"Environmental movements don't resonate with the problems of ordinary citizens"

Interview with Robyn Eckersley on democratizing environmentalism

Robyn Eckersley, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor in Political Science at the University of Melbourne, Australia, is set to receive an Honorary Doctorate from Utrecht University during the Dies Natalis. In anticipation of her visit, we speak with her about her vision of a green democracy, exploring themes such as political representation of non-human entities, environmental elitism, and the global surge of far-right nationalist ideologies.

Portretfoto van Robyn Eckersley
Robyn Eckersley

You’ve advocated for the establishment of a ‘green democratic state’ as a crucial means of combatting ecological destruction. Can you explain what you mean by green democracy?

"Green democracy, or ecological democracy, is grounded in the basic insight that we are ecologically interdependent. Humans cannot flourish if the rest of the natural environment doesn’t flourish. And so, we have a responsibility toward ourselves and nature, now and in the future.

My research on ecological democracy confronts a paradox: how can it be that environmental movements, standards and multilateral cooperation agreements have grown over the last 60 years, while global ecological problems, such as biodiversity loss or climate change, are getting worse?

One answer, according to ecological democracy, is that our current liberal democracies are not only too short-sighted to tackle ever growing, transboundary environmental problems. They are also part of the problem. Liberal democracies act a bit like corporations in the sense that they are institutionally predisposed to privatise or nationalize their gains and externalize their costs on a routine basis. And that means that they can systematically pass on environmental problems through space and time and treat ecological irresponsibility as ‘normal politics’.

In contrast, ecological democracy aims to extend the temporal and spatial horizon of our political representatives and citizens beyond short-term electoral cycles and national interests, and to broaden our understanding of community to integrate the interests of future generations and the natural world into decisions in the present. It is based on a fundamental ambit claim that all those affected by decisions should be entitled to participate or otherwise be represented in the making of such decisions. Otherwise, they will be unfairly subjected to harm to which they have not, or would not have, consented." 

Some folks have even proposed the idea of having certain seats reserved in parliament for people who speak for non-humans.

Are there any noteworthy examples of communities or regions successfully integrating considerations for future generations and non-human entities in democratic processes?

"In 1998, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe spearheaded the negotiation of the Aarhus Convention, which the former Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan described as ‘the most ambitious venture in the area of environmental democracy’. This treaty gives all citizens of the states that are parties to the convention the same rights to environmental information, legal representation and participation in environmental decision making in relation to transboundary environmental problems. What it effectively means is that if, for example, a country licensed a facility that polluted or threatened to pollute other countries, then all those affected citizens in the airshed would have access to the same environmental procedural rights (rights to complain) as if they were citizens of the country that generated the problem. That’s one way of expanding the spatial boundaries of the community.

There are countries that are setting up commissions for the future. And, of course, many indigenous communities have been ecological stewards for millennia, and ecologically-minded citizens like Greta Thunberg are speaking for future generations, and by so doing jolting people to think about the long-term.

Some folks have even proposed the idea of having certain seats reserved in parliament for people who speak for non-humans. In New Zealand, for example, there’s legislation that gives natural entities like rivers legal standing. The Māori can represent the Whanganui River in Court and in Parliament as if it were a legal person."

But what does it really mean to represent or stand for nature? Are we not biased by our own human perspectives?

"It’s definitely a challenge. Most people take political representation to demand a kind of reciprocal relationship: we authorise someone to represent us politically in the legislature and these representatives are accountable to us at election time, and we can also demand accountability between elections. Yet the more than human world (such as nonhuman species, ecosystems, the atmosphere) can’t authorize human representatives to speak for them, and we can’t account to them directly for the clearly foreseeable harm we are causing. The upshot is that we take advantage of the situation by routinely perpetuating the production of harm.

Of course, environmental movements, scientists, Indigenous peoples and others seek to redress this chronic problem by representing ecological communities and concerns in the public sphere. The theory of the green democratic state takes this one step further by seeking ways of bringing these communities and concerns into view more systematically via institutional reforms, ranging from inserting new environmental rights in the constitution and demanding broader environmental impact assessments to applying new decision rules like the precautionary principle. This principle provides a proxy form of representation for ecological communities and all future generations by shifting the onus of proof onto proponents of new developments and technologies rather than opponents in cases where there is evidence that proposals may generate serious and irreversible ecological harm. 

The net effect of these institutional changes is to make political decision making more conducive to sustainability than traditional liberal democracies. There will still be disagreement. However, we can deal with the accountability challenge by enabling and respecting many voices to be heard, and also different forms of knowledge, from technical and scientific expertise to lived experiential or indigenous knowledge. We would then be much better placed to have the critical conversations about sustainability that are essential to greening democracies and, in turn, greening economies and societies."

The combination of ethnonationalism and populism has the potential to undermine some of the modest climate policy advances.

If the broadening of the community beyond the nation-state is so essential to ecological democracy, how do you assess the strepitous rise of far-right, nationalist parties around the world?

"It is concerning, but I think it’s useful for us as academics not to rush into judgement, but first try to understand what is happening and why. I’m now working on a project that seeks to grasp the relationship between right-wing populism and opposition to climate science and policy. If you look at all these different ethno-nationalist parties (from the National Rally in France, to Germany’s AfD to One Nation here in Australia), they all arose from a xenophobic, anti-immigration ideology. So why did opposition to climate policy and renewable energy become part of their playlist? Does it stem from their ethno-nationalism, or is it populism, or both? What’s the unease that underlies their views and attitudes?

The work I'm doing so far is suggesting that nationalism provides the ideology that rejects international climate and energy cooperation (‘because if the nation comes first, why should we do something for the greater good?’), but populism provides the scapegoating by identifying the out-group – the ‘corrupt elites’ - who are responsible.  Typically these include ‘all those green cosmopolitans and climate scientists and frequent flying academics who go to climate conferences who are part of the corrupt elite and not part of “we” the ordinary people. This combination of ethnonationalism and populism produces a resentment that is greater than the sum of the parts and it has the potential to undermine some of the modest climate policy advances in those countries when and where nativist populist parties join governing coalitions.

Yet there’s something in those discourses that we need to pay attention to, as some of the resentments (such as cost of living pressures which are attributed to climate policy) could be addressed by others means."

Do you think there is a grain of truth to those references to environmental elitism?

"I think in some circles there is indeed a kind of patronizing elitism, or what John Meyer calls the ‘resonance dilemma’. The campaigns of many environmental and climate-oriented NGOs don't resonate with the key problems of ordinary citizens who feel ‘left behind’, especially those in regions other than the affluent, inner urban areas. Whereas people like Pauline Hanson, leader of One Nation in Australia, who speak like them, look like them and sound like them, do. While Donald Trump may not look or sound like the disaffected, he has skillfully and successfully channelled their grievances and provided a political narrative that promises to address them and make them feel at home again. In both cases, there is the necessary resonance.

That’s a real democratic challenge for environmental and climate movements and advocates. So, instead of dismissing these citizens as ‘crazy’ folk who have ‘gone-down-the-rabbit-hole’ of conspiracy theories and so forth, we have to ask: how might we conduct our advocacy and design our policy in ways that can resonate with at least some of their concerns and thereby soften the resentment and deep polarization that is bad for democracy and bad for the environment?"

How can universities contribute to fostering dialogue on environmental challenges?

"As academics, we really need to get out there to understand what citizens’ problems are. One way would be to invite local communities to discuss the impacts of climate change down to the neighbourhood level and how they might best adapt to the challenges of heatwaves, floods, mosquito-born diseases, supply chain disruptions or rising food prices over the next 20 plus years.

Focusing first on adaptation provides an indirect and less confrontational route to recognizing the necessity of mitigation – which is typically much cheaper than the full costs of adaptation with minimal mitigation. Even better, it could prompt critical conversations about how to develop responses that address mitigation and adaptation at the same time so communities learn to manage what is becoming an increasingly dangerous new normal.

While most people like to live in the here and now, there’s often three or four generations living in most local communities at any one time. This in itself provides the basis for developing a future orientation that is long enough to start to tackle these enormous political, social and economic challenges."

How optimistic are you that we’ll realise green democracies within our lifetime?

"I can’t be optimistic, because the odds of seriously bad stuff happening are very high. But I have hope, and hope provides the determination to change the odds for the better. We must not lose hope. We cannot give up."

Robyn Eckersley will receive a honorary doctorate during Utrecht University's Dies Natalis. The presentation can be seen live through the livestream of the Dies Natalis on 26 March 4pm.