Six years after his death, Benoît Lechat, co-founder of the Green European Journal and head of publications at Belgian green think tank Etopia, continues to enrich our society with his thinking. In his final works, Lechat stressed the need for a green democratic reboot that effectively combines democracy and ecology. Logically, this effort was to be led by European Green parties. But in order to succeed, Greens would first have to understand the fundamental shifts underway in society.
In the editorial to the summer 2014 edition of the Green European Journal, Lechat noted that: “Between 1980 and 2014, not only has the scale of the ecological problems dramatically expanded, but the social and anthropological conditions of political commitment have also been deeply transformed by the cultural evolution of our post-industrial societies.”1 Any proposals for the reform of current democratic institutions towards more sustainability and participation would need to take these structural changes into account.
In 2021, this lesson remains as relevant as ever. At a time when people increasingly question whether representative democracies can prevent or even simply cope with ecological crises, some environmentalist groups and thinkers (among these Franco-Swiss philosopher Dominique Bourg) are proposing reforms that would enable democracies to better respond to ecological constraints. Whatever the merit of these proposals, the contemporary political landscape and the legitimacy crisis afflicting democratic institutions show that it is no longer just a case of making democracy environmentally compatible; it is a case of saving it, full stop.
Today, awareness of environmental issues is undoubtedly growing. Many countries have seen successive climate marches and green debates playing out in the media, and even the business world is asking everyone to do their bit to save the planet. Yet the mainstream approach remains narrowly environmental, tending to look at the problem in terms of pollution and emissions. The question is only ever seen through the lens of stabilising the current system, never as a catalyst for transforming it. The gulf between experts and politicians on the one hand and the public on the other has been laid bare throughout the Covid-19 crisis, leading to further erosion of trust. The “expertocratic temptation” feared by Lechat has come to pass, forcing us to think about mechanisms that will stop it further taking root.
The question is only ever seen through the lens of stabilising the current system, never as a catalyst for transforming it.
There are many facets to democracy’s current crisis. But do they really share common roots with the ecological crisis? As Lechat highlighted in his history of Belgium’s French-speaking Green party,2 methods of consultation established in the 1970s and 1980s to prevent polluting industrial projects resulted in cumbersome administrative processes that tie up a significant amount of resources within environmental and social activist groups. The result is an “environmental bureaucracy” that is unable to fully address the causes of problems. What is more, these same processes can be used against the pursuit of environmental policies when, for example, local groups oppose the building of windfarms.
Social and environmental consultation processes overlap and, at times, conflict. And even though politicians seem unbound by the constraints of consultation, the fragmentation of political representation makes negotiations fiendishly complex. This in turn bolsters the impression of a political world that is both incapable of governing and out of touch with social realities.
This illustrates the importance of using political sociology to understand these obstacles: “We must ask ourselves the question: how are the social dynamics in place in our societies not actually conducive to the political dynamics that the Greens would like to create to meet their objectives?”3 For Greens, then, the following question arises: how can we be politically effective? By winning majorities, sure – but to do what?
Towards ecological democracy
Lechat explained that radical democracy must be a priority for Greens on the path to a sustainable society. Democracy will of course remain a system for debate between humans, the best way to “oppose one another without slaughtering one another”.4 But unlike modernity’s early ideologies such as socialism and liberalism, peace under ecological democracy will not be built at the expense of future generations, ecosystems, and non-humans. Nor will it make the environment a trade-off for traditional policies. Instead, it will make institutions green and ensure their decentralisation. It is not about giving the vote to animals or unborn children but about building democratic systems that better incorporate the signals nature sends us and the impact of our actions on future conditions for life.
In the move towards ecological democracy, three priorities emerge. First, environmental politics must strengthen local participation – an act of decentralisation – in implementing more ambitious plans for ecological transition – an act of centralisation. This implies strengthening democracy at every level by creating public spaces for debate that inform decision-making processes. Each of these decentralising processes must be built on the dynamism of public spaces energised by a pluralist media which favours debate and analysis over sensationalism and controversy. The work of democracy is inseparable from that of strengthening genuine public spaces, from the local to the European.
Ecological democracy will not happen without the creation of a socio-environmental state that addresses inequalities while pushing the logic of the state further.
Second, this democratic rebirth cannot happen without tackling the cultural question – a point that Lechat emphasised repeatedly in his contributions to the Belgian progressive magazine La Revue Nouvelle. Since the late 1980s, there has been a disconnect within the institutional and political reform agendas of Green parties between their environmental and cultural projects. But the ecological transformation must mobilise all of society, including its educational and cultural resources. It is not just a matter of technical, political, or economic choices, but of generating civic and social dynamics. “Culture is the ability of a society to act on itself by changing its social representations.”5 Transition, therefore, also depends on cultural policies that unlock the history, creativity, artistic expression, and social cohesion of places and people.
Lastly, ecological democracy will not happen without the creation of a socio-environmental state that addresses inequalities while pushing the logic of the state further. The productivism shared by the neoliberal, social-democratic, and Marxist traditions “rests on the belief that the growth of productive forces is essential to the resolution of conflicts inherent in society”.6 Rather than clinging to the conviction that policies can satisfy everyone, the ecological transition should be institutionalised through a new conception of democracy that widens participation. For there is no social ecology without a movement for democracy and a post-materialist and cosmopolitan redefinition of solidarity.
In each of these cases, the meeting of expert knowledge and democratic deliberation is essential to prevent the drift towards an expertocracy that would only be rejected by ever-wider sections of society. The handling of the pandemic has alerted us to these growing dangers. Faced with the long-term climate crisis, our institutions must change.
1 Benoît Lechat (2014). “From a Green Reboot of Democracy to a Democratic Reboot of the Greens”. Green European Journal. 1 August 2014.
2 Benoît Lechat (2014). Ecolo, la démocratie comme projet. Namur: Etopia.
3 Benoît Lechat (2014). “A Climate for Change”. Green European Journal. 1 November 2014.
4 Marcel Mauss (1950). “Essai sur le don”. Sociologie et Anthropologie, 1950, pp. 143-279.
5 Benoît Lechat and Jonathan Piron (2021). Ecolo, l’écologie de l’action politique. Namur: Etopia.
6 Benoît Lechat (2014). “A Speech by Benoît Lechat”. Green European Journal. 21 August 2014.