The hegemony in environmental theory, has for sometime been, that environmental sustainability is most likely to be achieved through democracy. More recently, with the rise to prominence of deliberative democracy, within democratic theory and practice, the current hegemony in environmental theory is that not just any form of democracy will achieve environmental goals, but participation in public debate, as this will encourage participants to offer public reasons, commensurate with common goods like environmental sustainability. However, this connection must be empirically tested in deliberative decision-making. The empirical evidence linking deliberative democracy with sustainability is inconclusive. Significantly, most of the evidence that supports the link is from instances of unpartisan deliberation that is not linked to decision making. Essential to the idea of deliberative democracy is that it involves public debate that leads to binding decisions and, therefore, if instances of democratic deliberation do not culminate in more sustainable decisions then we must be sceptical as to whether environmental sustainability and deliberative democracy can be synthesised. In which case, we must conclude that there is nothing specifically environmental about democracy, deliberative or otherwise, because democracy is a set of procedures for making decisions, while environmental sustainability is a substantive issue. The empirical evidence is clearly inconclusive, and more is required, especially from instances of deliberative discussion that culminates in binding decisions. Consequently, this article will review deliberative democracy in practice to investigate whether this instance leads to more environmentally rational preferences, amongst the participants, and more sustainable decisions. The case study is the Stanage Forum, the purpose of which was to produce an effective Management Plan, through the participation of all key stakeholders, for the North Lees Estate, an area in the Peak District, a national park in the UK. It provides a suitable case study because the decision-making structure, in the Stanage Forum, approximates the norms of deliberative democracy, and environmental issues are at the heart of the conflicts in the North Lees Estate. This conflict derives from a tension between recreational use, cultural, economic and environment concerns, however, the Forum aims to build consensus upon a Management Plan, through facilitating the participation of the conflicting stakeholders in dialogue. This is not to say that this one case study can make amends for this lack of empirical research, only that such empirical studies are essential to a genuine understanding of deliberative democracy and its implications.
Published in Political Reflection Magazine Vol. 3 No. 4