Michael A. Peters

We have every reason to think that whatever changes may take place in existing democratic machinery, they will be of a sort to make the interest of the public a more supreme guide and criterion of governmental activity, and to enable the public to form and manifest its purposes still more authoritatively. In this sense the cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy. –John Dewey (1927), The Public and Its Problems.

Environmental ecology, as it exists today, has barely begun to prefigure the generalised ecology that I advocate here, the aim of which will be to radically decentre social struggles and ways of coming into one’s own psyche … Ecology must stop being associated with the image of a small nature-loving minority. Ecology in my sense questions the whole of subjectivity and capitalistic power formations. –Felix Guattari (2000), The Three Ecologies.

Democracy, yet again

Donald Trump’s decision to quit the Paris agreement, a contemptible decision that does the US no good in term of moral leadership and one almost universally condemned by world leaders, raises the question about the structural capacity of democracy at the extra-state level to reach consensus or indeed to action decisions at a global level. Under the circumstances one wonders whether democracy is able to deliver ecological outcomes or whether in the stand-off between democracy and oil and gas capitalism that it has the power to harness and transform the energy sector. The fact is that modern representative democracy was never designed to handle environmental challenges and many scholars now seek the establishment of new global institutions that carries the mantle for intergenerational environmental problems based on evidence-based sustainability science. One set of anxieties revolve around whether democratic institutions based on deliberative forms of government have the power to set new environmental norms, to curb the transnational energy multinationals or to institute change quickly enough in order to avert environmental collapse.

There is some evidence that democratic values increasingly operate now at the global level and multi-stakeholder dialogues between civil society, NGOs, governments and world agencies are now more common, yet some critics doubt whether concepts of world democracy will ever be strong enough to reconcile either radical participatory politics and the world’s energy multinationals, or the climate deniers and the scientific mainstream consensus. Some scientists despair that green diplomacy perhaps best represented in the Paris agreement, where the French hosts acting in concert with many agencies engineered an agreement with 195 countries, can ever protect itself and its environmental policy decisions against the actions of authoritarian thumb-nosing and outright grand-standing on the basis of flimsy ‘America first’ sloganising.

Yet others talk of the longer term transformation of democratic culture aimed at producing green citizens committed to the principles of bioregionalism on the one hand and to principles of discursive democracy on the other, steadfast in their belief that deliberation is the appropriate space in which to change peoples’ habits, beliefs and actions.

Ecological democracy

The term ‘ecological democracy’ (ED) has been established in the literature for a couple of decades (Dryzek, 1992, 1997; Faber, 1998; Morrison, 1995; Ungaro, 2005), if not always in an explicit conceptual formulation. It is slowly evolving as a liberal notion that presupposes a link between democracy and ecology, sometimes cashed out in terms of ‘sustainable development’ or ‘green capitalism’ (‘green consumerism’) while emphasising that ED requires a form of grass-roots participation by citizens both individually and collectively. The exact nature of the link and the success and results of ED have been up for ongoing scrutiny and political scepticism. Both ‘ecology’ and ‘democracy’ are expansive concepts that have been refined and developed over the last couple of decades so it is not surprising that the links between these and cognate concepts are hard to pin down.

There has been a peak in the use of the concept with applications in a variety of settings. For example, an online journal based in India established in 2013 has adopted the name (http://ecologicaldemocracy.net) which it introduces in the following way:

The last century has seen many national movements successfully liberating countries from colonial rule. But since the last quarter of the twentieth century, we have witnessed world-wide schizophrenia in our ‘development’ policies. Global players like the US and European Union and arms of their economic hegemonies such as the World Bank and I.M.F. have forced governments to adopt policies which are resulted in a serious all round crisis, including an ecological crisis. On the other hand there is a multitude of UN Conferences on various dimensions of the ecological crisis. To understand this schizophrenia and to evolve policy frameworks to respond to this crisis from the ecological swaraaj perspective is the need of the hour. Our online journal http://www.ecologicaldemocracy.net is an effort to bring cohesion to the efforts of all who believe in the idea of ecological swaraaj [‘self-governance’ in Hindi].

The term ‘radical’ ecological democracy (RED) stands for degrowth policies, grassroots participation and has been used to demonstrate problems for existing democratic structures (Kothari, 2014; Mitchell, 2006). RED contributes to the search ‘for sustainable and equitable alternatives to the dominant economic development model’ that pursues the ‘goals of direct democracy, local and bioregional economies, cultural diversity, human well-being, and ecological resilience at the core of its vision’ (Kothari, 2014, p. 57). RED also maps on to the concept of ‘radical democracy’ developed by post-Marxist thinkers Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe starting in the early 1990s (Laclau, 1990; Laclau & Mouffe, 2001). One line of thought, which I support, has begun to map notions of ‘radical’ and ‘open’ on to overlapping concepts of democracy and environment through notions of collective subjectivity (Peters, 2002, 2013).

Hester (2010), in another example, outlines new principles for urban design that he calls Design for Ecological Democracy emphasising how ‘responsible freedom’ rests on respect and acknowledgement of an interconnectivity with all living things. Finally, an example- based on a workshop entitled ‘Ecological Democracy’ that was held at the University of Sydney 20–21 February 2017 that advertises itself in the following terms:

The role of democracy in the face of global environmental threats has been subject to intense scholarly debate over the past four decades. At times, ecological democracy has had a bright future ahead of it. Yet the ideal of ecological democracy continually faces challenges both to its conceptual foundations and to its practical realisation on national and global scales. This workshop will seek to focus on new considerations and directions for ecological democracy, while looking back to examine the impact and viability of its founding texts as well as empirical studies of the relationship between democracy and sustainability.

The wide-ranging workshop included sessions on: Foundations of Ecological Democracy; Rights, Institutions, and Deliberation; Democracy and the Nonhuman; Culture & Ecological Citizenship; Diversity, Culture and Democracy; Ecological Democracy and Indigenous Peoples; Resources, Democracy and the Local. A panel discussion ‘Ecological Democracy – Looking Back, Looking Forward’ chaired by David Schlosberg with Robyn Eckersley, Karin Bäckstrand and John Dryzek as discussants, examine the attempts at reconciliation between democracy and sustainability within environmental political thought including problems of “the representation of the nonhuman, the relationship between democracy and ecological ‘limits,’ and the design of ‘green’ states.” The note continues:

Since this first wave of scholarship [in 1980s and ‘90s] on ecological democracy, there have been numerous crucial developments that pose a range of challenges. On the environmental side, we have seen the acceleration of climate change, arguments for setting planetary boundaries around humanity’s environmental impacts, and widespread acknowledgement that the Earth has entered a new epoch: the Anthropocene. On the political side, we have had the growth of environmental and climate justice movements, the proliferation of institutions for global environmental governance, and the anti-environmental and post-truth era.

In short, the second wave of ED concerns the growth of political movements broadly embracing the concept of environmental justice in an attempt to counteract and address backsliding anti-environmentalism. The third wave of ED takes place in relation to President Trump’s anti-environmentalism, his withdrawal from the Paris agreement, his championing of world oil and gas, and cuts to the jurisdiction and budget of the Environmental Protection Agency. In this political environment, the future of environmental sustainability depends upon more radical forms of ED tied to notions of citizen science and forms of learning as activism.

Origins and possibilities

The concept and practices of ED have developed as part of a broader theoretical re-examination and conceptual development of ‘participatory,’ ‘strong,’ ‘discursive,’ ‘inclusive,’ ‘deliberative’ and ‘radical’ democracy (Barber, 1984; Dryzek, 2010; Ester, 1998; Gutmann & Thompson, 2002; Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Young, 2000, 2001). These diverse threads spring in part from attempts to revisit democracy after the rise of neoliberalism in the age of globalisation that hastened the decline of social democracy. Social democracy as part of the Keynesian post-war consensus developed an ideology based on the compromise between market and the State that supported the mixed economy and capitalism as the means of wealth generation and distribution that necessitated State intervention based on rights and equality of opportunity to correct the defective tendencies of the market towards increasing poverty and growing inequalities.

In effect, it was largely this attempted compromise that led to the first green social democracies and red–green coalitions in Germany under Gerhard Schroder (1998–2005), the ‘plural Left’ coalition in France (2012–2014), Lipponen’s first and second cabinet in Finland that included socialist and green members (1995–2002), Norway’s red–green coalition (2003–2013), with similar developments in Iceland, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and Portugal. Radical red–green alliances formed in the Netherlands (GreenLeft), Denmark (Unity List), Norway (Green Left Alliance), Italy (Left Ecology Freedom) and Greece (SYRIZA). There are also red/green political alliances and/or electoral agreements between social–democratic or liberal parties with green parties such as the Red–Green Alliance in Canada, Sweden and Italy.

After the demise of the Keynesian-based and the empirically discredited neoliberal variant of capitalism, the goal of transcending global capitalism seems far-fetched and Left parties—Far-Left and centrist socialist—began to question the basis for renewed social democratic appeal. Under the Third Way, social democracy capitulated to neoliberalism and thus compromised the green market solution and no growth policies. Under the rise of authoritarian populism in its first phase with Thatcher–Reagan and then most recently under Trump, working-class voters have been easily captured by anti-immigration far-right parties that promise to bring back industrial jobs at home.

The origins of green parties begin in the 1970s first in Australia and then Germany. By the 1980s and especially after Green Politics: The Global Promise (Spretnak & Capra, 1984), green agendas became more progressively tied to policy issues outside immediate ecological considerations.1 As Mendes (2015) notes the West German Green Party ‘founded in opposition to the guiding principles of the West German post-war consensus’ and their entrance into the Bundestag in 1983 marked a turning point in German parliamentary history but soon also reverted to traditions of political liberalisation with a mixture of classical elements of conservativism over conservation of resources. Jackson (2012, p. 593) suggests the Australian Greens, as a political organisation, are possibly following the transformation of European green parties moving from ‘a movement based party to a pragmatic parliamentary party.’ The question is where do green parties go after the Trump retrenchment of global oil & gas? Is there any legitimate resistance against neoliberalism and authoritarian populism that draws off the working-class vote?

Education for ED

Education has the possibility of bringing together two powerful concepts and international movements of ecology and local democracy that are needed to bring about the transformation of grass-roots civil society. This combination of ‘ecological democracy’ that rests on two fundamental principles—the freedom to participate in local society and our growing awareness of the interconnectedness of all living things. It also draws and encourages the development of new forms of green identity and citizenship.

Peters and González-Gaudiano (2008) observed the evolution of environmental education over three decades towards a new relation to identity struggle, new social movements and green citizenship.

During its thirty years of existence, despite having faced problems and diverse challenges from country to country, environmental education (EE) has acquired a certain influence over the design of educational and environmental public policies on an international level. Throughout these three decades, environmental education has contributed to the configuration of new ontological and epistemological proposals, as well as introducing practices that have become well-established and have made significant contributions to the strengthening of not only the environmental education field but educational processes in general. However, as EE became established a great variety of viewpoints were taken into account and elements incorporated not only from the widest variety of theoretical approaches and philosophical currents, but also from very different schools of thought and action, which established important articulations with complex social movements such as feminism, multiculturalism, peace, democracy, health, consumerism and human rights to mention but a few.

One definition of ED emphasises sustainability in action by emphasising a relationship between biological processes and political subjectivities of participatory democracy considered as a co-evolutionary strategy. Education for Ecological Democracy is based an alternative democratic model that strives to educate students about the norms and values of democracy-in-action and eventually incorporate them as interested citizens into environmental decision-making and collective action. ‘Ecological democracy’ is still a concept in the formative stage. In its radical form ‘it places the goals of direct democracy, local and bioregional economies, cultural diversity, human well-being, and ecological resilience at the core of its vision’ (Kothari, 2014). In educational theory and practice it is closely associated with the notion of deliberation that is considered central to consensus decision-making and majority rule. The principles of deliberative democracy are embraced for their educative power and pedagogical force in teaching secondary school students to reason in democratic for a about ecological issues. The deliberative nature of ED has a strong base in grassroots participation within civil society. In philosophical terms, it is indebted to Dewey’s (1916) Education and Democracy and more recently to Habermas (1984) theory of communicative rationality that proposes the ideal of a self-organising community of free and equal citizens, coordinating their collective affairs through their common reason. Free and open debate is a necessary condition for the legitimacy of democratic political decisions based on the exercise of ‘public reason’ rather than simply the aggregation of citizen preferences as with representative or direct democracy.

From its development in the 1980s and 1990s Green Political Theory or ecopolitics founded on the work of John Dryzek (1987), Robyn Eckersley (1992), Val Plumwood (1993) and Andrew Dobson (1980), participatory democracy has been viewed as a central pillar and key value, often associated with descriptions of decentralisation, grass-roots political decision-making and citizen participation, ‘strong democracy’ (Barber, 1984) and increasingly with conceptions of deliberative democracy. The value of participatory or grassroots democracy also seemed to gel with a new ecological awareness, non-violence and the concern for social justice. Green politics favoured participatory and more recently deliberative democracy because it provided a model for open debate, direct citizen involvement and emphasised grass-roots action over electoral politics.

Local government is often more democratic than any other level of government. At the same time it provides education for the practice of political education instructing children and others people in the art if decision-making that is sensitive to opinions based on local knowledge and on the representation of diverse political groupings and sub-state actors. It is especially appropriate in mobilising community to gain local support for ecological projects ensuring that power is widely dispersed while also encouraging people to rebuild democracy at the local level moving towards forms of self-organisation that can collect, analyse and monitor ecological data on the local environment while hooking up to larger global concerns.

In an era of authoritarian populism based on the echo-chamber of Twitter politics the only sure answer to Trump’s arrogance and world selfishness is to organise, to educate and to motivate the younger generation to take matters into their own hands, combining forms of learning with activism.


  1. The Origins of Green Parties In Global Perspective, at http://www.ghi-dc.org/fileadmin/user_upload/GHI_ Washington/Publications/Bulletin35/35.179.pdf.


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Michael A. Peters, University of Waikato michael.peters@waikato.ac.nz

Originally published at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00131857.2017.1339408



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