Green Political Theory: A Report

John Barry & Andrew Dobson. Handbook of Political Theory. Editor: Gerald F Gaus & Chandran Kukathas. 2004. Sage Publication.

In 1983 the United Nations undertook a little-reported series of ‘time-lapse’ experiments on selected individuals to try to calibrate the effect of ever-accelerating social and intellectual change. The fear that underlay these experiments was that humans are ill-adapted to rapid change, and that if the rate of change continued to accelerate to the degree observed throughout the twentieth century, humanity’s non-adaptive reactions could become pathological, with potentially disastrous consequences.

The experiment required that individuals from various walks of life be isolated from developments occurring in their fields of endeavour for a period of 20 years from 1 January 1983. Although cryogenic technology would have been the perfect way of achieving the required ‘deep sleep,’ ethical and technical difficulties counted decisively against it. In the end, the UN’s Time-Lapse Secretariat (TLS) decided on geographical rather than strictly diachronic isolation. Advertisements went out in specialist journals for volunteers for the experiment, and after a vigorous selection process including tests to determine individuals’s representativeness of their occupation or station in life, as well as their ability to stand up to the rigours of 20 years of isolation, 500 individuals were sent to an uninhabited atoll in the Pacific Ocean to begin their period of isolation. Thereafter the only contact they had with the outside world was with the service craft and personnel charged with maintaining, on a periodic basis, the atoll’s life support systems. Contact between the experiment’s subjects and service personnel was strictly regulated to prevent the transfer of information of any sort in either direction.

Twenty years later, on 1 January 2003, the isolation phase of the experiment ended with the return of the subjects to their families and communities. Subjects were returned, too, to their former occupations or stations in life and asked, simply, to record the changes they observed in them, and to try, impressionistically to calibrate the rate of change.

In general, the conclusions reached at the end of the time-lapse experiments were encouraging and comforting. The experimental subjects proved capable of assimilating the changes that had occurred in their fields and occupations during their isolation, even in areas where change had been extremely rapid, such as information technology and breakfast cereal development. Apart from these broad conclusions, no more concrete results for the time-lapse experiment are due for release until 2005 when detailed assessment will be complete. By a circuitous route, however, one experimental subject’s complete account has come into our hands, and what follows is an abridged version of one part of it.

The subject in question was a normative political theorist, well known to his colleagues and peers in the early 1980s as a researcher across a formidably wide range of topics in his subdiscipline—just the qualities that spurred the TLS to select him to represent his field of endeavour in the time-lapse experiment. The part of the report that concerns us here is that which deals with what the subject (let’s call him ‘Z’) variously calls ‘green,’ ‘environmental’ or ‘ecological’ political theory. What follows are verbatim extracts from Z’s report.

I never thought I’sd suffer so much from book and article deprivation during my time in the Pacific Ocean. When they let me loose on 2 January 2003 in my old university library I felt like a kid in a candy store. Where was the best place to look to get an overview of the previous 20 years of political theory? Predictably, I made a beeline for the textbooks on political ideologies, and there I made my first discovery. Before I left for the Pacific the last chapter in every textbook of this sort was on feminism. Now the last chapter seemed to be called ‘ecologism’ or ‘environmentalism.’ What was this? What had happened? And should I pay it any attention? The key theme running through the various interpretations of ecologism indeed the key theme, I was to discover, running through everything I came to understand as ‘green political theory’—is that while we have known since Aristotle that ‘human beings are political animals,’ political theory has generally focused more on the ‘political’ than on the ‘animal.’ Green political theory asks us, in effect, to invert this prospectus. We are invited to ask what it means for politics when the public and private spaces it inhabits include the ‘natural’ world.

Limits to Growth

One way of couching the question, I discovered after reading my way through several ‘ecologism’ chapters, is in terms of ‘the limits to growth’ (Meadows et al., 1972). This is not only the title of a book that I remember well myself and that made a massive public impact—referred to by some as signalling the beginning of the modern environmental movement—but also a phrase that has become a pervasive trope in green political literature. I had a dim memory of the ‘doom and gloom,’ ‘ecocatastrophic’ character of the limits to growth argument, which complemented the plethora of post-apocalyptic movies of the 1970s, and also coincided with the oil shortages of 1972. Commentators regard it as one kind of expression of the embeddedness of the human condition, an embeddedness that constitutes the context within which political projects must be written. Reflecting on this in the context of other chapters in the textbooks on modern ideologies, it occurred to me that the closest cousin of this sort of idea is conservatism. Yet ecologism is more often politically and analytically presented as a progressive ideology, an heir to the Enlightenment tradition of equality, closely related to the ‘new social movements’ (another category I’sve had to learn about since my return from the Pacific) and aligned with (sometimes in fraternal competition with, indeed) social democratic and labour parties. Is this an ideology that manages to lean left and bear right at the same time? Or is it just—in the immortal phrase over the rainbow? I’sll come back to this.

Limits to growth is, it seems, in part a descriptive commentary on the metabolistic relationship between human beings and their environment, regarded in terms of its capacity to provide services for the production and reproduction of human life. The stock and flow of these services is the context for any human project. None of the other ideologies in the textbooks on my 1983-2003 shelf talks quite like this. ‘Stock’ refers to resources such as coal that are to all intents and purposes finite, and ‘flow’ refers to resources that are in principle renewable, such as fish and energy from the sun, and the capacity of the earth’s systems to absorb waste and pollution. Stock resources run down as they are accessed and converted into useful material for the reproduction of human life, and flow resources, while to all intents and purposes infinite in quantity, may be difficult to capture effectively (the sun’s energy, for example), or easy to run down if not carefully looked after (fish in the sea, for example).

As a critical commentary, limits to growth suggests that ‘industrialism’—broadly, the productive path followed by all so-called advanced industrial countries since the industrial revolution, and regarded by most developing countries as the right development path to follow—cannot continue indefinitely because it fails to take account of the resources context in which it is inscribed. Stock resources are used up as if they had no limit, and no attempt is made to seek substitutes to enable the services they provide to continue. Flow resources are over-exploited, sometimes to the point where they are unable to recover. Ecologism presents itself as unique among modern political ideologies in pointing to this metabolistic context for political projects, and it self-consciously criticizes other ideologies for not doing so.

Reading more, I found out that two of the most significant examples of this metabolistic relationship going wrong are global warming or climate change, and biodiversity loss. While obviously I was alarmed at the rate and extent of human-induced changes to the earth’s climate and depletion of the variety of species on the planet, the phenomenon of global warming did at least explain why I noticed that the atoll we lived on in the Pacific did indeed get smaller as the years went by, and it was not due (as some of my island companions intimated) to my taste for home-brewed coconut beer.

It didn’st take me long to discover that the limits to growth thesis has its detractors. Some suggest that the model on which its conclusions were based is fragile. How can one accurately model such a vast range of complex inputs and outputs, simultaneously taking full and appropriate account of the variables that constitute the weft and warp of the metabolistic relationship of individuals and societies with their environment? Some pointed to the obvious issue of how we tell ‘environmental degradation’ (bad) from ‘environmental change’ (neutral)? Others focused on the variables themselves. The report dwells on population growth as a key factor in resource use, but without discriminating between different rates of resource use among poorer and wealthier populations. Not everyone is equally culpable, surely, of exceeding the limits set by a finite environment. I wondered, then, to what extent this could be called a politics, so bereft of analyses of power does it seem to be? However, upon further reading, it was clear that as green political theory evolved, the analysis of power and how it is directly related to responsibility for environmental damage also developed. Impoverished people clear cutting a forest to survive is in quite a different moral and political category to the environmental damage caused by affluent consumer lifestyles, which are energy and resource intensive. The emergence of a discourse of ‘environmental justice’ (both local and global) and green political economy, both of which focused on inequalities in power, wealth and environmental quality, were important here (Dobson, 1998; Dower, 1998; Schlosberg, 1999; Martinez Alier, 2002; J. Barry, 1999a).

I also wondered about the politics of the language of ‘limits’ itself. I recalled Karl Marx’s devastating critique of Thomas Malthus which pointed out that limits are not ‘given,’ but that nature is, rather, in a dialectical relationship with humanity (Benton, 1996; Hayward, 1992; J. Barry, 1999c; Dobson, 1994). Humans transform nature as nature transforms humans, and this means that limits are a function of humans’s metabolistic relationship with nature rather than set in some predetermined way.

But does this do terminal damage to the green case? Marx’s is an acknowledgement that nature ‘man’s inorganic body’—is a political category, a notion entirely absent from all the other chapters in the ideologies textbook I have in front of me, but which is ecologism’s central point. Political ecologists don’st seem to deny that human beings can shape the contours of environmental limits (Benton, 1993; J. Barry, 1999b), but they do claim that modern ideological unwillingness to regard the environment as a political category has led to local, regional and now global breakdowns in the environment’s capacity to offer a more or less predictable and sustainable set of services to human beings. I have discovered some evidence to suggest that political parties of both left and right—if not the ideologies from which they seek their inspiration regard this as a message worth listening to. ‘The environment’ is now clearly a category through which many party manifestos speak, and it constitutes a major policy area that cuts across other policy issues such as energy, housing, transport, agriculture and food. One of the biggest surprises on my return from the Pacific was to find green parties not only with parliamentary representation, but also sharing power in national governments (Müller-Rommel and Poguntke, 2002).

The Ethical Status of the Non-Human World

I came to regard the ‘limits to growth’ reasons for care for the environment as ‘pragmatic’ responses to observable deteriorations in the environment. However, they do not exhaust the range of reasons that ecologism has to offer. I was struck by the way in which ecologism is part of a broader remoralization of politics, according to which people do the right thing because it is morally the right thing to do, not because of some financial incentive or other prudential set of reasons. In this context the striking suggestion made by some political ecologists—in its most general form—is that the non-human natural world has moral standing. The meaning and implications of this took some time for me to digest. A suggestive letter to the national press in the UK that I came across as I trawled through back numbers of newspapers soon after my return from the Pacific captures the ‘foot-in-the-door’ approach that characterizes green attempts to make inroads into our scepticism. The letter was written in response to news that scientists had implanted an alien gene in a monkey, with a view to creating transgenic monkeys that perfectly mimic human diseases so as to road test cures for them. The letter ran as follows:

If the rhesus monkey really is ‘so similar’ to human beings then shouldn’st we resist experimenting on it for the same reasons we resist experimenting on human beings? And if it’s dissimilar enough for us not to have such ethical qualms, then why are we experimenting on it at all? (The Guardian, 13 January 2001)

Scientists insist on the necessity of experimenting on our close species relatives precisely because they are close relatives. The claim is that they can learn more from animals that are physiologically similar to human beings than from those that are distant. This makes scientific sense. But it also tweaks a moral tail in the way captured in the first question of the letter. The characteristic that makes the rhesus monkey such an ideal pharmacological subject—i.e. similarity with the human species—is the very same characteristic that suggests a moral prohibition against experimentation. Note that this prohibition would not turn on prudential arguments, but would take the same form as arguments for human rights. If humans have a right not to be experimented upon this is because they should be treated as ends in themselves and not as means only. The letter writer points out that if this is true for humans it must be true for other beings similar in relevant respects to humans.

Ah! There’s the phrase that rings throughout green political theory: ‘similar in relevant respects.’ Litres of green ink have been spilt arguing over what ‘relevant respects’ means, in particular. What, exactly, is the ‘X factor’ that makes for moral considerability? Jeremy Bentham alerted us to the massive difference that alternative answers can make when he said that, ‘The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which could never have been with holden from them but by the hand of tyranny… The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk?, but Can they suffer?’ (1970: 311). If reason and/or verbal communication are the X factor then the charmed moral circle is restricted to human beings. (Or at least it is restricted to those who can reason and/or talk. But what about those in a persistent vegetative state, for example? Are they now on the same level as the rhesus monkey, and legitimately liable to the same treatment?) If the capacity to suffer pain is the X factor, on the other hand, then the moral circle is widened considerably. And there are ways of widening it even further. We could, it seems, render the X factor as ‘autopoiesis’ (Eckersley, 1992: 60-1), or the capacity for self-reproduction, and then the circle is even bigger.

And so, it seems, the debate goes on, ever more arcane and insecure, taking in collections of beings as well as individuals until the circle of moral considerability includes, in principle, the whole of the non-human natural world.1 It is easy to lose sight of the key point on this side of ecologism’s equation: that the environment should be protected not (only) for prudential reasons but because it has (something akin to) a right to protection. From either point of view—the moral or the prudential—ecologism politicizes the environment by opening up the question of its use and abuse as a political question. I’sll come back to this, but there’s one other interesting aspect of the motivational question (‘Why protect the environment?’) on which I ought to report. There is evident dissatisfaction with the Byzantine and politically unconvincing arguments that the ‘similar in relevant respects’ debate has spawned. I was intrigued to see an argument that cuts the Gordian knot by politicizing the environment indirectly.

Future Generations and the Environment

This is done by broadening the political community in a different kind of direction—but again quite unlike anything else I came across in the political ideologies textbook. Before my Pacific exile I had grown used to thinking of progressive politics as about the recognition of the political claims of ever-increasing numbers of previously marginalized social groups. Most obviously, for example, women are now recognized in a way that would have been unthinkable even 100 years ago. As befits the last chapter in the ideologies textbook, ecologism has its own novel take on the ‘recognition question.’ Think, for a moment, of ‘the environment’ as a diverse range of resources of all types. Not just the kinds of resources that are required for physiological survival but also those that are a necessary condition for conceiving life plans of all sorts. This, in other words, is the environment conceived as the stuff through which life plans are formed and carried out. Put differently again, the environment constitutes a range of options for life-plan conception and execution.

Think, now, of all this in terms of justice. What is the fairest way of distributing this thing (the environment) that constitutes a range of options for life plans? And, crucially for ecologism, who should be recognized as legitimate recipients of the fruits of this distribution? For political ecology, the answer includes, among others, future generations of human beings. For ecologism, there is no reason in justice why the present generation of human beings should be entitled to deprive future generations of the stuff through which and from which plans for life are conceived and executed.

It is not hard to see how all of this amounts to the indirect protection of the environment. It is protected, in effect, by doing justice to future generations of human beings. Any degradation of the environment amounts to intergenerational injustice in that it constitutes a reduction in the options available to them. Bryan Norton, for example, has developed a ‘convergence hypothesis’ (1991: 188-203), which he proposes as a way to advance environmental protection politically as well as to heal the division within ecologism between ‘ecocentrism’ and ‘anthropocentrism.’ Couching the reasons for protecting or being concerned about the environment in terms of obligations to future generations involves using anthropocentric means to achieve ecocentric ends. Of equal significance is the fact that focusing on intergenerational justice amounts to the building of a bridge between green political theory and mainstream contemporary political theory, as Brian Barry’s forays into environmental issues demonstrate (B. Barry, 1978; 1989; 1999). As well as being of intellectual interest, this argument also has some political merit. My political ecological investigations have led to me to believe that one of ecologism’s biggest political disadvantages is the suspension of disbelief required when you land on some of its wildest shores. As a political idea, the great ape project, for example, might make some headway on the ‘similar in relevant respects’ platform, but species extensions much beyond this are difficult to make stick politically. Justice, however, is a well-established discourse both in normative political theory and in civil society, and its extension to future generations, while by no means universally accepted as legitimate among commentators, is a bridge less far than extending moral recognition to louseworts. Justice is also related to the discourse of rights, which is the dominant ethical and political normative grammar within modern liberal theory and practice. I shall come back to the issue of future generations later.

One thing I noticed by this point in my investigation was that ecologism as an ideology was heading out of ideologies textbooks and into the broader territory of political theory. I have come to think that the best way of capturing this is to think of ecologism as expressing a political objective, which we might call ‘sustainability.’ Sustainability, in turn, is best thought of as a ‘concept’—as the sustaining of some Xinto the future—which has many competing ‘conceptions.’ These conceptions will all offer different answers to some basic sustainability questions, like: how long should X be sustainable into the future? For whom or what should X be sustainable? And what is X anyway?

Once we think of sustainability as a political objective, the rather traditional question arises of how it stands in relation to other political objectives. The form of this question is one with which political theorists are well acquainted. The history of political theory itself can be seen in terms of arguments of priority and compatibility between liberty and equality, democracy and order, justice and liberty, and so on. My reading of what has taken place over the past 20 years—the period of my exile from the development of political theory is that ecologism has added another political objective to the list of competitors.

This is borne out by a survey of the development of green political theory over the past 10 years or so. It is as though so-called ‘green theorists’ are working their way through the list of political desiderata and working out the relationship between them and sustainability in a normative sense. This move from ideology to theory seems also to have had the effect of taking green political theory out of what might have been regarded as a ghetto in its early days. My reading of the environmental ethical literature, for example, reveals a vicious downwards spiral of debate of ever-decreasing size and political relevance (between ecocentrism and anthropocentrism, deep and shallow ecology, light and dark greens) that would have been the envy of medieval theologians trying to work out how many angels can fit on a pinhead. The move outwards occasioned by debates over conflict and compatibility between sustainability and other political objectives, on the other hand, has drawn mainstream theorists into the green political theory debate. From my vantage point of 20 years absence from political theory, I would judge this as good for both sides.

Before I try to make good this claim, though, let me return briefly to the conundrum of whether green politics a.k.a. ecologism—is a progressive or a conservative ideology. One way of groping for an answer is to think of it in terms of the discourse of utopianism. We are inclined to think of progressive ideologies as having a utopian ‘moment,’ in that their prescriptive dimension contains a picture of the world as we have never seen it before. This contrasts with conservative prescriptions that tend to paint an idealized picture of some valued moment in the past which conservatives would like to see restored in the present, typically coupled with a negative/realistic view of human nature which sets clear limits to political change. Ecologism, I think, occupies a place somewhere in between these two positions. It shares the progressive view that what is usually referred to as ‘human nature’ is malleable, so we are not condemned to ‘selfish’ or any other determined sort of behaviour, but it also nods in the direction of conservative thoughts by suggesting that the human condition sets limits on our projects. This distinction between human nature and the human condition allows ecologism to claim elasticity for the former, and a degree of fixity for the latter. The outcome is a kind of progressive politics whose utopian element firmly accepts limits, which is another distinctive feature of the ideology of ecologism.

Science, Technology, and Vulnerability

The notion of limits is extremely important within ecologism, and the role of science in identifying such limits gives it a unique place within ecologism. Unlike all other ideologies and political theories I was familiar with (with the notable exception of the flawed attempts to develop a ‘scientific Marxism’), ecologism is firmly based on science. From its relationship to ecological science in the nineteenth century, to more recent scientific discoveries of global climate change and scientific debate over genetically modified crops, ecologism is the first political theory to be so firmly involved with scientific knowledge. After all, without scientific knowledge, most of the ecological problems that concern green political theory would not be ‘problems.’ Science thus plays a vital role in ecologism by providing it with the ‘facts’ and ‘problems’ relating to our metabolic dependence upon the non-human world and its natural systems.

However, my reading of green literature suggests that a positive relationship to and attitude towards science is not universally shared. For some political ecologists, science (and more particularly technological developments and innovations) is a major part of the cause of ecological damage, that is, it is part of the problem not the solution. Such views point to scientific and technological developments such as nuclear power, the internal combustion engine, biotechnology and generally the way science and technology have been harnessed to produce more effective ways of consuming the planet’s resources as evidence in their case against science. This critique of science and technology moves ecologism in the direction of Ulrich Beck’s (1992; 1995) critique of the ‘risk society’ and the dangers ‘mega technologies’ can pose to modern societies in terms of both actual harm and dangers to democratic practices, especially in terms of the antidemocratic dangers of rule by experts (J. Barry, 1999a: 202-6). It is thus no surprise that many green theorists have integrated the concepts and discourses around risk society into the green perspective (Blühdorn, 2000; Achterberg, 2001).

Equally, a well-established argument within green political theory concerns the ‘technofix’ mentality of industrialism. The ‘techno-fix’ view is most closely associated with those who, while they may agree with political ecologists that there are definite ecological problems, remain absolutely confident that there are technological solutions, and that science and technological innovation will find these solutions. The main import of this techno-fix perspective is that finding solutions to ecological problems does not require major changes to current political and economic systems, or consumption and production patterns. John Dryzek points to the close association between this techno-fix view and the ‘cornucopian discourse’ which denies the ‘limits to growth’ view so central to green political theory (1997: 45-61). Here, green views identify another limit in terms of human scientific knowledge, questioning that we can or ought to proceed on the basis that we will (at some future stage) have complete knowledge (and thus control and power) over the natural world (O’sNeill, 1993: 146-67).

Finally, for many political ecologists an over-reliance on science and technology as the only or dominant ‘frame’ to understand the ecological crisis tends to both ‘depoliticize’ and ‘demoralize’ that crisis. That is, adopting a purely technological or scientific approach to the ecological crisis tends to reduce it to a ‘technical’ matter (often best left to ‘experts’ to sort out), thus denying the profound ethical and political character of the ecological crisis in terms of what it says about our ethical obligations to the natural world and its place in our moral thinking and action (J. Barry, 1999a: 109; O’sNeill, 1996).

In the main, however, political ecologism does not reject science and technology, despite what critics of ecologism from both left and right may think in terms of ecologism as espousing a ‘Luddite’ world view (Holmes, 1993: 122-41) or as a conservative, backward looking, anti-modernist ideology (Giddens, 1994; J. Barry, 1999c: 94-104), seeking a return to some premodern ‘ecological Golden Age.’2Ecologism accepts science and technology, but does so knowing that they are intrinsically political and not ‘neutral’ instruments, that they have ethical implications, but nevertheless will (where appropriate) be part of the solution to many ecological problems. In this way ecologism is firmly within rather than outside the Enlightenment and modernity, though sharing with other political perspectives such as socialism and feminism a ‘critical insider’ status.

The scientific identification of ecological limits and measurement of ecological degradation also highlights human dependency upon the natural world, and shows up the flaws in an arrogant assumption of human control and power over the non-human world. In keeping with its stress on limits, notions of vulnerability, dependence and associated ideas of care and responsibility are common features of green discourse. Greens stress the mutual vulnerability of the non-human world and humanity (J. Barry, 2002). They offer, in the increasingly technologically driven globalizing world, a cautionary voice which stresses the dangers of the underlying assumption or aim of human technological control over the natural world based on complete knowledge of its workings generated by science. In response to the limits to human knowledge, limits to growth, the ethical considerability of the non-human world, and the mutual dependence of human and non-human worlds, greens speak of caution, prudence and care. The growing significance (ethically, politically, economically and epistemologically) of the precautionary principle within green political theory is evidence of this (O’sRiordan and Jordan, 1995: O’sRiordan, Cameron and Jordan, 2001). In the context of the irreducible ignorance (Faber, Manstetten and Proops, 1992) and complexity of the metabolism between humans and the non-human world, we are, according to greens, foolhardy to rush headlong with irreversible and large-scale alterations to the natural world, the long-term effects of which we simply do not know. The green perspective is nicely captured in Aquinas’ view that ‘It is better that a blind horse be slow.’

Sustainability, Democracy, and Social Justice

Returning to the issue of the conversation with the broader themes of political theory that ‘greens’ have initiated, two political concepts, in particular, have occasioned a great deal of comment in connection with sustainability: social justice and democracy. The former has been an especially rich source of cross-fertilization between green political theorists and their mainstream colleagues, but ‘democracy and sustainability’ came onto the scene first, so let me make one or two comments about democracy here. A brief journey back to the ‘limits to growth’ idea will serve to show why democracy has been so closely examined from a green point of view.

Two characteristics of the limits to growth idea stand out. First, there is the urgency which supporters of the idea try to impress upon us. Certain characteristics of resource use—its supposedly exponential nature, for example—add up to the thought that limits of extraction and use can be reached very quickly. Collapse will only be avoided, therefore, if rapid action is taken. Second, and connected, there is the point that sustainability will only be possible if major changes in lifestyles-particularly those of high consumption individuals take place. Most people, it has been suggested, will not do this voluntarily, and so sustainability will involve coercion. Both of the positions point away from democracy, of course. This is because, first, democracy takes time, and time is as scarce a resource as oil for limits to growth enthusiasts. Second, democracy as a way of making decisions is founded on the autonomy of individuals. But what if autonomous individuals make the wrong choices? What if they do not want to make the changes required to live a sustainable life? They may, then, have to be ‘forced to be free.’ I remember these arguments being put, indeed, before I volunteered for the time-lapse study, so I was especially intrigued to see them having been debated so thoroughly during my time away.

The environmental movement, as distinct from green political theory, has been self-consciously democratic in orientation. Its most visible successes have been in parliamentary and local or municipal elections, while green parties have long been noted for their extremely open, transparent and democratic internal structures, making them the most internally democratic parties within modern electoral politics (Doherty, 2002). This may be the reason why the relationship between democracy and sustainability has been so thoroughly explored (Doherty and de Geus, 1996; Lafferty and Meadowcroft, 1996; Mathews, 1996). The debate is of considerable interest to theorists of democracy in general, and not only those who come at it from the sustainability end, as it were. Sustainability as an objective has a number of general characteristics that make it a ‘test bed’ for whether political objectives of this type are compatible with democracy. Two aspects of sustainability in the previous paragraph seemed to point away from democracy. But it has other features that point towards compatibility too. I have already pointed up the indeterminate nature of sustainability, for example. The ‘limits’ argument for imposed solutions to unsustainability depends, it seems, on there being a determinate answer to the question ‘What is to be done?’ But precisely because sustainability is a normative notion there can be no fixed idea of what it is, and therefore no clearly defined route map for how to get to it. I have come to find it useful to interrogate that classical sustainability concept, ‘threshold,’ from this point of view. A threshold designates the point beyond which further disturbance to a natural process or further exploitation of a natural resource will tip it into unsustainability. This point might seem scientifically determinate but we only have to ask ourselves the question ‘Unsustainable for whom or for what?’ to see that while science can provide us with information on which to base a decision, we cannot expect a computer to crunch out a complete answer for us.

Two examples come to mind. First, do we count future generations of human beings as a legitimate answer to our ‘For whom?’ question? If we do, then we have to be much more careful with what we do with finite resources such as coal, oil and gas than if we believe that sustainability is only an issue for the present generation. Given that there are sufficient of these resources to satisfy the needs and wants of the present generation, there is no need to think in terms of ‘thresholds’ at all as far as this generation is concerned. Thresholds for finite resources only become relevant if we envisage users of these resources sometime after the point at which their running-down endangers their effective use and exploitation.

A second example throws into relief the possibility that sustainability might have interspecies ramifications too. Some species are much more resilient to disturbance than others, so a threshold for one species might not be a threshold for others. Human beings are adaptable to an extraordinary degree and have proved themselves adept at occupying ecological niches for which they are singularly unsuitable. We are the species nature did not specialize in many respects, making the whole planet our ‘ecological niche’ as it were. Humans seem almost infinitely capable, then, of transgressing whatever thresholds are designated for them. Yet even this tremendous capacity for adaptation pales against that of creatures such as spiders and cockroaches which, as I recall from debates around the ‘nuclear winter’ that would have resulted from an exchange of atomic weapons between the USA and the USSR, would have survived even this kind of cataclysmic event. The ‘nuclear threshold,’ then, would have been more critical to human beings than to cockroaches. The decision as to whether to include only cockroaches or human beings—or both—in threshold calculations is clearly a normative one.

So if sustainability is a normative notion, how do we determine what it is? Democracy is one answer to this question. We find out what it is, in an appropriately provisional and temporary sense, by debating it, allowing many perspectives and voices to be heard. And at this point, epistemology and political pragmatism seem to be happily coincidental. From the epistemological point of view, if there is anything like a ‘truth’ of sustainability then it is more likely to emerge from an open-ended democratic conversation than from the deliberations of a closed epistemic community of ‘experts.’ And from the pragmatic point of view, measures for sustainability are more likely to be endorsed and supported by people if they have had the opportunity to decide upon and design them than if they have not. The latter is especially important in terms of ensuring popular legitimacy for sustainability policies that will require changes in the lifestyles of many people—especially in the ‘developed’ countries.

So while democracy and sustainability seem to be in tension, sustainability as a policy objective has enough in common with other objectives to be regarded as a late addition to the list rather than something entirely new. In this regard, sustainability requires both some kind of definition and an acceptance of the legitimacy of the definition even if both definition and legitimacy are provisional. Especially if they are provisional, indeed. Democracy as a form of decision-making seems ideally suited to both of these requirements.

What it cannot guarantee, though, is sustainable outcomes. The green engagement with democracy brings into sharp relief the fact that the procedural nature of democracy means that it cannot be expected to deliver any specific outcomes. This is a lesson worth learning, recognizing and applying in other contexts, and it raises interesting wider questions regarding decisions ‘produced’ by democracies. The fact that democracies cannot guarantee outcomes to any extent prompts the question of whether decisions that undermine democracy itself can be regarded as legitimate. The idea that a democracy might take a series of decisions leading to systematically unsustainable policies, thereby undermining the conditions for its own existence, is structurally similar to a democratic election producing a government determined to end the democratic process. How should democracies react to this possibility?

A related issue, which I see emerging from the later stages of the literature with which I was presented, is that of ‘green citizenship’ (Dobson, 2003; Smith, 1998; J. Barry, 1999a; 2002; Christoff 1996). Part of the idea here is that citizens are the ‘raw material’ of democracy, the ones who make the decisions—at least in principle. If one wants sustainable outcomes from the democratic process, then, one way of maximizing the possibility is to ‘ecologize’ citizens. This is what ‘greening’ citizenship consists in. ‘Green’ or ‘ecological’ citizenship demands that we think of citizenship in rather novel ways. First, we must think of the rights and obligations of citizenship as existing outside the usual citizenship context of the nation-state. There are those who will argue that this cannot be done, and that citizenship is definitionally about the rights and responsibilities of individuals in relation to the states of which they are members. I see an interesting debate developing here between supporters of so-called cosmopolitan citizenship (e.g. Linklater 1998) and their ecological counterparts. Second, the rights and duties of citizens in traditional conceptions are usually regarded as reciprocal, but what sense can this make in a global context in which ecological damage is asymmetrically inflicted? Ecological citizenship suggests that while my duty as a causer of damage to reduce it is generated by the reciprocal right of those on the receiving end to a liveable environment, they have no reciprocal and corresponding duty towards me. Third, ecological citizenship seems to revive the idea of virtue-pretty much absent from citizenship talk since the heyday of civic republicanism. Yet it talks about citizenship virtue in rather novel ways, and asks whether the virtues we more normally associate with the private realm compassion and care, for example—ought not to be brought into the discursive fold of citizenship. This is part, fourth and finally, of the transgressive move to associate citizenship with the private realm itself, on the grounds that ‘private’ acts of consumption and (reproduction have ‘public’ effects. Citizenship, some ecological theory seems to suggest, begins at home.

The other key democracy issue raised by the sustainability debate is that of representation. There are at least three types of constituency in the green context that are unfamiliar to democratic theory and practice—in terms of boundaries in space, time and the species barrier. First, we know that environmental problems, such as pollution, cannot be restricted to one country, so decisions with an environmental dimension made in any given country may—indeed probably will—affect people in other countries. Do these people have a right to be democratically represented, on something like a ‘principle of affected interests’? Second, the discussion above indicated that future generations of human beings form a key part of the sustainability equation. They are evidently not actually present (and could not be present) when environmental decisions are taken, but should they be ‘present’ surrogately—for democratic reasons in some way? Representation in democratic theory has always been about making the absent present, so if there are objections to the idea of representing future generations democratically, this is likely to be for practical rather than normative reasons. Finally, we saw earlier that one aspect of the green normative agenda revolves around expanding the moral and—perhaps—the political community to include (some) species other than the human one. The interests of other species are evidently affected by human actions, so should these interests be represented in some way in the democratic process?3

The ecologism-democracy debate, then, is interesting for reasons internal to green politics, but democratic theorists in general have reason to think about the implications of the environmental problematic for democratic theory and practice too. The same goes for social justice. As we know, social justice is about the fair distribution of benefits and burdens in society. Sustainability makes us think about this general prospectus in a number of different ways. First of all, there is the question of whether the ‘environment’ can and should be regarded in terms of ‘benefits and burdens.’ No theory of justice has made this a central question, but the presuppositional nature of ‘the environment’ for leading meaningful lives would suggest that it should be. The fact that the environment has been ignored as a potential feature of theories of justice speaks volumes for the disembodied and disembedded nature of much modern political theory. It is curious, yet significant, to recognize that that which makes social justice possible at all, as theory and as practice, has no place in the considerations of social justice theorists. It is part of the significance of green political theory, indeed, that this stricture might be applied to political theory in general (Baxter, 1996).

But of course social justice theorists are not only interested in the ‘What?’ of distribution, but also in the ‘According to what principle?’ question. Typical candidates are equality, merit, and historical right. In other words, what does ‘fair’ mean? My readings over the past few weeks suggest that thinking of the environment as something that can be distributed provides us with an interesting case against which to test Michael Walzer’s (1983) ‘spheres of justice’ notion. It will be remembered that Walzer resists the standard view that a universal metric of distribution can be applied across all distributable goods and bads. He argues that specific goods and bads (or ‘spheres’) have a principle of distribution ‘attached’ to them. One of his points is that goods with a preconditional quality should be distributed equally. This is something of a challenge to those who believe that a more universal metric should be applied—such as merit, for example. On this reading, goods of all sorts should be distributed on the basis of what people deserve, with the rider, perhaps, that they should begin in conditions of equal opportunity. Walzer provides an alternative view to this, and ‘the environment’ constitutes a test case for this alternative view. Green political theory suggests that the environment is a preconditional good par excellence, so if Walzer’s variable metric for distribution cannot be made to work in this context, then that may indicate a flaw in the theory itself. It occurs to me that this is an excellent example of the way in which issues raised in green political theory have a wider salience. In this case, I am persuaded that ‘mainstream’ political theorists are doing themselves a disservice if they regard environmental issues as unconnected with their interests. On the contrary, environmental issues constitute a rich context within which standard political theoretical enquiries take on new inflections and generate new implications.

This is true of another dimension of social justice theory, too—that which concerns the ‘community of justice,’ or the issue of who can be appropriately regarded as potential recipients of justice. It is a measure of the boundary-pushing nature of green political theory that it also raises the unusual question of whether beings other than human beings can be regarded as recipients of justice (Dobson, 1998; Low and Gleeson, 1998). A less exotic but nevertheless instructive and challenging possibility suggested by the environmental problematic is that future generations of human beings should be included in the community of justice. The idea of intergenerational justice hardly figures in most theories of justice, and I can’st help thinking that this is a missed opportunity for social justice theory. The possibility that future generations might be regarded as legitimate recipients of justice raises some standard social justice questions in the starkest form, such as: how much sacrifice can be demanded of one group in order to do justice to other groups? The general shape of this question is familiar to us in the context, for example, of redistributive taxation policies: how much is it legitimate to ask those that have to forgo for the sake of doing justice to those that have not? In the intergenerational context this becomes a question of how much the present generation should be asked to forgo for the sake of leaving future generations with the opportunities (in environmental terms) to live full and meaningful lives. It is something of a mystery why questions such as this have not been broached in social justice theory before, and my exposure to the justice/environment debate that took place while I was away has led me to the conclusion that social justice theorists are not doing their job properly if they fail to take seriously and fully Walzer’s stricture that membership of the community of justice is the most important thing to be distributed—and that this community may well include generations of people yet to be born (as well as non-humans and non-nationals).


Twenty years was a long time to be away. I had no idea what to expect when I returned to home and hearth but I certainly had plenty of time to think about it. One recurring thought I had was that returning would be like being born again, in the sense that changes would have taken place over which I had had no control and in regard of which I had had no input. It worried me that decisions would be made without taking account of the needs and potential wants of people 20 years hence—i.e. me when I returned from the Pacific. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that this ‘worry’ had become a central concern of this new branch of political theory that had developed while I was away—green political theory. Sitting in splendid isolation on my Pacific island, I was clearly a member of the global political community but my actual absence meant that I played no part in it, even though my interests were being affected by decisions taken in it. This is the lived experience both of the many people marginalized from global decision-making today, and an accurate surrogate portrayal of the ‘absence’ of future generations from the decision-making process even though their interests are clearly harmed or enhanced by it.

Green political theory, then, challenges us to expand the political community, and to grapple with the implications of imagining the interests of future generations as our own, at least in the first instance. One dimension of this involves understanding the embeddedness of human beings in their ‘natural’ environment. Future generations cannot do without the skein of life support that starts just below the surface of the earth and ends at the stratosphere. I ‘knew’ this in my mind when I first went to the Pacific island, but I ‘lived’ it during my feeble yet ultimately more or less successful attempts to grow indigenous crops during my time there. And my relationship with my surroundings underwent a more subtle change too. Physically isolated from the rest of the world, the island was—and is—the home of species of animal and plant that are found nowhere else in the world. It was a source of great joy to me and to some of my companions on the experiment to live with this flora and fauna and to observe its rare rhymes and rhythms. As it happened I was the very last person to leave the island, having volunteered to do some clearing up and closing down. During that final day on the island I felt like the last person on earth.4 The island was there to do with as I wished; everything on it was at my mercy and in my gift. Almost the last thing I saw before boarding the boat that would take me home was a nest containing one egg belonging to what we believed was the last breeding pair of a bird known only to this island. I briefly considered taking the egg as a memento of my 20 years’s isolation from the world—and then realized in flash of blinding clarity that this was the wrong thing to do, not for any reason relating to human beings (there were none left) but because, simply, it might have been the last egg of all.

I never thought I would see that experience turned into a key aspect of a ‘new politics’ during my time away, yet politicizing and moralizing our relationship with the non-human natural world is indeed the leitmotif of green political theory. I am not a green political theorist myself, but I am firmly of the belief that the future of political theory should contain—and would be enriched by—a systematic engagement with its themes and challenges. Like its general subject—the multifaceted relationship, both physical/metabolic and ethical-political, between humans and the non-human world—there are few issues that green political theory does not touch upon. Given the range of problems and issues that we face in the twenty-first century (the democratic and social justice consequences of corporate led globalization, biotechnology and the commercial application of genetic knowledge; energy and resource shortages; and conflicts based on resource scarcity, world poverty and global inequality) it is clear that green political theory will continue to evolve as a key aspect of political theory to help us critically understand these developments and offer alternatives to them.