Are the environmental challenges we face as a planet too urgent and pervasive to be effectively dealt with through democratic means? I was surprised to read that in the wider circles of global environmental discourse, the implied (and occasionally directly expressed) response to this question is increasingly ‘yes’.
Andrew Stirling, in his powerful essay Emancipating Transformations, sheds light on this growing tendency towards ‘environmental authoritarianism’- where democratic engagement is viewed as a hindrance, rather than a critical ingredient, in the movement towards radical sustainability. Some high profile figures and institutions are claiming that only by ‘putting democracy on hold’ will we be able to reverse the tides of ecological destruction. The rhetoric of control is becoming more acceptable, with only two choices being put forth: compliance or planetary doom.
Emphasising multiple kinds of catastrophe, with apparently unfeasibly short periods to ‘save the planet’, active participation is seen as a threat. Acknowledging uncertainty becomes a weakness. Scepticism is a pathology, dissent an unaffordable ‘luxury’…Trust is a quality imposed by the powerful onto the powerless, not the other way around.
Stirling argues that the perceived need for concentrated power and control, despite noble intentions, is a delusion: “for all their seductive appeal; concentrated power, expert certainty and fallacies of control remain the oldest enemies.”1 How is it that the same people who are blaming human control for the earth’s destruction are calling urgently for a control-based approach to saving the planet? If ‘control’ is so negatively viewed in retrospect, he asks, then why should it be so positively viewed in prospect?
He points out that if you look back through history, the greatest enduring movements of societal transformation (i.e., the emancipation of oppressed ethnicities, classes, women, workers, colonies, religions, minority cultures, sexualities, youth, people with disabilities, etc.) owe their advances largely to “plural knowledges and values and unruly hope-inspired agonistic contention.”
The pioneers of the Green Movement were keenly aware of this and thus consciously intertwined both ecological and emancipatory concerns into their movement-building efforts. The strength of this commitment was reflected in the fact that even globe-spanning institutional bodies like the Brundtland Commission, Agenda 21, and Millennium Development Goals followed suit, all incorporating democratic values in the way they framed and pursued sustainability.
Stirling emphatically reminds us that the knowledge and practices that grew out of the Green Movement were also largely born out of democratic struggle.
For instance, wind turbines, ecological farming, super‐efficient buildings, and green chemistry all also owed their pioneering origins and early development to subaltern social movements (Smith et al. 2013; Garud and Karnøe 2003). All were systematically marginalised, if not actively supressed, by incumbent interests in science, government and industry (Hess 2009; Peet et al. 2011). As potentially transformative initiatives, then, they were nurtured not so much by controlling management, as by adversarial struggle (Winner 1977). That so many of these innovations have now become central elements in prospective transformations to Sustainability, is more despite, rather than because of ‘Sound scientific’, ‘evidence-based’ elite policy discourse.
By rejecting or side-lining grass-roots engagement, the movement is not only ‘betraying its own foundations’, but setting itself up for failure. Some short-term gains might be achieved, but the kind of deeply innovative and lasting solutions we desperately need in face of today’s environmental challenges are unlikely to be birthed in an atmosphere of ‘fear-driven technical compliance’. Stirling calls for us to create mutual relations of ‘care’ rather than dominating relations of ‘control’- not just with the planet, but also with each other.
Building pathways to Sustainable energy is about distributed social mobilisation, more than technological innovation (Smith 2010). Ecological agriculture is about enabling cultural and environmental diversity, not imposing ‘intensified’ agronomic and institutional monocultures (Altieri and Nicholls 2005). And respecting the global climate is about exercising humility and responsibility in mitigating human perturbations of an acknowledged dynamic and uncertain system (Hulme 2014; Jasanoff 2003), not about assuming assertively confident control towards some assertedly ‘non-negotiable’, notionally static, idealized global ‘optimum’ (Hulme 2009).
I am so appreciative that we have a voice like Stirling’s and the STEPS Centre popping up prominently in the global environmental discourse. Because it is at times like these, when we feel most desperate and threatened, that we are most willing to sacrifice means for ends. We need help to see the long-term futility of trying to reach socially progressive ends with contradictory means. We need help to see that such means will only undermine our capacity for transformation, because they perpetuate the very dynamics that are causing environmental destruction in the first place.
As the wise Mahatma Gandhi once shared about his own world-changing work, “I have concerned myself principally with the conservation of the means and their progressive use. I know if we can take care of them, attainment of the goal is assured…this method may appear to be long, perhaps too long, but I’m convinced that it is the shortest.”3
1 Andrew Stirling, The Greens are far from ‘finished’ (The Mail & Guardian, July 2013)
2Selections from Gandhi (Ahemadabad: Jitendra T. Desai, 1957), p. 36.