Needless to say, we want the structural transformation of modern – highly unsustainable – societies towards sustainability to be organised in a democratic fashion: expertocratic or even authoritarian approaches are entirely unacceptable! But then, what can we say about the sustainability of democracy – how sustainable is democracy and are democratic structures really capable of managing the sustainability crisis?

The question as to whether democracy itself is sustainable has been discussed ever since the ‘crisis theories’ of the 1970s. At the turn of the 1990s, Fukuyama’s thesis on the end of history suggested it is the best and final form of political organisation. However, more recently the proliferation of political cynicism, diminishing trust in democratic institutions and lively debates about the coming of post-democracy or even post-politics have suggested otherwise.

Much less debated is the second dimension: early suggestions, made in the wake of the Club of Rome’s ‘Limits to Growth’ report, that the scarcity of resources would render the adoption of eco-authoritarian policies a necessity for human survival,have been robustly refuted. Yet the issue as to whether democratic systems are really capable of effectively addressing the sustainability crisis remains unresolved. With the powerful re-emergence of the finiteness-of-resources issue and the post-growth economy; with the irritating metamorphosis of democracy; with the post-political belief in science, technology and the market; and with new radical uncertainty about what exactly sustainability may mean, this question has become more urgent than ever.

Sustainability from below?

Since the emancipatory social movements of the 1970s and 1980s forced environmental issues on to political agendas, the assumption that ecology and democracy are inextricably linked has become deeply entrenched. Political ecologists, in particular, have argued that liberation of the environment and the empowerment of citizens are two sides of the same coin, and have engaged in a struggle for radical democratisation even in established democracies. Disempowerment of political and economic elites and the devolution of power to the citizen were proposed as the best way to secure both ecological integrity and civic self-determination. But from the mid-1980s, the ecological modernisation paradigm gradually depoliticised ecological issues. As political tactics and ideological obstructions were perceived as blocking the effectiveness of environmental policy, technology-focused, market-based and managerial approaches became incrementally dominant. Yet, for all their undeniable achievements, these ecological modernisation strategies have so far been unable to bring about anything like the profound structural transformations required if internationalised consumer society is ever to become sustainable. Solutions are required that are much more radical.

Thus, true to the tradition of the emancipatory social movements, many observers are calling for a bottom-up renewal of environmental policy. In line with the more general reaction against the rule of so-called systemic imperatives, the proliferation of expertocratic governance and the assertion that “there is no alternative”, they insist that the remodelling of industrial society can only work if driven by an engaged, active and empowered citizenry. As the transformation of sustainability necessitates profound changes in value preferences, lifestyles and societal practices, the argument is that the project needs to be designed and controlled by the citizens – a project people perceive as their own and can identify with. Interestingly, such demands for the reinstatement of genuine democracy and the re-empowerment of the legitimate democratic sovereign, the people, are currently being articulated across the full ideological spectrum.

Alternative niche-cultures certainly do exist. But how confident should we be that empowering democratic citizenry will really move contemporary society closer to sustainability?

Of course, the radical criticism of depoliticisation and expert rule is perfectly well justified. No structural change to the established order of unsustainability can ever be expected from those who confine themselves to stimulating ever-new cycles of techno?managerial innovation, economic growth and mass consumption. Political ecologists and Green Parties were once very clear that ecological change needs cultural change – and hence profound political change. Yet, the old beliefs that more democracy will promote more sustainability – and that at the grass roots of consumer societies new values, lifestyles and social infrastructures that might provide the basis for democratic transition towards sustainability are already emerging – seem rather untenable today. Alternative niche-cultures certainly do exist. But how confident should we be that empowering democratic citizenry will really move contemporary society closer to sustainability? What can participatory democratic approaches achieve? How are the conditions of contemporary modernity reconfiguring democracy?

Democracy and sustainability

Doubts about the feasibility of democratic solutions to the sustainability crisis have commonly been fended off with warnings that those who raise them are probably sympathetic to authoritarian approaches. However, this logic ignores two important points. First, in addition to the participatory-democratic and the expertocratic-authoritarian solutions to the sustainability crisis, there is a third option: that of non-solution, i.e. a politics of unsustainabilitythat seeks to sustain the status quo and manage its unpleasant implications for as long as possible. Second, democracy – a concept that can be and has been interpreted in a variety of very different ways – can be just as much part of the problem as part of the solution. And there is evidence to suggest that under the particular conditions of modern consumer society, democracy may indeed be assuming a shape that is geared more towards stabilising than radically changing the unsustainable status quo.

Of course, doubts about democracy’s capacity to deal with environmental problems are not new. It has often been pointed out that democracy is anthropocentric and has limited potential to represent that which has no political voice. Electoral democracy is strongly fixated on the present and structurally inclined to discount the interests of future generations. Democratic procedures are both time- and resource-consuming and thus inappropriate whenever fast and decisive action is necessary. Democracy aligns politics with the electoral majority, even though the majority’s preferences – such as, for example, the addiction to car or air travel ? are rarely sensible in terms of sustainability. Democratic systems are hard pushed to generate majorities for policies that burden citizens with costs or restrictions mainly for the benefit of people in distant parts of the world and for something as abstract as biodiversity or global climate. And, perhaps most importantly, democracy is always emancipatory, which has mainly been seen to imply the enhancement of (individual) rights and (material) living conditions. It is not really suited to restricting the rights or material conditions affecting the majority – unless the benefits are immediately tangible.

All these concerns have been articulated by eco-political sceptics of democracy for a long time – and robustly refuted by their emancipatory-libertarian counterparts. Yet, the ongoing process of modernisation keeps chipping away at the very foundations of the ecologist defence of democracy:

  • The pluralisation of social values and individual lifestyles, reinforced by migration and multiculturalism, diversifies social needs and perceptions of (eco-)political priorities.
  • National governments, even if democratically elected, are no longer in control, politically; under new governance patterns, the state is just one of several actors.
  • A range of functional subsystems – most notably the economy, science and the media – have evolved well beyond the boundaries of the nation-state and thus beyond the control of any democratic electorate.
  • Environmental issues are increasingly global, complex and abstract; they are becoming less directly tangible for citizens being measured, framed and communicated mainly by scientific experts.
  • The ecological footprint of modern lifestyles (and consumption patterns) extends ever further beyond a particular national territory thus invalidating the democratic principle of congruence between the authors of political decisions and those affected by them.
  • The acceleration of change, the flexibilisation of social norms, and the shift towards consumption-based lifestyles not only reinforce democracy’s fixation with the present, but make unsustainability itself a core characteristic of prevalent ideals of identity and patterns of self-realisation.

The new self-understanding demanded by the modern economy, preferred by today’s individuals and enforced by the so-called ‘activating state’, is fundamentally unsustainable.

 Identity and emancipation

Unsurprisingly, therefore, suspicions about the eco-political failure of liberal democracy have recently re-emerged. No doubt, critique of the democratic deficit goes on too, as do the demands to reinstate authentic democracy. Yet, concerns about insurmountable deficits in democracy itself are becoming stronger, as is the belief that the particular conditions of advanced modern societies top-down approaches to eco-politics may, after all, be more effective. For example, Anthony Giddens regards the commitment of social movements and the Green parties to participatory democracy as outdated. He advocates an “active interventionist state” as the all-important eco-political actor and calls for the depoliticisation of climate policy. Given the factual fixation of all national governments (as well as the EU) on economic liberalisation and growth, any such reincarnations of Plato’s philosopher-king seem rather implausible. But reversely, democratisation can only be seen as a suitable means for ecological ends if citizens are perceived as the subject of an ecological reason sharply contrasting with the ruling logic of unsustainability as represented by the established authorities. And any democratic optimism loses its foundations if emancipation, rather than being understood as liberation from the alienating and destructive logic of productivism, is seen as the realisation of ever-more individualised freedom and choice, ever-more flexibility and, in particular, increasingly consumerist lifestyles.

With his notion of “liquid modernity”, Zygmunt Bauman captured the fact that in advanced Western societies, the bourgeois-modernist ideal of a unitary individual identity that matures throughout a person’s lifetime has been supplemented by the intrinsically contradictory ideal of a multiple, fragmented and flexible identity. These are not only imperatives of the modern labour market, but also appear to open up new options for a richer experience of life and more personal fulfilment. Accordingly, modern citizens have made their identity norms more complex, flexible, innovative and tolerant towards intrinsic contradictions.

This shift is important for the prospect of a democratically organised restructuring of modern society towards sustainability. As mentioned above, the new self-understanding demanded by the modern economy, preferred by today’s individuals and enforced by the so-called ‘activating state’, is fundamentally unsustainable in several respects. First, by definition it is flexible, fluid and volatile – in other words, not stable and sustained. Second, this new self-conception focuses very strongly on the present. Third, this contemporary ideal of identity relies strongly on consumption as its most important means of self-construction, self-expression and self-experience.

Contemporary citizens may well be ecologically informed and concerned but, crucially, the prevalent patterns of self-realisation and self-experience rely on the consumer market which, in turn, necessitates an ever-accelerating pace of resource-consumption. This shift towards the inherently unsustainable self has by no means fully replaced more traditional notions of identity. It is not equally prevalent in all social milieus and, factually, proliferating social inequality excludes major parts of society from this consumption-based self-realisation. But what is prevalent in the most entrepreneurial and pace-setting social milieus shapes the aspirations of others and, accordingly, what citizens will demand to see represented by democratic processes and institutions. The implications of this are dire for the vision of an emancipatory and democratically legitimised transition towards sustainability. In sociological terms, they may be summarised as follows:

Second-order or reflexive emancipation supersedes traditional or first-order emancipation. The latter may be understood as referring to the 1970s and 1980s, when increasingly self-confident citizens, seeing themselves as the subject of authentic reason, struggled for liberation from the guardianship of traditional elites and were determined to assume responsibility for the common good, which they aimed to negotiate and implement in participatory-democratic ways. Conversely, second-order or reflexive emancipation refers to a trend in evidence since the 1990s, entailing partial deliverance from the very responsibilities citizens had previously fought for enthusiastically. In particular, it seeks liberation from moral and intellectual overload and calls for reassessment of restrictive social or ecological imperatives. This second phase of the emancipatory project is closely aligned with the rise of liquid identity which, in addition to promoting unsustainability, also undermines the very foundations of democracy.

From the citizen’s perspective, these shifts lead to frustration with existing democratic institutions and cynicism about democratic processes which invariably fail to organise, articulate and represent the complexity and dynamics of modern needs and identities. At the abstract level and in terms of citizens’ expectations of public bodies, democratic values remain fully in place, and indeed are being articulated ever-more vociferously. Yet in practice, democracy entails ever less of a guarantee, be it for the already marginalised or excluded (who are increasingly turning away from political engagement), or for those trying to use their available resources to secure personal advantage in an increasing struggle for opportunities.

Governing unsustainability

In light of these shifts, the sustainability of democracy itself may well become a problem, and democracy’s capacity to initiate a move towards sustainability may be permanently impaired. But political scientists have always praised democracy’s great flexibility and adaptability, drawing hope from its proven problem-solving capacity and ability to address its own faults reflexively.Indeed, although the social and cultural resources on which democracy has always been based have become dangerously depleted in the process of modernisation, the collapse of democracy predicted by some has yet to occur.

Even in countries like the UK, where the exhaustion of socio-cultural capital can be seen most dramatically, and where diagnosis of the “broken society” is widely debated, the basic structures of democracy remain intact. Yet, given the cultural shift outlined above, the reinstatement of authentic democracy frequently demanded by populist movements with various agendas is not that feasible. For in the wake of second-order emancipation, the structural limitations that have always existed are powerfully reinforced by new cultural limitations that essentially stifle all hopes for the profound value change necessary for any democratic transition to sustainability. Of course, none of this implies that expertocratic-authoritarian policy approaches are in any way more promising. Hence, it could be argued that despite its evident insufficiencies, democracy is still the best chance we have to address the challenges of the sustainability crisis.This is the eco-political reformulation of the old Churchill Hypothesis. However, this fails to recognise the extent to which the quality of democracy is quietly changing – and that for contemporary governments as well as most contemporary citizens sustainability means – above all – to sustain, at least for a little longer, a comfortable status quo and the logic that supports it.

Although the social and cultural resources on which democracy has always been based have become dangerously depleted in the process of modernisation, the collapse of democracy predicted by some has yet to occur.

In its classical understanding, democracy was perceived as emancipatory and egalitarian. At the limits of growth, it transmutes into a tool for the defence of established order. Whilst there is little evidence that democracy is suited to the implementation of sustainability, constraint and burden-sharing, there is plenty of evidence that democratic values are invoked by both the power-elites and the embattled middle classes to legitimise privileged lifestyles that can only be sustained at the cost of increasing social injustice and exclusion. This is most drastically visible in the United States, where neoliberal elites and the bottom-up Tea Party movement have joined forces to deny climate change, alarmed that it might “provide a rationale for the government to ‘intrude’ everywhere, curtail consumer choice and property rights, and increase the state’s size and surveillance”.But this also reverberates in Europe. In the UK, for example, the Conservative government’s “big society” project has appropriated the language of civil society and empowerment to orchestrate a massive austerity programme set to dramatically reinforce the already high level of social inequality and exclusion.

When the modernist normative foundations upon which it once rested have largely crumbled away, democracy may become the most powerful instrument for governing unsustainability. The narratives of those who simplistically rave about democratic empowerment, tacitly assuming that sustainability is still a structural change project, may, unintentionally, be contributing to this agenda. What is required is a much more detailed enquiry into this new reactionary democracy. This is both a theoretical and an empirical challenge to which the social sciences are only now beginning to face up.


Blühdorn, Ingolfur (2013) ‘The Governance of Unsustainability: Ecology and Democracy beyond the post-democratic turn’, in: Environmental Politics 22/1, pp. 16-36.

Blühdorn, Ingolfur (2013) Simulative Demokratie, Neue Politik nach der post-demokratischen Wende, Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Blühdorn, Ingolfur (2014) ‘Post-ecologist Governmentality: Post-Democracy, Post-Politics and the Politics of Unsustainability’, in: Wilson, Japhy/Swyngedouw, Erik (eds.) The Post-Political and its Discontents, Edinburgh University Press, pp.146-166.

The Green Democratic Reboot
The Green Democratic Reboot

This issue is structured around three principles categories: the Green understanding of democracy, Green foundations in Europe and concrete initiatives to promote active citizenship.

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