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Representing Nature and Contemporary Democracy
By Jean-Paul Gagnon Posted in Conversation on March 14, 2021 0 Comments 36 min read
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Representing Nature and Contemporary Democracy

[This conversation was originally published by Democratic Theory (vol 1, issue 2, pp. 94-108) in 2014. The most distinct memory I have of the discussion on the whole was the time we spent focusing on just how difficult it is to talk to other people, to break into different enclaves, not because they don’t want to talk to us but because we, as academics, seem so far removed from them. I suppose the only thing we can do is to keep trying to talk to as many others and as often as possible in respectful and critical ways to generate more and different focus on matters of ecology and democracy.]

Editors’ introduction to the interview: Modern environmentalism, whose genesis tracks mainly from the 1960s and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), has forced the anthropocentric emphasis of democracy to account.
Nonhuman actors like trees, ecological systems, and the climate have increasingly become anthropomorphized by humans representing these actors in politics. Aside from challenges to the anthropocentric concepts of
citizenship, political representation, agency, and boundaries in democratic
theory, environmentalism has warned of apocalyptic crises. This drives a
different kind of challenge to mainly liberal democracies. Scientists and activists are becoming increasingly fed up with the seeming incompetence,
slowness, and idiocy of politicians, interest groups, and electors. Eyes start
to wander to that clean, well-kempt, and fast-acting gentleman called authoritarianism. The perfect shallowness of his appearance mesmerizes like a medusa those that would usually avoid him. Serfdom increasingly looks like a palpable trade-off to keep the “green” apocalypses at bay. Democracy’s only answer to this challenge is to evolve into a cleverer version of itself.

Keywords: climate, critical political ecology, democracy, democratic theory, nature, nonhuman others, representation

Gagnon: How do you define democracy?

Eckersley: Democracy, both as an ideal and a practice, is riddled with tensions and problems, and there is no general agreement on how it should
be defined. Take, for example, the very simple definition of democracy as
“self-rule”—as I think this gets at the respect for individual autonomy that lies at the heart of the ideas of popular control of government or popular sovereignty (rule by the people). But even this basic idea is question begging
when we ask, “Who is the ‘self’ of self-rule”, “Who are the people?” or “Who decides who are the people?” Immediately we confront the great paradox in democratic theory and practice, which is that the questions “Who are the people?” or “What should be the boundaries of the democratic community or demos?” cannot be resolved democratically, because the question presupposes the existence of the very thing that needs to be determined, namely, a bounded demos. So the question “who are the people” for the purposes of self-rule is one that democracy cannot decide. In most cases, the boundaries of states have been determined through force and conquest rather than via the consent of all affected.

Gagnon: What do you think of the idea of trying to break apart the circularity of identifying the self, the community, and the citizenry by seeking a program, for example in Australia, of multiple referenda and consensus- building activities for the citizenry to define itself ?

Eckersley: If we start with actually existing democracy, including the existing laws that determine who are “the people” and the territory over
which they may rule, then we can immediately start to question the idea
that democracy should be “containerised” in this way, that is, allowed to
operate in a totally self-contained way. This is because decisions made by the people’s elected representatives within the demos will often have
significant effects on others beyond the demos in ways that impair their
self-rule. So let’s think of other ways to think about how to constitute the demos. Instead of the traditional membership-based approach, we can think about an affectedness-based approach. That is, whoever is affected
by a particular policy ought to have the right to participate in the demos as if they were a member, otherwise the autonomy of the demos may be achieved at the expense of others living beyond the demos. However,
this approach also has its own boundary problems. For example, who determines the threshold of affectedness? Nonetheless, it is possible to graft an affectedness-based approach on top of a member-based one in ways that minimise the weaknesses of each. For example, decisions that involve major, transboundary spillover effects could be managed by cross-border referenda among the “affected catchment.” So both approaches have their problems, but once you acknowledge them you can be quite creative in minimising their weaknesses and playing to their respective strengths. Once you recognize the democratically arbitrary nature of political borders, which are becoming increasingly arbitrary in a globalized world, then you open up the possibility of creative democratic experimentation.

Let’s return to the virtues and limitations of a member-based approach. For republicans, communitarians and liberal nationalists, the social bonds of community are vital for a well-functioning democracy. Members stand in a horizontal relationship toward each other vis-à-vis the state. The state is merely the servant and the people the master; the ultimate source of sovereignty. This, in turn, presupposes some degree of common language, culture and national identity to enable meaningful communication in the public sphere, and a willingness on the part of citizens to protect their fellow citizens by supporting social security systems through the payment of taxes, and being prepared to fight in the name of the country. Theorists like David Miller will say that’s essential for any viable democratic polity. There is something in those arguments. Yet societies are becoming increasingly multicultural and we can no longer assume the existence of common loyalties. We have to learn to negotiate differences within the community and between communities. We also need to acknowledge a huge range of spillover problems. This is a challenge, but it becomes less of a challenge when we acknowledge the arbitrariness of boundaries.

Gagnon: What is representation in your philosophy?

Eckersley: Representation means making present that which is absent or not sufficiently present and/or recognised. This includes people making claims, ie., making representations, to others about what they think is important, what should be recognized (or not), how things should be understood, and what should be done. So representation is a thoroughly
discursive process. People commonly think of representation as electing
someone (their local member) to represent them in the legislature. And that’s certainly one type of representation. But it extends to any situation
where the claimant speaks on behalf of something or someone. Of course, those who represent others will never have the same degree of knowledge of others that others have of themselves, nor will they necessarily have the same degree of motivation to press their case. So there is an unavoidable knowledge and motivation deficit built into the very task of A speaking for B, whether as a delegate or a trustee. But as Michael Saward (e.g. 2010) has shown in his work on representative claim making, representation takes place whenever a claimant makes a claim about someone or something to others.

Gagnon: Although we touched on this a little bit at the beginning with the
mention of the demos, how do you construct the citizenry?

Eckersley: Again, I think ultimately through discursive representation. Political discourses on who is a citizen, or who is a subject or alien, or who
doesn’t count, has clearly changed through time. It’s also a question that is linked to the boundary problem because conventionally we think of citizens as those people who have citizenship papers. Yet this is a positivist definition, not a normative account of who ought to be accepted as a citizen. For example, indigenous Australians were not even counted in the national census up until the 1967 constitutional referendum. And they weren’t even recognized as a civilised people worthy of citizenship when the British arrived in Australia in the 1770s. Indigenous peoples were seen as no different from the flora and fauna, which provided the pretext for annexing Australia as terra nullius. This brings us back to the boundary problem—in this case, the boundary between those who matter and those who do not. According to the Christian “hierarchy of creation,” we have God sitting at the apex, followed by man, woman, indigenous peoples, animals, plants, insects, and so forth. This hierarchy legitimated restricting the franchise to male property owners. However, following social struggles, the franchise was extended to working class men, then women. The next, and most daring, adventure of liberalism has been to extend certain rights (not citizenship) to animals (usually mammals) by analogy with humans. Yet in many non-western cultures, animals are considered part of the community,” or ecosystems, or “the land.” In general they are understood as part of the “self.” And new thinking in environmental philosophy, and more recently the ecological humanities, is now questioning the ontological and ethical boundaries between humans and non-human others in all sorts of interesting ways. What this ultimately means for democracy and citizenship remains an open question, but I suspect it will go a lot further than the idea of animal rights. Many humans lack the capacity to function as fully active citizens, but they are nonetheless considered part of the community and their own forms of agency are recognised and respected. It is therefore not a particularly big step to say that we should also recognise the unique forms of agency of other beings and entities, and therefore recognise the representations that are made on their behalf by those who can function as active citizens.

Gagnon: I ran into this point back in 2012 in my work with the then Aboriginal Embassy in Musgrave Park (Brisbane, Australia). Some Aboriginal leaders from the Gurumpil Goori Nation argue that the demos of Australia is ersatz—that it’s merely a façade of colonial power. It’s a construct that was placed by the conquistadors of Australia in the 1770s onward onto the rightful owners of the land. Do you think that a demos in Australia would only be possible if it came from the sovereignty of Aboriginal peoples?

Eckersley: Australia was founded on conquest, not consent, on the basis of the myth of terra nullius, and this was followed by a horrible history of genocide and subjugation. This must never be forgotten. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are the original inhabitants of this continent and its neighboring islands. Yet nor can we avoid the fact that Australia is now a multicultural society, and there are many migrants who, despite gaining formal citizenship, don’t quite feel they belong. That is, they don’t feel that they have enough of the attributes that belong to those who are white and belong to what Ghassan Hage has called “the national aristocracy.” The colonial legacy’s still alive and well, but it’s not just experienced by indigenous Australians now. We had an interesting public event in 2011 at the University of Melbourne that was called “An Indigenous Welcome to Asylum Seekers,” and I thought that was a really wonderful title. In contrast to the Australian government, at this forum representatives of the original custodians of the land warmly opened their arms and welcomed asylum seekers.

Gagnon: Hopefully we can have more movements politically to that effect and to that end of the spectrum. And not just in Australia but also in the other colonized countries in this world. Could you describe how representation has been affected by one or more “green” movements?

Eckersley: If you take a broad understanding of representation as making
present that which is absent (or not sufficiently present or recognised), then there are many existing and well-known environmental non-government organizations (NGOs) and movements that have done just that through their advocacy and activities in the public sphere and through the media. Think of Greenpeace positioning their little rubber dinghies between the harpoon and the whale. These representations have been caught on tape and beamed into people’s living rooms in ways that make present the plight of the whales. Other activists have chained themselves to trees, filmed the clubbing of baby harp seals or the conditions of animals in factory farms, or have exposed extinction rates or biodiversity loss by positioning themselves in a place where they can bring these problems to the attention of mainly urban dwellers whose lives are remote and insulated from the lives and plight of these nonhuman others. They are making representations not only visually, but also engaging in advocacy on behalf of those who cannot represent themselves politically. Indeed, since the 1960s, environmental advocacy has become a permanent part of the political agenda. It has not always been effective, since most environmental problems are growing rather than shrinking but they would be a lot worse than they are now if it were not for such representations.

Opponents of the environment movement like to recast environmental claims in terms of a zero-sum game: that more environmental protection
means less economic growth and less human welfare, and that environmentalists are therefore misanthropic and a threat to human progress. How often have we seen opponents try to drive a wedge between
jobs and environment, or people versus pandas, and so forth? Yet my view is that most environmental claims are merely seeking to make room for nonhuman others while also highlighting the inextricable interdependencies between human wellbeing and healthy, diverse and resilient ecosystems. This requires a new reconciliation. Just as there needs
to be a reconciliation between those who stole indigenous land and those who were stolen from, grounded in a recognition of the history of wrongful
dispossession of indigenous people of their land, there also needs to be a reconciliation between human communities and the nonhuman others so that the latter are not dispossessed and exterminated. This entails replacing the arrogant and self-serving hierarchy of being, as discussed above, with a recognition and celebration of both the extraordinary variety of human cultures and the extraordinary variety of nonhuman lifeforms, each of which have their own forms of “species being” that may be incommensurable with our own.

Gagnon: Thus, a more ethical, moral, and “better” teleology for politics?

Eckersley: That goes back to your first question on how I conceptualize democracy. There is no ethically neutral democracy— there is only a “prefix
democracy”. What do I mean by that? It all depends on the prefix or adjective that we put before the word democracy. We have liberal democracy, we have direct democracy, we have representative democracy, we have social democracy, and we have worker’s democracy. All of these different adjectives give a particular colour, purpose, and set of procedures to democracy, as well as a particular ontology and a particular fi eld of ethical possibilities. Without a prefix or adjective, democracy is merely a floating signifier, waiting to be pinned down. And if it’s not there you smuggle one in anyway. I think that the idea of democracy as purely procedure (and therefore lacking in a particular ethical orientation) is complete bunkum. The idea of modern liberal democracy cannot make any sense at all without the prior ethical recognition that all human beings have
inherent dignity and worth and that no human being is worth any more than any other human being. If you didn’t have that ethical prescription then you would have no need of democracy, or you would have a different
democracy to contemporary liberal democracy since you’d have no justification for the idea of one person, one vote. Instead, you could restrict voting rights to a certain class (the propertied class), gender (men) or certain groups (such as slaves), and the history of democracy is littered
with such examples. The expansion of the franchise was driven by fundamental shifts in social relations and social norms, which changed the
face of democracy.

Yet this shift to a more “humanistic democracy” may not be the end of the story. As I have intimated, there is another ethical shift underway towards ecological democracy or environmental democracy, which is one that recognizes the “rights” or entitlement of nonhuman others to exercise their own forms of agency and to flourish in their own ways. Building on this shift, an ecological democracy would need to make room for nonhuman
others. However, this cannot take the form of simply extending the franchise, since nonhuman others cannot represent themselves in the public sphere in the same way as humans. They depend on humans making representations on their behalf.

Gagnon: That’s a very useful analytic construct. Are there any palpable differences between your conception of representing nature—giving metaphoric voice to nature—and the place of nature or climate, for example, in other conceptions of democracy?

Eckersley: Yes. Conventional liberal democracy certainly allows people to make representative claims on behalf of nonhuman nature, but these claims must compete with conflicting claims and they are too often drowned out. Liberal democracy provides no constitutional guarantees
to protect nonhuman others like the civil and political rights that are guaranteed for citizens. This has prompted many green political theorists
to explore what kinds of procedural changes might substantiate a more ecology-centric framework rather than the purely anthropocentric-centric
framework. This is a major challenge and it presupposes the success of the political movement for the recognition of nonhuman others. So we haven’t even got to first base yet.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we’ve won recognition for nonhuman others. What would we do with that? Andrew Dobson (2010)
has suggested a form of proxy representation in parliament. I don’t go down that path because it would be a fraught process to determine who
should serve as proxies, and how many there should be. Imagine one vote for every species! That would place humans in a tiny minority. In any event, I think there are much simpler and more parsimonious ways of “representing” nonhuman nature, and that is simply to lengthen the time horizon of decision making. That is, the longer the time horizon in which you think about public policy the more the interest of nonhuman others and humans (both present and especially future generations) begin to coalesce given the mutual dependencies of human and nonhuman life
on healthy, diverse and resilience ecosystems. These dependencies disappear in, for example, the short-term development battles to save a bit of forest versus a logging industry—there’s obviously going to be a tradeoff. One side’s going to lose out. I’ve always argued the case for simple decision rules like the precautionary principle. According to this rule, where there are risks of irreversible or serious environmental damage, which includes species extinction or climate change, then the lack of full scientific certainty about those risks is not a reason for postponing anticipatory action. Rather, early steps should be taken to reduce the risks of serious or irreversible environmental change.

If you could constitutionally entrench the precautionary principle or otherwise ensure that it is systematically applied as a decision rule or filter
in public policy making, then we would be gearing up towards a genuinely
ecologically sustainable economy and society. You could therefore claim that this rule can serve as a form of proxy representation for future generations of humans and nonhuman others, and broader ecosystems as well.

There are many other procedural innovations that would enable more
systematic representation of nonhuman others, such as well-funded environmental defender’s offices or independently funded committees or
commissions for the future that conduct and disseminate research and play an advocacy role. Constitutional reform is another option, such as in Ecuador, where the constitution was amended to give rights to the Pachamama [Mother World, a goddess revered by certain indigenous nations of the Andes regions in Latin America] or nature, which has a right
to persist and regenerate itself over time and to evolve as it always has. The Ecuadorian constitution gives every person in Ecuador the right to ensure that the rights of the Pachamama are actually upheld. If there are developments or decisions made, then individuals can bring legal action.
Now there’s an interesting idea!

We can also invent new “legal fictions.” As Christopher Stone (2010)
pointed out in his famous essay, “Should trees have standing?”, corporations have legal standing and that’s a legal fiction. So there is no reason we cannot devise new legal fictions that give legal standing to nonhuman entities as another means of enabling a more systematic representation of their interests.

Gagnon: This is all very interesting. I didn’t [at the time of this interview]
know about the positive turn in Ecuadorian public law.

Eckersley: Most countries have environmental provisions now in their
constitution, but mostly they’re procedural rights—which are important—
like the right to environmental information, the right to participate in environmental impact assessment and the right to third-party standing in environmental disputes. And all the classic civil and political rights are absolutely essential to environmental democracy: freedom of speech, association, movement, and freedom to stand for office are some of them. The new procedural innovations we have been discussing all ride on the back of that achievement. But here we are also talking about new substantive rights and not just new procedural rights. The all-encompassing
entity called Pachamama in Ecuador has been given a constitutional standing—not just regular, common, or garden-variety legislative standing.

Gagnon: We’ve covered a few ways as to how nature or the climate or species can play an active role in other practices of democracy besides representations. We’ve mentioned public law, Dobson’s conception of proxy
representation…

Eckersley: That was really just an idea he offered in the course of a much
longer argument; people have probably given it more oxygen than it deserves or perhaps than he would want.

Gagnon: Are there other ways that nature has manifested itself beside representation? Has it in some way improved the equality of deliberation,
for example, or expectations, participation, or inclusivity—things to that
extent?

Eckersley: Of course, “nature” manifests itself all the time, and sometime quite spectacularly, such as by way of a great storm, or disaster or rising sea levels or what have you. How we humans interpret such manifestations is, of course, an interesting question. We don’t have access to “nature” other than through human language and discourse. Indeed, the new discourse of the anthropocene suggests that humans have influenced planetary ecosystems to such an extent that we can no longer talk about an “independent” nature. So while there is an extradiscursive reality beyond the human world, we humans don’t have access to it other than through our discourses (scientific, religious, economic, political, vernacular, etc.). So it’s discourses all the way down if we are talking about collective or intersubjective understandings about nonhuman nature. The virtue of deliberation is that we get to publicly test and evaluate these discourses, make judgements about them and decide how to weigh them if they come into conflict. More generally, I think the environmental movement has enriched public discourses in prompting a rethink about the meaning of development, progress, prosperity and our responsibilities to nonhuman others. It has exposed the many risks associated with a globalised, neoliberal society and suggested alternative paths to human and nonhuman wellbeing. The environmental justice movement has also problematized the misdistribution of economic benefits and environmental risks within and between societies. Some of these revelations have been explosive. Why is it that most of the toxic sites in the United States are in black neighborhoods? What does that tell us? Distributionally, those that are least causally responsible for environmental problems are usually the worst affected. Around the world we see this in climate change and many other environmental problems.

So it needs to be acknowledged that the environmental movement has not only sought to challenge and stretch liberal democracy but also enrich and enliven it in its own terms in recent decades. And in the world of scholarship, a lot of the new theoretical and empirical work in democratic
theory on deliberation has focussed on environmental issues. For example, the so-called “empirical turn” in deliberative democratic theory has focused on deliberative microcosms such as citizen juries, consensus conferences, deliberative polling, and environmental issues (such as climate change, or the release of genetically modified organisms) have featured heavily in this work. And in international environmental law we see new work emerging on juristic environmental democracy. There’s a recent book by Walter Baber and Robert Bartlett out called Global Democracy and Sustainable Jurisprudence (2009) that develops an idea of juristic democracy whereby a whole lot of hypothetical environmental cases and conflicts are put to the citizen juries to resolve. Those decisions are all brought together in a legal restatement, which are available as a resource for international judges when dealing with real conflicts.

The shift towards thinking about a “democracy of the affected,” rather than a democracy of members or citizens, has taken concrete form in the Aarhus Convention, signed mainly by European countries in 1998, which gives citizens in any of the member countries the same rights as citizens in any other countries where there is a major environmental issue that has transboundary consequences that affect them. So, for example, if Belgium is building a nuclear reactor near the border of France, French citizens would have the same rights as Belgian citizens to raise questions, participate in environmental impact assessments, question the minister or bring third-party legal rights against developers and so forth. This is a bold new experiment in environmental democracy that I think is really quite exciting.

Gagnon: I completely agree. I’m wondering how is it that trees, a river, or a bird, for example, can have metaphorical political voice? Although you don’t want to include them as part of the citizenry, could they, in effect,
be considered part of the citizenry—again through some metaphors?

Eckersley: Well, certainly in some cultures of the world they are. Some Papuans live with their pigs—indeed, they sleep with them. They are not
just part of the community; they are part of the family. Indeed, the same can be said for westerners and their domestic pets. There are different cultures, like Native Americans and indigenous Australians, where they connect to country in very profound ways. Indeed, we all live in “mixed communities,” often with fuzzy boundaries, made up of human and non-human life forms, plus inanimate objects, and many aspects of this hybrid community can form part of our identity. We can use the metaphor of citizens to describe the nonhuman beings in this community but the term “member” seems less problematic, and it need not rule out political representation. I’m tempted to use the “trustee-ward” analogy here; that is, humans act as trustees of those members of the community that are not equipped to function as fully fledged citizens or otherwise speak for themselves. Admittedly, this can sound horribly paternalistic. We know that not all guardians listen to their wards (in the case of children). This is why it is important to keep alive a robust debate about who guards the guardians. As critics point out, the difference between an ecological guardian or nature advocate and a regular political representative is that the political representative can be voted out of office by their constituency.

My only solution to this problem is to make sure that the representative
claims of guardians or nature advocates are always open to scrutiny
and challenge in the public sphere. They have to answer to others—including other types of nature advocates who have a diff erent view of what nature’s interests are and how they should be represented, and those
who don’t think they should be represented at all. Advocates have to engage and defend. That’s all part of the cut and thrust of democratic politics. There is a monitory role that needs to be played not just among environmentalists, but also by developers and governments, by everyone
against environmentalists. Nobody has unique access to the truth—if there is ever such a thing. The best we can get is a consensus theory of truth, a provisional understanding of what climate science tells us, of what ecologists tell us generally about biodiversity loss, because these are testable forms of knowledge that should be able to withstand public scrutiny or undergo correction in response to good criticism. We have to
keep adjusting that in response to new argument, new discovery, new
experience and so forth.

Gagnon: How do nature activists broker between science on the one hand
(this “truth device”) and politics on the other (the seemingly perpetual “lying device”)?

Eckersley: When you are acting as a nature advocate you have to do a lot
of knowledge brokerage, particularly in the case of complex and abstract
problems like climate change. When you’ve got a foul pollution spill, media pictures say all that needs to be said. People are mortified by it. But there are a lot of ecological problems that are not like that—they are not palpable. Instead, there are long and complex chains of causation, which produces uncertainty and unpredictability regarding the timing and severity of impacts on diff erent regions and timescales. And climate change is of course the classic case. This makes it essay for the conservative side of politics to engage in the strategic “mobilisation of ignorance” in the form of climate denialism and scepticism. This cannot be answered by simply quoting more science. The science has to be translated into a comprehensible narrative that connects with people’s daily lives and what is valuable to them. At the same time, scientists aren’t always the font of all wisdom about all environmental problems at the local scale. There are a lot of people that work and interact with environments on a daily basis. Like people who are fishers or farmers and so forth. Vernacular and indigenous knowledge can also be very important.

I think you need a kind of ethnoscience where you bring together different ways of knowing about nature in an eff ort of reconciliation. When people identify so strongly with the environments in which they work, the degradation of that could be a loss of identity. That needs to be brought into the story, too. You need to find ways of bringing the vernacular in with the very technical and abstract at the same time. Sometimes they can complement each other in beautiful ways. Sometimes they can sail past each other. You have to grapple with that. You might have a premodern
and a thoroughly modern and then postmodern understanding of an issue trying to reconcile with each other—and that is not easy. It seems to me that there’s no other way of grappling with this challenge than through dialogue and mutual respect. We can all talk about the weather because we experience it on a daily basis. But climate isn’t the weather. Climate refers to long-term patterns in weather that can change over much longer periods. And just because you have a wet season or dry season in this particular period doesn’t mean anything. It has to accumulate over time for you to be able to make a serious comment about the climate.

These are tricky problems in thinking about how we “give voice” to nature. We can anthropomorphize individual members of a population of a species, but we also need to think of systems and wholes: the nitrogen cycle, the carbon cycle, the oceans, the atmosphere, and their relations to each other. These are things that we need to protect for our collective self-interest. To be able to engage in that knowledge brokerage from the very abstract to the very palpable everyday understanding of what in the hell is going on is a real challenge, which, of course, is preyed upon and exploited mercilessly by the climate deniers.

Gagnon: You have touched on this next question already, but I think it’s
one that deserves to be asked. Do you think the “green” or environmental
movements around the world have sparked a new age of civic engagements, and if so, could we argue that environmentalism has in some ways made the world more democratic?

Eckersley: I’m going to give an annoying answer, which is yes and no. I think it’s safe to argue that the rise of civic environmentalism since the 1960s has helped to regenerate democracy. At the same time it’s become
professionalized and a little hackneyed. Everything now seems clichéd.
People are tired of it because it doesn’t seem to go away. There are, conversely, some folk that are so concerned about the looming climate crisis
that they are reprising the limits to the growth debates of the early 1970s
and saying that “liberal democracy is not capable of responding to this,
we need an authoritarian government. We need ecoauthoritarianism or
ecodictatorship.” As William Ophuls (1973) said, we need “Leviathan or
oblivion.” This is a rather disturbing new development but it does not have wide support. Curiously, it is more common among frustrated scientists than environmental activists.

The scientists keep saying, “Do the politicians understand that the atmosphere is not going to hang around and wait for you to get this right?
We have a rapidly diminishing window of opportunity here to make a real difference and that’s about five to ten years. If you don’t do something then we’ll be closing the gate after the horse has bolted.” That leads to huge frustration. People then say that China’s more likely to do something than the United States because it’s not democratic. I don’t think that’s very helpful myself, since we have to learn by doing and that requires openness to criticism and the ongoing adjustment of policy settings, goals and mechanisms that democracies allow. But I think that we need to acknowledge the frustration, because liberal democracies are very bad at being able to develop a common purpose. They acknowledge pluralism. This is healthy. For us all to get into some “green groupthink” is the next road to serfdom. A good democrat ought to see that as a problem. Whereas the concern of environmentalists, who are wringing their hands, is, “How on earth can liberal democracy steer us in a concerted way toward a solution?” Many have argued for a kind of war effort–type response involving sacrifices to deal with a megaproblem that threatens human civilisation. Politicians say, “Sorry that’s not going to help me win my seat in the next election. I have to deal with the local issues here!”

Gagnon: Maybe there is an answer to that. What are the directions that you see for the praxes of environmental democracy? Is there a way of solving this problem? Will it be authoritarianism, or do we just have to be a hell of a lot more clever with the way we do democracy?

Eckersley: I think the latter. I think the broader quest for sustainability is a very open-ended and uncertain one. It’s a lot easier to say with some confidence that which is unsustainable. It’s a lot harder to say with any real confidence that which is genuinely sustainable. We have to be more clever. It really has to start with the reinvigoration of the public sphere or spheres. The problem, however, is that public spheres have increasingly fragmented into echo chambers for like-minded people. This is partly to blame for the increasing political polarization and “culture wars” that we see around environmental issues, particularly in Australia and the US. We’re not very good at talking across difference anymore. What we need to do is to find more clever ways of trying to join up all these little tiny echo chambers, these miniature public spheres. Businessmen just look at stock markets and read Business Review Weekly. Environmentalists only read environmental magazines, blogs, and websites. There’s very little connection; they’re just firing past each other.

The big challenge is to develop a larger collective conversation about the nature of the really big environmental problems that affect us all and a larger collective conversation about how to respond. This entails navigating two significant layers of complexity: one is the science and the other is a very complicated policy-wonky conversation about policy mechanisms such as carbon trading, taxes, subsidies, regulation, government procurement policies and so forth. It is not helpful to highlight the problem at the expense of a properly calibrated policy response. Otherwise, you get this huge cognitive dissonance where people talk up the problem and then say that all you have to do is change your light bulb. This was the great problem with Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth. A great film and then the credits rolled, with advice on what individuals could do. The list was so pathetic relative to the problem that had just been revealed that many people thought “Huh?” Some countries have moved much further along this track than others. In Germany, they don’t debate the science because it is accepted. They have passed first base. They are on second base, debating how to refine their policy settings. Australia, like a number of other countries, is still struggling to get to first base.

Whether the new social media can facilitate the necessary knowledge
brokerage we’ve been discussing is not clear. I’m not the right person to say since I don’t even have a Facebook page. Climate documentaries can be powerful but how many people watch them? Mostly just the converted. An independent and diverse media is clearly crucial but we also need more creative communication across a wide range of different media. Maybe we need climate scientists to come together with specialists in climate justice and cultural studies, environmentalists and good film makers and media-savvy folk to experiment with a range of different media and communication forms and styles and so forth. Climate change is a major communication challenge, and that’s where we need to focus in the lead up to the negotiations for a new treaty in 2015.

Robyn Eckersley is professor and head of political science at the University of Melbourne. She has published widely in the intersecting fields of political theory (especially environmental political theory and democratic theory), global environmental politics, and international relations theory, including in journals such as Political Studies, European Journal of International Relations, Review of International Studies, Ethics and International Affairs, and Global Environmental Politics. Her latest coauthored books are (with M. Bukovansky, I. Clark, R. Price, C. Reus-Smit and N. Wheller), Special Responsibilities: Global Problems and American Power (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and (with P. Christoff ) Globalization and the Environment (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013).

REFERENCES

Baber, Walter, and Robert Bartlett. 2009. Global Democracy and Sustainable Jurisprudence: Deliberative Environmental Law. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Miffl in Harcourt.

Dobson, Andrew. 2010. “Democracy and Nature: Speaking and Listening.” Political Studies 58 (4): 752–768.

Hage, Ghassan. 2000. White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. New York: Routledge, in association with Pluto Press.

Ophuls, William. 1973. “Leviathan or Oblivion?” Pp. 215–230 in Toward a Steady- State Economy, ed. Herman Daly. San Francisco: Freeman.

Saward, Michael. 2010. The Representative Claim. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stone, Christopher. 2010. Should Trees Have Standing? 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

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