Social Sustainability and Democracy – Part 1 

If Social Sustainability was a train, then sooner or later it would need to stop at the “democracy” station, actually the sooner the better. That is because democracy is part of the Sustainable Welfare Indicator, and a necessary elements in society’s satisfaction and happiness, aiming at ensure that these are widespread across the citizens. That is because the government is accountable to its citizens and therefore required to look after the needs of the people and their satisfaction. Also important to know that the 3 pillars of sustainability, economy, environment and society are an important pillar for the Human Satisfaction Measure (HSM) to indicate sustainable welfare which include:  societies where people consider the earth environment; without war, crime or anxiety; with equality and no social gap; where life is stable; where democracy is well.established; where education is accessible to all. And under the democracy measurements we see :  Fair and representative elections; Competent and honest governments; Fair and equal laws; active and knowledgeable citizens; shared belief in the public interest; reasonable equality in wealth and power; openness and transparency; devolution of power; trust between citizens and governments; innovation, evaluation, change; freedom of expression; Internet censorship; parliament representing a public opinion

Emancipation is at the heart of democracy, liberation, and its link to sustainability is firstly how sustainable democracy actually is, and secondly how equipped and competent it is as a system to deal with the sustainability crisis and global warming; especially in a time of political cynicism and lessened trust in democratic institutions, one answer can be that no political system is more resilient and adaptable than democracy. Are democratic systems competent in addressing the current ecological challenges and transition to a post-growth economy? The last trend of movements in democracies was that of emancipation, gender and racial, but also environmental pushing the ecological agenda onto the political programmes. Today’s emancipation movements loudly demand environmental intervention at global level, climbing up the priority agenda for governments and international organisations, and one shared concern for the world population. A grassroot movement bottom-up, steering political and policy decision-making, marking the priority on life of individuals, communities and ecosystems by reducing that of the economic elites. Until it left temporarily the political debate by entering the technology, science and academia, abandoning its political drive, until recently, due to the failure of the latter of bringing the significant and radical change we need, witnessing the failure of most environmental global conferences. For that there is a need for shared ownership and responsibility, of rights and duties, shared by all communities to be empowered in decision-making and action, and tools to dictate the political agenda, tools which are only provided by a democratic system, grounded on participation; the key for the grassroot to reclaim democracy as a constructive solution-finding process, survival of the earth and life depend on it and many have understood it. That is in the hands of communities, civil society, policymakers and public sector, as well as of the business and manufacturing communities, a global and participating, co-owned process towards tangible solutions.  Markets born out of a consumerism and endless growth focused on the short-term can’t regulate themselves, because it is not in the nature of that economic culture, a new one is necessary and a democratised one. 

Democracy and sustainability

There are two ways to tackle a solution to today’s crisis, a democratic and participatory approach, or a technocratic-authoritarian one, otherwise maintain the present unsustainable status quo. Lets not forget that democracy, as a system is what it is, a system, and that means it can be part of either the solution or the problem, therefore it is not about the system per se but the attitudes of the citizens and sectors of society in addressing and using the system to steer it towards sustainable approaches. The faults of the system today concerning sustainability are quite a few, being anthropocentric and based on voting does not represent ecosystems with no political voice; it is fixed in the present with goals varying from election to election addressing today rather than tomorrow; is a fertile system for compromise which in ecological terms does not work; it has time consuming processes; today it is very individualistic and egocentric around individual needs and wants; aligned to the will of the majority often appealing to individual hedonism; under pressure to reduce costs, burdens and sacrifices of its citizens in order to be re-elected; being emancipatory it can’t restrict rights and material conditions that impact the majority unless it has tangible benefits. Does that mean we need to choose between saving the planet and ourselves and our rights and quality of life? Or rather there is a need for a wider ownership of the problem and equip the population for the next step and a bottom up approach democratically legitimised? We are looking at local cross-sectoral cooperation between public, private and third sectors and unorganised citizens, creating policies and implementing them, and can be subsystems regardless of governmental support, like US States respecting the Paris Agreement regardless of the White House position in the Trump era. As well there needs to be a parallel process of global governance, while thousands of communities in parallel operate locally; Norway’s ban on cutting trees is of course an initiative to be praised and also a drop in the ocean when it comes to global deforestation, treaties, agreements and a judiciary system in place to regulate the respect of what was agreed, ensuring that the developing world that missed the Industrial Revolution and is hungry to catch up, is able to jump in the 3d industrial revolution bypassing the other two. In other words the individuals and communities need to demand and act in favour of life, survival and ecosystem, pressure their decision-making bodies to act as well and place it on the global agenda, because it is a global challenge, not a national one, a country implementing the greenest and most sustainable policies won’t be spared because of that from environmental disasters spurred by global warming.

Therefore the inability of democratic systems, locally, nationally, globally does not demonstrate that this is an inefficient method to tackle sustainability, rather that there is a democratic deficit, and what we need is more democracy, a next level of emancipation that distances the destructive practices of careless growth and consumption as sole economic model. This would be something brand new in humanity’s history and unchartered land, as there is no model or economic, social and political experiment where this has been tried out, and yet so necessary to pave the way for the future, and distant from the present consumer-based attitude and value based on acts of self-construction, self-expression and self-experience at the expense of community and biosphere construction, expression and experience. That meaning that the inclusive, diversity-respecting, transparent and accountable, representative elements that make a democracy need to enter a post-democratic transition period where this becomes a governing practice not only applicable to governments and public authorities, but include also the third sector and private sector and population at large, as an attitude, a responsibility and a right. 

Democracy and sustainability: a joint cause

A new manifesto argues that the advance of democracy and of sustainable development is at heart a shared endeavour. Halina Ward & Clare Shine explain the initiative’s purpose and invite support.

The way democracy works in many countries today, where it is geared to short-term electoral cycles and political comparisons based on GDP growth, makes it badly prepared for the great intergenerational challenges that will dominate the next generation: among them climate change, resource scarcity and demographic pressures (such as aging or expanding populations).  

Democracy as it has evolved over the past two hundred years or so has always been about delivering “more”. It has relied on conventional econometric measurements as its main unit of accounting, rather than on the real values added to society.

The flaws in this approach are increasingly clear as the environmental pressures and impacts of the human thirst for “more” intensify. From local to global level, as accelerating environmental degradation strains food, energy and water resources, the ability of existing institutions to cope with the resulting social, economic and demographic pressures will be sorely tested – in some regions, potentially to breaking-point.  

The opening words of the summary of the authoritative GEO-5 Global Environmental Outlook (2012), an initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme – namely, that the “currently observed changes in the Earth System are unprecedented in human history” – hint at the scale of the changes required.

Democracy is central to these changes. It is the only political system through which a majority of the world’s people can learn how to determine together and express “how much is enough” (as Robert and Edward Skidelsky would have it). The problem is that we citizens of democracy don’t yet know how to do it – and the time to learn is running out.

What makes this situation worse is that the wider public view of the future, in many parts of the world, is becoming deeply sceptical and pessimistic.  A global poll in 2012 by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) asked adults in thirteen countries – Belgium, Bulgaria, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa , the United Kingdom and the United States – whether they felt future generations would be worse off than their own generation. Overall, 66% said yes. In the UK, the figure was 78%, and in Greece it was 77%. Yet even in the economic powerhouse of Germany, 85% of respondents thought future generations would be worse off; in France, the figure reached a dismal 93%. The contrast with rapidly growing economies – Brazil (24%) and Indonesia (26%) – is striking.  

The connection with a sense of democratic malaise in western states such as Britain is highlighted  by the stresses and strains on democracy recorded in the 2012 report of the research project Democratic Audit. This notes, among other conclusions, that “almost all available indicators suggest that representative democracy is in long-term, terminal decline, but no viable alternative model of democracy currently exists” (see  S Wilks-Heeg et al, How Democratic is the UK? The 2012 Audit [Democratic Audit, 2012).

A time to renew

But a crisis is also an opportunity. After all, if people think the future will be worse but still believe that democracy is the political system best able to deliver improvement – and if the experience of those in non-western states is a lesson that democracy is still evolving and being learned – then the ability of democracy to address serious environmental and social problems remains in the hands of people and their governments.

If democracy is to thrive, however, it also needs to adapt to the reality that it is not the only game in play when it comes to securing improvements in living conditions. Already, some environmentalists are known to sigh wistfully (even naively) at the apparent ease with China is able to exercise leadership on climate change-related issues. Yet most also know that to take sustainable development seriously, democracy is essential. This was recognised in the formal outcome of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, with UN member-states acknowledging that “democracy, good governance and the rule of law, at the national and international levels, as well as an enabling environment, are essential for sustainable development…”.

The best chance of delivering adequate responses to unsustainable development and tackling emerging risks is provided by healthy democratic systems. But if democracy is to flourish during the difficult years ahead, fresh thinking will be needed to motivate and harness the power both of individuals and institutions. So we need actively to seek to nurture and renew our commitment to democracy, and the forms in which it is practised.

An opportunity for change

To this end, in June 2012 the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD) launched international public consultations to develop a Manifesto for Democracy and Sustainable Development.

The open consultation runs to mid-November 2012. The FDSD welcomes all ideas. There’s a short online consultation form here  (and, in the case of the Spanish version, here); but we’d also like to hear from groups or organisations that might like to get involved via a consultation workshop.  

November will mark the transition from consultation to drafting. A first discussion draft of the Manifesto for Democracy and Sustainable Development, highlighting key differences of perspective, will be thoroughly debated at a workshop to be hosted over two days by the Salzburg Global Seminar in December 2012. The Seminar has a sixty-five-year track-record of supporting multi-stakeholder dialogue and leadership development around long-term issues related to democracy and governance, social and economic justice, sustainability and education for global citizenship.  

The FDSD aims to launch the manifesto for sign-on early in 2013. It will set out a vision, principles and actions for a practical agenda for change. It will be a short document with which people or institutions can associate themselves, pointing to workable changes that are needed to ensure that democracy around the world is equipped to deliver a healthy environment and fairness for all, now and in the future.

This is an opportunity for all concerned to help create the ripple effect that’s needed to equip democracy to deliver sustainable development. The job of ensuring that democracy is resilient needs to begin now.

Published by Lorenzo Nava

Consultant, Trainer and Coach, on participatory learning processes, experiential learning dynamics, non formal education and NLP certified practitioner

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