climate change) that may, or may be seen to, compromise economic performance, then politicians in democratic systems have little incentive to act on those issues. For democracies to address climate change, voters—or rather, citizens, because voting is not nearly enough—must create the impetus. All the more so because, as David Orr has noted, representative democracies tend to become “ineffective, sclerotic, and easily co-opted by the powerful and wealthy” and are vulnerable to “ideologically driven factions that refuse to play by the rules of compromise, tolerance, and fair play.” Perhaps even more dangerously, they can succumb to “spoiled-child psychology” that invites, in philosopher Richard Weaver's words, “a sort of contempt for realities.”

If people in representative democracies are contemptuous of realities, surely that has to do with their twofold isolation: from each other as political actors and from the governing processes meant to address those realities. A possible antidote to both is deliberative civic engagement (DCE), a process encompassing a variety of forms of deeper democracy that go far beyond voting to involve ordinary people in the process of collectively assessing, confronting, and solving governance problems. According to Matt Leighninger of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, successful DCE initiatives are usually marked by:

• the bringing together of a large and diverse group of citizens,

• structured and facilitated small-group discussions combined with larger forums aimed at action,

• the opportunity for participants to consider a range of arguments, information, and policy options, and a final focus on concrete outcomes.

DCE initiatives have sprung up around the world, in Australia, Brazil, China, India, Nigeria,the Philippines, and South Africa, as well as in Europe and North America. Could this approach help address sustainability issues? It's an open question, but DCE has everywhere arisen as a response to urgent political and economic problems. While sustainability is a global challenge, it manifests itself in many local forms and concerns as well as in planetwide effects such as warming. To the extent that DCE becomes known as a useful approach to solving community problems, it could well take root and provide fertile ground for a culture of engagement and more permanent citizen's bodies capable of tackling problems that operate at wider scales.

Each year, the repeatedly disappointing results of the annual high-level international meetings on climate change remind us that the world's democracies are just as stuck in dealing with sustainability as everyone else. Yet the existing research suggests that other forms of governance offer even worse prospects of coming to global grips with climate change and the other crises of sustainability. The rapid expansion of democracy around the world thus seems to offer the only kernel of hope for breaking the logjam. It is worth noting that this expansion is relatively new, having begun in earnest only in the early 1990s. Also worth noting is that most of the action on climate change seems to be taking place at the local and regional levels, where governments are closest to the people and less likely to be captured by special interests. (See Chapter 14.)

As for DCE, it has been employed mostly in temporary exercises, so it remains to be seen whether it can be established as a widespread standing practice with routine input into official decision-making processes, or perhaps even standing citizens' bodies with statutory power. There are historical examples of such bodies from hundreds or even thousands of years ago, but relatively few contemporary ones.

The potential of deliberative civic engagement is great, but it takes practice. In most cases, our deliberative muscles are not so much atrophied as never developed. Yet citizens have often proven to be committed and knowledgeable enough to take part in DCE. Research and accumulating experience are beginning to clarify which forms of DCE work best, in which circumstances and with which groups. And DCE has been found to increase citizens' civic skills, involvement, and interest in political issues, with corresponding impacts on policy. Humanauthored solutions to sustainability problems seem unlikely to emerge without those—indeed, they may be the only way of deepening the responsiveness of democracies to citizens' wishes and harnessing it to the pursuit of sustainability.

—Tom Prugh Source: See endnote 4.

way that affords every person on Earth a safe and fulfilling place to live, and offers future generations the same prospect. Proceeding along this course, it seems to us, is better than surrendering to the centrifugal and destructive forces now at play in the world. Perhaps Herman Daly and John Cobb, writing nearly 25 years ago in For the Common Good, put it best:

On a hotter planet, with lost deltas and shrunken coastlines, under a more dangerous sun, with less arable land, more people, fewer species of living things, a legacy of poisonous wastes, and much beauty irrevocably lost, there will still be the possibility that our children's children will learn at last to live as a community among communities. Perhaps they will learn also to forgive this generation its blind commitment to ever greater consumption. Perhaps they will even appreciate its belated efforts to leave them a planet still capable of supporting life in community.

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  

Related topics