A prior remark for quick readers (they’re out there): this text is not demanding the abolition of the Monarchy or the establishment of a ceremonial monarchy in Belgium. These two subjects of secondary importance – with regard to global contemporary issues – are not broached here.

Environmentalism-democracy, the infernal coupling

My interest in republicanism began with my work on the history of Ecolo, in which I try to describe how the two basic ideas that we find in nearly all Green parties have evolved and how this evolution can somehow form the pattern of the grand eras of the history of Ecolo. These two ideas, as political theorists have demonstrated, and whose interaction André Gorz brilliantly described in one of the most probing articles on political ecology, are on one hand, democracy and civic engagement – and on the other hand, basically, what French speakers call ‘écologie’ and English speakers refer to as ‘environmentalism’.

However, very few people have asked themselves why these two goals were associated and what consequences it might have on the actions of Green parties. Yet, originally, they were clearly interconnected, for example, in the combining of (integral) federalism and ecology, as called for at the beginnings of Ecolo. Until the beginning of the 1980s, ecologists (or environmentalists or Greens…), used to say: No integral federalism without ecology, no ecology without integral federalism. But, progressively, whilst they continued to be present in Green parties, the relationship between these two goals became less and less explicit, until it was completely slackened. Ecolo, for example, has remained at the forefront of the fight for transparency and civic engagement but without linking it explicitly to what we now call ecological transition. As an example of this evolution, one only has to observe that Ecolo’s institutional programme (on the Belgian democratic institutions) is drafted in a completely different way to the section relating to ecological transition, albeit not intentional in any way.

However, although Ecolo, like other Green parties, has very greatly adapted its internal democracy in accordance with the constraints resulting from its consolidated presence in representative democracy, it has conserved, like almost all Green parties, the traits of a ‘Centaur-party’, combining a strong capacity for activism and an increasingly professionalised side. But Ecolo has also developed a kind of scepticism towards the reinforcement of democratic practices, also undoubtedly because when they are in government, the Greens learn that the instruments of consultation that they helped implement can turn against the ecological transition, in the case of the installation of wind turbines, for example.

The return of the debate on “ecological democracy”

For a few years, the link between ecology and democracy has again progressively become a point of debate undoubtedly due to growing criticism over the representative democracy’s ability to integrate the long-term concerns. This was recently the case in the French-speaking world with the book by Dominique Bourg and Kenny Whiteside ‘La Démocratie écologique ’ and much before that, in the English-speaking world, with a certain number of authors such as John Dryzeck and Robyn Eckersley. Bourg and Whiteside highlighted the structural causes of representative democracies’ difficulty integrating concern for the long term. They proposed remedying this through constitutional reform, namely involving environmental organisations to represent environmental interests. In ‘The Green State’, the Australian author Robyn Eckersley attempted to establish how the State’s action could be reformed to integrate the signals and information sent by natural ecosystems.

One of the last books of this galaxy was written by John Barry, Green city councillor in Northern Ireland and professor of political sciences at Queen’s University Belfast. Barry’s work is heavily influenced by his political experience which taught him that politics were what Max Weber called ‘a slow, powerful drilling through hard boards’. In his political engagement, Barry tried to identify at what point it became difficult to carry out reforms in an ecological or environmental sense. The error that we have perhaps committed, he believes, is that we focused too much on figuring out what would be a sustainable society and not enough on what was getting us caught up in current politics which are literally ‘unsustainable’.

Catatrophism, the involuntary accomplice of unsustainability

To a certain degree, Barry shares the analysis of the German political commentator Ingolfur Blühdorn who forged the concept of ‘politics of unsustainability’, according to which while most politicians insist on claiming their environmental concerns, they act to maintain the status quo because, deep down, their voters are secretly asking them for it. The voters want to be given the impression that governments are taking action, but in reality, they absolutely do not want them to take action and for it to have real implications on their way of life. It is a little similar to Saint Augustine’s maxim: Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet’. Blühdorn’s intellectual project is to describe this process and the disingenuous practices that accompany it. However, whereas Blühdorn affirms wanting to position himself in the descriptive field of discourse analysis, Barry intends to work on the causes and prescriptively examine the paths that lead away from these ‘unsustainable politics’.

Barry does not completely reject all the catastrophist literature that he jokingly advises to read with ‘either a razor blade and/or a bottle of whisky, or a religious book of one’s choice’. He lists an entire series of authors or reports that, from Lovelock to Monbiot, guarantee a more or less rapid global environmental collapse. However, he very strongly doubts their real ability to mobilise the masses. Sharing Tim Jackson’s diagnosis on the need to exit this era of growth, he agrees that we will not achieve this by presenting the positive vision of a better, more advanced society: ‘a society in which social innovation is just as important as technological innovation, where time is beginning to replace money and tangible products, where sufficiency replaces maximization and where economic security for all replaces unequally distributed growth’.

Catastrophism – as intelligible as he is, Barry is not a global warming sceptic, far from it – shares the same over-valuation of expert opinions which at worst can translate into what Gorz very early on called “expertocracy”, and at best detrimental de-politicisation of the environmental and ecological issue. The latter is found in particular among those who first trust in technical solutions to overcome the environmental crisis. This is the case of the English sociologist Anthony Giddens who supports the idea that Green parties are useless because the climate issue transcends the borders of parties. This may please social democrats (we know that Giddens was Tony Blair’s chief thinker), but that does not help solve the problem, quite the contrary! In fact, the first effect of depoliticising environmental issues is the prevention of debate on lifestyles and the types of society that will allow for the reduction of humanity’s overall carbon footprint. Above all, however, the major flaw in this message is that it locks us into policies of unsustainability, maintaining the myth of humanity’s power over nature. Barry underlines that, on the contrary, what humanity needs the most is to be aware of its vulnerability, of its radical dependence on ecological balances. Here is the first tie-down point with republicanism.

Vulnerability and citizenship

Those who remember their Latin humanities and the orations against Catiline by Cicéron, may remember the fear expressed by the speaker of seeing the republic disappear in favour of the hereditary Monarchy. The fear that haunts republicans is the end of a fragile republic, constantly threatened, both by the disengagement of its citizens (civic desertion) and by its external or internal enemies. For them, this perspective is tragic because only the republic allows for freedom to be exercised through politics. As the well-known republican Hannah Arendt passionately explained – it is by committing to public affairs as a citizen that a person truly assures his/her freedom. And when a person makes a choice of withdrawing from the public sphere, all of humanity is deprived of something crucial, even irreplaceable.

In Arendt’s eye, the 19th and 20th century, through the advent of mass societies, have brought into question an ideal citizen situation in classical antiquity, even if, in reality, it undoubtedly had nothing particularly democratic, at least in the way we understand democracy today. As the liberal thinker Benjamin Constant illustrated in 1819, freedom that is guaranteed by modern democracies, said to be representative and liberal, is the freedom not to meddle in politics, not to be bothered in one’s private sphere and especially for the capitalist, in one’s economic activities, by whatever public regulation it may be. Against this negative conception of freedom, Arendt asserted that the only true freedom is one that the human being creates in search of the common good, via political engagement: it is the freedom that we practice collectively.

“Freedom as non-domination”

In 1997 another Irish theorist renewed the republican tradition by giving freedom another non-civic definition, contrary to Arendt. For Philipp Pettit – whom Barry greatly claims to adhere to -, freedom must be defined as the absence of domination. This can indeed be realised by civic engagement but also through the existence of strong public goods (particularly teaching and social security) which ensure that individuals will not be dominated, by other individuals, the market or the state. After the awareness of fragility, Barry identifies the refusal of domination as another common point between republican tradition and political ecology. In this instance, Barry turns around the liberal ‘Green dictatorship’ argument used against environmentalists who wish to restrain consumerism and commodification of any kind. Is there no greater domination than that exerted by consumerism? Is the consumer’s freedom of choice a genuine freedom? Is it necessarily reductive? Green republicanism must, on the contrary, enable citizens to re-appropriate their life choice possibilities. It must be fundamentally pluralist: it must not defend a single norm of the good life and it is not the politician’s job to establish it, even if consumer choices are also social choices that go beyond individuals. Provided that they respect the demand for justice, several concepts of life can and must co-exist in an ecological society. A Green republican will of course promote lifestyles centred around sobriety (self-limitation), social and political participation. However, he or she would not impose it because that would mean contradicting the idea of freedom as the absence of domination.

Resilience and citizenship

The recognition of the vulnerability of human endeavours and oddly the recognition of political endeavours as the republic, also involves strengthening social participation. It is an idea that transition groups currently share: participation as a means of strengthening the ‘resilience’ of communities in crisis. In their eyes, the development of local links is beneficial, whether catastrophes occur or not. And that’s convenient, solidarity can (although not always) encourage not only social capital, but also political participation, in the life of democratic institutions. A republican can therefore only be happy about that.

However, still in the name of its refusal of domination, Green republicanism also rejects a communitarian approach that would outline the responsibilities of individuals with regards to the communities on which they depend. Communitarians (as advocates of political communitarianism, another major contemporary current of political theory) may also be tempted to impose a certain conception of what good living must be, as we see in certain calls from the degrowth movement to leave it for local communities to define – even democratically – the legitimate needs of their members. But, no more than liberalism, it would not be capable of ensuring the respect for freedom, understood as being the absence of domination.

Transitions and radical democracy

Having identified that our societies are held into policies of unsustainability, and, as it happens, in a conception of the unemancipated prosperity of the need for growth, Barry therefore maintains that republicanism – and its insistence on citizenship and non-domination – constitutes a much better theoretical framework than liberalism or communitarianism for helping us out of this hold. Barry suggests the implementation of a civic service (obligatory) to strengthen ecological citizenship. This service – that would go hand in hand with a universal allowance and/or income of citizenship – would involve providing various ecological and/or social tasks and could stretch over a year (after the studies) or over a few hours each week. It is one of the many specific paths that he suggests for showing, on an institutional basis, the republican values that would likely need to be strengthened with ecological policies.

Among these values, in addition to vulnerability and resilience, the Irish theorist rightly insists on the importance of historical awareness. A republican must know the history of the institution to which it is he/she is attached. This knowledge enables him or her to understand the threats that weigh upon it and to better combat them. It also helps to understand the society that the republic is serving. This knowledge is particularly useful in troubled times, such as we are experiencing at the beginning of the 21st century. The republican ideal is always more virulent at moments of crisis and historic change, as illustrated by the return of radical democracy in the ‘Occupy’ movement or in the ‘indignants’.

There remain (at least) two questions:

  1. How do we reconfigure the democratic institutions so that the flame of citizenship continues to burn?
  2. 2. How do we combine this question with the problem of economic and social inequality, if we consider with Pierre Rosanvallon that the lack of democratic participation is deeply interconnected with raising economic and social inequalities?

Out of these two issues, the advantage of Green republicanism is perhaps to reconnect an analysis of the current situation to a political tradition of more than 2000 years old and to do it by proposing a theoretical framework that makes it possible to integrate the ecological concern at the core of political and institutional debates.


This article was published in the last edition of the Journal of Etopia, the Belgian Greens French-speaking foundation. It is mainly inspired by John Barry’s excellent book The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability.



BARRY J., The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability: Human Flourishing in a Climate-Changed, Carbon Constrained World, Oxford University Press, 2012.
BLÜHDORN  I. and WELSH I., eds.,  The Politics of Unsustainability: Eco-Politics in the Post-Ecologist Era. London/New York: Routledge, 2008.
BOURG D., Vers une démocratie écologique : le citoyen, le savant et le politique, avec Kerry Whiteside, Seuil, La République des idées, Paris, 2010.
ECKERSLEY R.,  The Green State: Rethinking Democracy and Sovereignty. MIT Press, Cambrigde, 2004.
FRANKLAND E. G. & LUCARDIE P & RIHOUX B. (eds.), Green Parties in Transition: The End of Grass-Roots Democracy?, Ashgate, Surrey, 2008.
GORZ A.,  Political Ecology: Expertocracy versus Self-Limitation, New Left Review I/202, November-December 1993.
ROSANVALLON P., La société des égaux, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 2011.

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.