Modern representative democracy is not conducive to handling environmental challenges. Ecology requires new political institutions capable of tackling long-term concerns, claims Dominique Bourg, in an interview by Julien Bonnet.
Julien Bonnet: Political ecology emerged in the 70s, but, up until now, seems to have little traction in large democracies where short-term interests and individual gratification seem to prevail. Are ecology and democracy fundamentally incompatible?
Dominique Bourg: It is true that there’s some degree of incompatibility between ecology and our democracies as they operate today. I see two reasons for it. Firstly, the very mechanism of elective representation: our elected officials are regularly held accountable to voters, giving voters the ultimate power to act as judges and try their actions. The elected thus turn to the citizenry’s immediate awareness: each of us is considered the best judge of his or her own situation, in terms of social burden, sense of well-being, and economic satisfaction. But environmental issues aren’t picked up by the senses or citizens’ “immediate awareness”. We perceive day-to-day changes in the weather, but are oblivious to average temperature variations over the long-term, or the increased scarcity of global resources. It is therefore difficult for the electoral process to take environmental issues into account: they are too abstract and distant.
Secondly, there is a problem in terms of the end goal. Representative government, as it arose at the end of the 18th century in the writings of modern writers such as Benjamin Constant, is supposed to keep government interventions in check while protecting individual rights. For modern philosophers, the government’s function is rather to contribute to the maximisation of individual interests and facilitate trade between nations. This very individualistic and economic conception was relevant in a world where the growth of production and consumption had no discernible limits. Today, however, in a world of finite resources, where human activity threatens the ecological equilibrium, this conception is obsolete…
Does this mean that ecology might require a minimalistically authoritarian framework, a “benevolent dictatorship”? For example, Hans Jonas suggests creating an election-independent Council of Wise Men to ensure that our political choices do not jeopardise future generations…
Indeed, Mr. H. Jonas has advocated for a “benevolent and well informed tyranny”, a reformulation of Plato’s “Nocturnal Council”, operating in secrecy, free of any form of control and electoral constraints. His idea was to build an Assembly of Wise Men with the salvation of the world in their hands. In my opinion, this idea isn’t going to work, simply: isolated, behind closed doors, the “Council of Wise Men” would dramatically cut itself off from the people and generate violence, internally (among the sages), and externally, in society at large where the Council would quickly become very unpopular. Thus, ecology can only and truly move forward within a democratic framework. In my opinion, authoritarianism is the alternative threat on our democracies if these problems worsen and aren’t taken care of quickly.
The idea of a “Council of Wise Men” ensuring the well-being of future generations could also find its place in a democratic framework, could it not? For example, following the model of the French Constitutional Council or the US Supreme Court. Would you then be favourable to the idea?
On this model, Pierre Rosanvallon has suggested a “Future’s Academy” composed of scientists, philosophers, and community representatives. The downside of this type of institution is that it has no electoral legitimacy, which, in my opinion, limits their power.
That said, electoral legitimacy inevitably leads to partisan politics, the logic of which is incompatible with environmental advocacy. Next to this kind of institution, I would recommend setting up an upper house including a creative designation method. In a representative system, the upper house was traditionally designed to protect the interests of the past and those bound for long-term horizons: it is based on heredity or on longer-lasting mandates than those belonging to the lower house. The upper house generally leans toward status quo and tradition.
Ecology can only and truly move forward within a democratic framework. In my opinion, authoritarianism is the alternative threat on our democracies if these problems worsen and aren’t taken care of quickly.
Meanwhile, the present is duly represented by the lower house of modern government. The lower house employs short-term mandates that make elected officials reluctant to make risky political changes, that would mainly benefit future constituents. The past and the present aside, the future is modern representation’s biggest loser.
As a result, I would propose putting the upper house in charge of guarding the future instead of the past. The upper house would benefit from some form of representation and would have veto power over any law issued from the lower house.
Generally speaking, according to you, the ecological problem requires institutional overhaul…
In addition to operating off of short-term electoral cycles, modern institutions were built to protect local and national territories, while environmental issues typically cross borders and have no boundaries. Modern institutions must therefore be expanded to face up to new challenges. For example, as P. Rosanvallon, I posit that we need to renew and rethink the state’s role in safekeeping patrimonies. In the last decades, this primary function – to ensure the existence of a national community in the face of potential enemies – has experienced a singular extension: the nation’s present and future well-being is now threatened by human control over the biosphere including its underlying mechanisms. As a result, a new challenge begets the state’s responsibility: anticipating and preventing future and irreversible degradations, even if it implies severe constraints to the present.
The past and the present aside, the future is modern representation’s biggest loser.
Besides a long-term upper house, what other mechanisms would an ecological democracy have to rely on?
We would need a mixed system including new institutions in charge of sustainable development. The mechanisms of participatory democracy and deliberative democracy are good means by which to improve the representative system. The first approach allows for efficient citizen participation on punctual decisions upstream. However, unlike elected officials in the ‘representative’ system, citizens can inform public decisions independently because they are not accountable to anyone. The absence of a mandate fosters detachment from vested interests. Deliberative democracy, which actively involves NGO representatives and public policy experts, promotes environmental advocacy in the face of pressing economic and social challenges. NGOs acquire more legitimacy in the extent that they operate internationally and within territories defined by environmental issues. They offer direct contact with widely dispersed populations as well as significant expertise in the field of ecology.
Participatory democracy is traditionally resorted to at the local level: citizen juries, neighbourhood budget votes… How should participatory democracy be used to address global issues, such as environmental protection?
An international Citizens’ Conference has already taken place. On September 26th 2009 there was a Global Consultation on climate change in which 4,000 citizens from 38 countries participated. The cry for action was consistent across countries: developed, developing, and emerging. By consensus, they were in favour of greenhouse gas emissions reductions in all nations (to varying degrees depending on the country’s level of development) and of sanctions for noncompliance. It is therefore possible to bring panels of people from different countries together on the same topic. As the legitimacy of civil society is strong in the public eye, the recommendations produced out of these participatory procedures can be useful checks to decisions coming from traditional institutions.
Still, deliberation on environmental issues requires a minimum amount of knowledge on the part of constituents. As environmental issues tend to be very technical, we are seeing experts and scientists hijack the public debate. How can this be avoided?
My position is clear: citizens are not to act as experts in the collection and creation of data. On the topic of creationism or climate scepticism, it isn’t normal that individuals, who are not involved in the development of scientific knowledge by a worldwide community of thousands of researchers, allow themselves to use the media to summarily dismiss that community’s findings. Data collection should be left to specialists and the peer-review evaluation system. Once scientific data is on the table – the IPPCC’s role is precisely to provide data for public debate – it is crucial that constituents are then consulted to make policy decisions based on the facts brought by scientists.
Deliberative democracy, which actively involves NGO representatives and public policy experts, promotes environmental advocacy in the face of pressing economic and social challenges.
Understood, but how can you ask constituents to make decisions on issues for which they lack the scientific training to make sound judgment calls?
Democracy requires adequate instruction. On the one hand, the press has an important role to play in democratising scientific knowledge in the public arena. On the other, when participatory mechanisms are solicited to address punctual debates, providing technical training on the themes that require deliberation is entirely feasible.
Finally, going back to the international level: you seem to trust States despite the fact that in Copenhagen they were unable to reach a collective decision on global issues…
The financial and economic crisis has clearly demonstrated that the State is the only authority that can preserve and promote the general interest. The State keeps an eye on the hierarchy of ends and prevents any one part of society from exploiting another for its own benefit. As a guarantor of the common interest, and as an institution close enough to its constituents, the State remains essential. However, as most environmental problems aren’t confined by borders – river pollution spreads from one nation to the other and the atmosphere is global – supranational institutions need to be developed and strengthened.
The example of the European Union is interesting and, in my opinion, the Commission has been effective on numerous environmental matters. As we enter the 21st century, the EU regulates the various air pollutants and hazardous chemicals that contaminate our environment. It avails directives that protect migratory species, manages the quality of inland and coastal waters… This type of supranational organisation demonstrates that it is possible to limit national sovereignty in certain areas.
This article was originally published in the French magazine Sciences Humaines.