Environmentalism for Democracy: Catalyst or Inhibitor?

Does environmentalism strengthen or weaken democracy? This question is worth pondering for two reasons. First, in contemporary democracies, the environment has always been a salient issue on the political agenda. Second, in a democratic process, people are supposed to remain free to prioritise values other than the environment.

Think about cases in which people support the building of additional airport runways (for economic development), or in which they reject the ban on plastic shopping bags (for convenience or maintaining the status quo). Therefore, democracy can, in principle, deliver decisions which are contrary to environmentalism, and it appears that upholding environmentalism requires us to sacrifice democracy.

The above assertion is correct insofar as democracy and environmentalism can never be compatible, and this ultimately depends on how we understand both concepts. Despite its many definitions, democracy is widely recognised as a procedure for collective decisionmaking. Similarly to a computer system, a decision procedure consists of three components – input, process and output. Minimally, democracy requires that (1) such a procedure accepts all logically possible individual opinions as inputs (or ‘pluralism’); and that (2) these inputs be processed by a mechanism which does not overrule any consensus among individuals (or ‘consensus preservation’).

Arguably, the two conditions are necessary for democracy. ‘Pluralism’ realises the principle of democratic inclusiveness, where no input should be rejected from consideration unless they are self-contradictory (or they are themselves logically inconsistent). ‘Consensus preservation’, on the other hand, specifies that democracy should at least respect and preserve any unanimous opinions. Suppose a group of council members who are to decide democratically whether plastic shopping bags should be banned. If all of them accept the ban, then such acceptance follows for the collective decision. Conversely, if all of them reject the ban, then the collective decision is rejection instead.

Published in Political Reflection Magazine Vol. 3 No. 4

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