Democracy and earth system governance: empowered space and contestation

Climate & Natural resources06 Dec 2009Kathrin Dombrowski

According to John Dryzek, democracy is absolutely integral to effective earth system governance. We know from history that democracies have a better environmental track record than authoritarian states. However, it now seems that the type of democracy also matters. In his presentation, Dryzek pointed out that consensual democracies (found in Northern Europe and Japan) surpass their adversarial Anglo-American counterparts when it comes to environmental performance. What explains this distinction? One possible reason may be that market-orientated neo-liberalism tends to be more entrenched in adversarial democracies, where a narrow focus on efficiency and growth leaves little room for the consideration of environmental values. Dryzek points to another explanation – the role of deliberation in consensual democracies. He uses empirical evidence from citizen ‘mini-publics’ to show that deliberation is associated with a ‘green shift’ among participants. A discourse of ecological modernization is especially likely to emerge in consensual systems, as it appears to offer ‘win-win’ solutions that are acceptable to all participants.

This is not the end of the story, however. While consensual democracies perform somewhat better than adversarial systems, they are still falling short of meeting the true size of the environmental challenge – their performance is inadequate in ecological terms. In fact, overly consensual systems may actually work against the emergence of more radical visions. Dryzek refers to his previous research on the environmental histories of Norway and West Germany to illustrate this point. Norway, he argues, exemplifies a highly consensual political system, which managed to include environmentalists in public policy-making processes from the early 1970s. The result was that moderate forms of environmentalism and ecological modernization became institutionalized in Norway while more radical critiques were marginalized. In West Germany, by contrast, the green movement was excluded from the country’s corporatist system of governance until the mid-1980s. He argues that ‘it was in Germany’s oppositional green public sphere that some of the most profound and thoroughgoing green critiques of the political economy were generated’.

What are the implications of this for deliberative democracy and earth system governance? If the environmental performance of even the best consensual states is inadequate in absolute terms, public space must allow for the emergence of more fundamental critiques. While there is a lot of value in deliberative empowered space (i.e. citizens in spaces of power) for effective environmental governance, this needs to be linked to contestation in public space.

The day after the conference, I ran into Kumi Naidoo, who was on the same train as me travelling from Amsterdam to Brussels. It’s hard to think of a more fitting and refreshing chance encounter after three days of intensive (but largely academic) discussions on ‘what is to be done’. Kumi Naidoo, for those who don’t know him already, is a well-known activist from South Africa (where he participated in the anti-Apartheid struggle), long-time Secretary General of CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen Participation), co-founder of the Global Call to Action against Poverty and chair of the Global Campaign for Climate Action (GCCA). Last month, he became the new head of Greenpeace International. Kumi Naidoo was on his way to Brussels, where one of several climate marches organized by the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition took place on Saturday 5 December. We had a brief conversation and I thought about how some of the points he was making related to Dryzek’s argument. Greenpeace, like thousands of other civil society groups at the moment, are investing huge levels of energy and resources in trying to affect the ‘empowered space’ of the UNFCCC process. At the same time, however, they also have a crucial role to play as critical voices of contestation in public space. Meeting the potentially conflicting demands arising from these two roles must prove challenging for many civil society organizations.