Democratising Sustainability Transformations? Review and Conceptual Framework

Are democracies able to organize an encompassing societal transformation? The wish-list of advocates for environmental governance has been there for decades, but to the surprise of many, the Covid-19 pandemic finally provided - and is still providing - proof of democracies' astonishing capabilities in implementing far-reaching regulatory interventions over time. In light of sustainability concepts on the agenda of the international community more than ever before, it makes sense to ask whether democratic governance is up to the task, and if it is able to shape a transformation perse or in an inclusive manner. A group of researchers, among them the Centre's Senior Fellow Ayşem Mert, has now published findings of an extensive review which connects two bodies of literature, 'sustainability transformations' and the 'democracy-environment nexus'.

Transformative change in social-ecological systems is an encompassing process with the myriad interactions among actors, institutions and the material world. It is therefore not clear to what extent and granulation such a process should or could be controlled or centralised. It is exactly at the point where the concepts of 'ecological democracy' and 'eco-authoritarianism' seem to diverge. The authors state that questions of democracy and democratic legitimacy so far receive insufficient attention. In the literature about environmental politics, there is a longstanding debate on whether democracy is compatible with environmental sustainability; is institutional change necessary? Is information available and are accountability mechanisms implemented? If so, on what levels?

The authors present an integrated framework for examining different configurations of democratisation and sustainability transformations. Providing a closer look into their associated prospects and pitfalls, the review focuses on five crucial societal drivers of sustainability transformations derived from the literature: 'institutional, social, economic, epistemic and technological transformations'.

Reflecting on the institutional aspect, the authors see the role of the state as having 'returned to the forefront of scholarship'. Proponents of ecological democracy ask for a shift towards decentralised, citizen-centred governance, but the key question is difficult to answer, as there is 'mixed evidence of a positive correlation between democratic status and environmental performance'. Civil society participation in global institutions is critically debated alongside the efficacy of a trend to include civil society actors in those deliberations. Whether persisting influence of industrial lobby groups is offset by this trend remains to be seen.

It is groups and individuals from civil society and the economic sector who, through both collaborative and confrontational interactions, have sought to change business practices through a variety of mechanisms, including corporate reporting, legislation, and shareholder activism.

The 'drivers' in this review often make impressive strides, it seems, when transparency and inclusive public debate is sought, which can be seen as an ingredient of a democratic system. Knowledge generation and dissemination therefore plays a crucial role for the efficiency of those 'drivers', elaborated in detail in the paragraph about 'epistemic transformations'. There seems to be a nexus between knowledge 'that is more responsive' and societal needs, which understandably supports public acceptance and inclusion. For that reason, epistemic pluralism is positively evaluated, since indigenous knowledge and critical theories contribute neglected insights and practices into a discourse purposed to find sustainable solutions. The authors also identify a call for stronger inclusion of social sciences and humanities in the science-policy interface: who would argue with that!

The aspects of economy and technology are quite overlapping but the discussion of an 'energy democracy' seems to be most illuminating. This body of literature is gaining increasing traction along with social movements also increasingly debating - and well versed in - knowledge about technologies and innovation. Here again, the review suggests that democratic aspects are visible in a focus on 'decentralized innovation and diffusion of sustainable technologies'.

The last milestone of the German Energiewende was a national 'Coal Commission', which reached agreement in late 2018 on the phasing-out of coal mining and coal-fired plants in Germany by 2038. Whereas civil society was represented in the commission, these representatives where clearly not satisfied with the result. Meanwhile - after roughly three years - this debate is currently about to change considerably. The lesson here might be this: democracy is better in the vision of innovation and change (for example: solar, wind, hydrogen) and less well positioned in cutting off old braids (such as coal). The authors touch on this subject. But a Schumpeterian dictum may also come to mind. Innovation consists of ‘creative’ and ‘destructive’ endeavours and it might be called the art of inclusive democratic governance to find ways to destruct the sector while caring for the incumbent workforce, if not those firms (which is about the transformation of big institutions and companies along the innovation path). This review provides a great deal of insight, while the authors have developed an instructive framework and a welcome reflection on the state of research.


Martin Wolf

Jonathan Pickering, Thomas Hickmann, Karin Bäckstrand, Agni Kalfagianni, Michael Bloomfield, Ayşem Mert, Hedda Ransan-Cooper, Alex Y. Loh

Democratising sustainability transformations: Assessing the transformative potential of democratic practices in environmental governance

Earth System Governance, ISSN: 2589-8116, Vol: 11, Page: 100131

Available online: 17 January 2022 (Review article, open access)