Robyn Eckersley on Ecology and Democracy

Based on her talk at SEI in 2018, Professor Robyn Eckersley has published a new article: “Ecological democracy and the rise and decline of liberal democracy: looking back, looking forward.”

Image by Ravi Pinisetti, via Unsplash

SEI congratulates Professor Robyn Eckersley, of the University of Melbourne, on her new article “Ecological democracy and the rise and decline of liberal democracy: looking back, looking forward“. Published this week in Environmental Politics, the article is based on a presentation and panel discussion that Professor Eckersley participated in at SEI in 2017, Ecological Democracy – Looking Back, Looking Forward.

The lecture, co-hosted by Sydney Ideas, followed a workshop that brought together a group of international scholars including Professor John Dryzek, Professor Karin Bäckstrand and Dr Jonathan Pickering to explore new insights and directions for ecological democracy, which, as Dryzek defines it, is a ‘democracy beyond boundaries’ that transcends the limits of nation-states, as well those between the human and non-human world.

As Eckersley argues, the field of ecological democracy first emerged in the wake of the Cold War, as a wave of innovative critical environmental political work that continued into the 1990’s. Addressing issues of non-human representation, ecological limits, the design of green states, and proposals for larger scale governance of ecological systems, this wave of scholarship provided a critical framework though which institutions could, according to Eckersley, “expand the coordinates of democracy – space, time, community and agency – to bring them into closer alignment with a cosmopolitan ecological and democratic imaginary”.1

However, since this initial iteration, there have been numerous crucial developments both in politics and in the global environment. The past decades have seen huge shifts in global ecologies, starting with the acceleration of climate change and the widespread acknowledgement of the Anthropocene epoch. Simultaneously, shifts in political landscapes have enabled the growth of environmental and climate justice movements and the proliferation of everyday material practices, localised and communitarian perspectives. For Eckersley, this growing focus on sustainable materialism represents an ‘ecological democracy 2.0’. Not coincidentally, this new direction in ecological democracy has been developed at SEI, led by the work of Professor David Schlosberg.

In laying out the need for a broad and inclusive approach to ecological democracy, Professor Eckersley’s paper examines how the over-arching backslide in liberal democracy has fostered anti-environmental movements and the ‘post-truth’ era, in which policy positions adopted by donor and lobbyist-bound politicians have become increasingly decoupled from the recommendations of the scientific consensus. She asks whether the slow, “tug-of-war approach to problem-solving that is typical of democratic nation states”is enough to adequately keep up with the global scale and exponentiating urgency of the environmental issues we face today.2

Eckersley claims that the scale of these problems are incommensurable with the temporal constraints of short-term election cycles, inequalities of political participation, favouring of corporate lobbyists and spatial limitations of the nation state. This discord consequentially infringes upon the rights and welfare of the ‘non-citizens,’ such as non-human species and future generations, that will be the most affected by today’s growing environmental crises. This ongoing need to remained focused on the weaknesses of liberal democracies and global environmental governance illustrates the necessity of the complementary approach to theorising ecological democracy – the need for both more traditional work alongside the more recent approaches of sustainable materialism.

By comparing the two main threads of critical environmental political theory through their engagement with liberal democracy over the past decades, Eckersley examines the complex histories and contributions to ecological democracy to evaluate how these theories might respond to the current set of ecological, and democratic, challenges. At the heart of the article is Eckersley’s argument about the need for ecological democracy to embrace both the classic focus on states and power and the more recent material turn.

While each iteration of ecological democracy carries its own set of virtues and issues, these tensions help to maintain a theoretical and methodological pluralism which contributes to a more sustainable and multifaceted democracy.

Ultimately, Eckersley emphasises the importance of aligning ecological demands with popular democratic movements demanding economic justice and egalitarian wealth redistribution. By rejecting the impulse to rely on authoritarian-technocratic solutions to climate change, and instead doubling down on the importance of inclusive, deliberative, and material democratic practice, a transformative vision of ecological democracy will emerge.

Professor Eckersley’s article is just one output from the SEI workshop on the future of ecological democracy. In addition, two journal special issues have come out of the event. One of these was published earlier this year by Environmental Valueswith a introductory editorial written by David Schlosberg, Karin Bäckstrand and Jonathan Pickering. The same team is also editing a forthcoming special issue of Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, with additional papers initially developed for the workshop.

In addition, more scholarly work on what Eckersley calls ‘ecological democracy 2.0’, developed at SEI, is being published. David Schlosberg also just had a piece in Environmental Politics, ‘From Postmaterialism to Sustainable Materialism’, and, with SEI Fellow Luke Craven, will publish a major a new book, Sustainable Materialism: Environmental Movements and the Politics of Everyday Life (Oxford 2019). Due to be published in October, this will be the first major work to explore the political motivations of new materialist movements, and presents an empirically-grounded framework for understanding a range of movements from food justice, to community energy, to sustainable fashion.

The SEI continues to contribute to new advances in environmental political thought, given the acute need for this kind of critical interdisciplinary scholarship in the current political and environmental climate. Ecologically-minded discourse and democracy at both the local and global scale has never been more relevant or urgent, and we are delighted to see such innovative work from our scholars echoing around the world.

1. Robyn Eckersley (2019) “Ecological democracy and the rise and decline of liberal democracy: looking back, looking forward“, Environmental Politics
2.  Andrew Brodzeli (2017) “Reflection of Ecological Democracy – Looking Backward and Looking Forward” Sydney Environment Institute Blog

Robyn Eckersley is a Professor in Political Science in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. She has published widely in the fields of environmental politics, political theory and international relations, with a special focus on the ethics and governance of climate change.