Conjuring Sustainable Futures: Between Hands Tied and the Invisible Hand – Two New Research Papers on the Future of Climate Change Governance

The ongoing dilemma of democratic decision making consists of constant navigation between the laissez faire approach and top-down regulation. Both of these constellations of policy reform suffer from inherent deficits in meaningful participation. At their extremes, these approaches can lead either to the predominance of the ‘invisible hand’ or leave the hands of decision makers and their constituents tied by overregulation.

Professor Dale Jamieson, in his presentation for our 41st Käte Hamburger Lecture, offered a poignant view on the ability of democratic systems to solve the global climate crisis. Pointing to the ubiquity of the rhetoric of democracy around the issue of climate change, Professor Jamieson problematized the presupposition that this system of governance is somehow inherently effective in addressing the problem. ‘What I want to claim today’, he began, ‘is that democracy actually is not good at solving problems. What democracy is good at is managing chronic conditions – so democracy is good for managing climate change, but not good for solving problems to which it gives rise’.

The Centre has recently published two research papers which engage with issues around climate change governance in a vital era of flux. Both papers focus precisely on understanding the shortcomings in the realms of both democratic governance and policy making, and seek creative – and often uncomfortable – solutions aimed at addressing climate change while conjuring a sustainable future.

Umberto Mario Sconfienza’s paper, ‘The “New” Environmental Narratives and the Resurgence of Old Debates’, aims at exploring the narratives of climate governance that inform states’ problem solving approaches. Sconfienza highlights three dominant narratives that imagine quite different responses. Environmental authoritarianism, ecomodernism, and degrowth invoke varying degrees of democratic pragmatism and imply diverse conceptions of the borders of democratic action. Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn’s paper, ‘Conjuring a Cooler World? Blockchains, Imaginaries and the Legitimacy of Climate Governance’, addresses the state of emerging blockchain technology and its ability to make real and positive changes in the domain of climate change. Implicit in the argument are ideas of the role of governing bodies in regulating and deploying these technologies and the consequences they may have on collective and individual experience.

Sconfienza’s exploration of Environmental Authoritarianism focuses on the example of China and echoes Professor Jamieson’s assertion that ‘the great skill of democratic political leaders is to win elections – the great skill of democratic political leaders is not to be administratively competent’. The structure of Chinese governance, conversely, is purportedly designed in such a way as to put those in charge of decision making who are the most competent administrators. The polis is, in a way, removed from the equation. Environmental authoritarianism has the advantage of not being beholden to the opinions those governed; decision making can be done quickly and responsively. However, this mode of governance suffers obviously from a lack of accountability and the tendency to impose draconian measures with little oversight and no mechanism to evaluate or sanction the government’s actions. ‘China,’ writes Sconfienza, ‘remains insulated from major problems of legitimacy for the time being. However, continues Sconfienza, ‘the more a country modernizes and grows, both in complexity and economically, the more it becomes contentious that value issues could be settled by bureaucrats in government offices and away from the population’ (10). In fact, ‘China is already witnessing social unrest over pollution, especially in cities where more affluent people live’ (10).

The ecomodernism narrative focuses on the capacity for new technologies to aid in addressing the issue of climate change. Sconfienza notes that this narrative ‘is most in continuity with the [classic] narrative of sustainability’ (12), but that its internal mechanisms are in danger of repeating and promoting a neoliberal and capitalist agenda aimed at technological advancement for the sake of market gains rather than for the sake of improved sustainability in solving environmental problems. Again, the polis is sidelined – this time, however, after engaging in the democratic election process. The weakness here would therefore be those actors themselves. It is up to the polis to elect competent administrators, a flawed procedure that can easily have less than desirable results.

The narrative of degrowth involves a major societal shift. According to Sconfienza, degrowth scholars ‘take issue with the market economy in its totality and argue that there is a systemic crisis centred on the capitalist imperative of growth which has several ramifications: inequality, political capture, a crisis of meaning, and environmental degradation’ (9). In distinction to the previous two narratives, degrowth promotes a philosophy which questions long-standing notions of progress. In this narrative, a great deal of rethinking is required: rethinking our definition of progress, of growth per se. The polis here is intimately involved with changes and would be integral to making lasting adjustments. Sconfienza relates a great deal of resistance to this movement coming from the systems that ‘have now been impressed on everyone’s consciousness through at least half a century of liberal and neo-liberal indoctrination’ (8).

To augment his exploration of these new narratives, Sconfienza also traces the old debates over the limits to growth and technological innovations. Narratives like degrowth have been seen as incompatible with the established western lifestyle, for example, and environmental authoritarianism presents to the western democratic tradition an ugly and undesirable forfeiture of individual rights.

Sconfienza’s concluding remarks on ‘democracy’s transformative potential’ (20) echo Jamieson’s appraisal, in that they express the necessity for a new constellation of the sustainability narrative that would not fall victim to the failings inherent in democratic decision making. ‘[Sustainable development] has become too recognizable a “brand” for being disposed of already’, writes Sconfienza, ‘post-sustainability politics, having finally grown out of its enchantment for the idea that hard sciences could solve soft-value questions, will require making difficult choices over the normative disagreements which have resurrected these old debates’ (21).


In its focus on technology, Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn’s paper resonates with the narrative of ecomodernism described by Sconfienza, including the generalized scepticism of the tendency for technological advancements to become bundled up with a neo-liberal constellation focused on market growth.

Blockchain is inherently a financial experiment which derives a great deal of influence from its ability to trace expenditures and to evaluate how and where money is being spent. According to some, blockchain technology is also able to track ‘compliance with treaties and automatically release incentives, such as tax credits, once certain targets are met’ (20). Campbell-Verduyn describes what he calls ‘the ongoing blockchainization of the Paris Agreement’, which can be seen in a certain light as a force for good in providing ‘incremental improvements to existing forms of market-led climate governance’ (5). Blockchain technology provides valuable tools which can help understand, for example, how green infrastructure is developing, or offer a comparative analysis of expenditure on green initiatives. The technology, however risks falling into the realm of ‘techno-fixes’, that is, it risks missing the problem altogether in favour of technological advancement for its own sake.

Profit-seeking through blockchainization is difficult to separate from initiatives which honestly aim to make a green difference in environmental governance and policy making. ‘These technology-centred projects distract from possibilities of integrating wider input through collectivistic imaginaries. They are also entangled in a second element of shared individualistic visions materializing in climate finance experiments with this set of technologies’ (18). In a way, blockchain is the most recent manifestation of the invisible hand of the market. The danger here is that highly intentional and directed decision making is outsourced to market forces, implying a balance of power in climate policy that heavily favours those actors who already possess financial influence. Governments and their constituents have therefore very little say in what measures are actually taken to combat climate change.

Blockchain does offer a solution to some of the limitations of democracy centered around legitimacy and popular consent. As Jamieson put it, ‘popular sovereignty is increasingly difficult to maintain in large mass societies in which government is complex and increasingly seen as far from the citizens’. Insofar as these issues are circumvented by the regulatory features of blockchain, some of the obstacles posed by the need for changes to be made only with the consent of the governed can be overcome.

It is clear that blockchain instantiates what Sconfienza might describe as a furtherance of the liberal and neo-liberal indoctrination which has both led to the climate crises and exacerbated debates around how best to address it. Together, the papers of Sconfienza and Cambell-Verduyn serve as in-depth explorations of the problems described by Dale Jamieson in his lecture on the limitations of democracy to ‘solve climate change’. The issues and real-life examples explored in the papers seek not to provide an answer to the question of how to conjure a sustainable future, but rather problematize the core paradox of democratic governance and policy making. How should societies strike a balance between technocratic pragmatism and meaningful participation in the realm of climate change reform?

Andrew Costigan

This article was slightly amended on 25 May 2021.