16 Legal Service Bull. 157 (1991)
Democracy and the Ecological Crisis

handle is hein.journals/alterlj16 and id is 167 raw text is: 1                                                                                                              1571

Democracy
and the
ecological crisis

Freya Mathews
Can a democracy
adequately respond to
the ecological crisis, or
do we need new
political institutions
and ethics?

Although the present period in world his-
tory has been hailed by some as an age of
democracy, a period in which there is a
significant worldwide trend towards
greater democratisation, it is also a period
that is witnessing unprecedented ecologi-
cal crisis on a global scale. This crisis
certainly represents a fundamental chal-
lenge to the principles of democracy, and
democracy itself may represent a fun-
damental obstacle to ecological reform.
It seems to me that this prima facie
tension between democracy and the
project of environmental protection
raises profound political questions that
are not being adequately addressed by
contemporary political scientists and
philosophers. These questions are fun-
damental to the practice of green politics,
but are not being explored to any great
extent at a deeper philosophical level.' I
want here to distinguish three such ques-
tions, which I shall state, and discuss, but
not attempt to answer. My motive for
raising them is simply to draw attention
to their portentous nature, and to en-
courage their further exploration. The
three questions are as follows:
 Can a liberal democratic system
respond adequately to crisis when the
crisis is not directly 'visible', i.e. when
it is identifiable to experts and to per-
sons specially briefed, but not to ordi-
nary citizens? This is a general ques-
tion about the limitations of
democracy, but it is one which is
peculiarly pertinent in the context of
the ecological crisis.
 What is the relation of ethics to
democracy? Are democratic systems
based on moral values or on self-inter-
est? If they rest ultimately on self-in-
terest, can they guarantee adequate
protection of the natural world?
 What in fact constitutes the best politi-
cal scenario for environmental
reform? Would such reform best be
facilitated by the devolution of power

away from the state into local com-
munities, or by the centralisation of
power into federal and international
agencies?
Limits of democracy
The first question raises the issue of
whether, in a parliamentary democracy, a
government would be justified in, and
capable of, overriding the will of its
citizens for the sake of a long-term good
not fully recognised by them. One imme-
diate response to this question might be
to insist that since democracy hinges on
the social awareness of its citizens, its
citizens must be educated so as to be
capable of appreciating and therefore
demanding important goods. However,
this response overlooks the fact that even
though education is fundamental to the
viability of democracy, the members of a
given democratic system may not recog-
nise this, and may thus refuse to support
adequate education programs in their
own communities. In other words, educa-
tion may itself be one of the vital goods
that citizens fail to appreciate and conse-
quently fail to mandate governments to
provide. Moreover, even if citizens were
fully cognizant of the ecological crisis
and apprised of the need for environmen-
tal reform, they might still be reluctant to
subordinate their immediate interests to
such a long-term and seemingly abstract
good.
Indeed, in the western world we have
recently experienced a great popular
awakening to environmental concern.
The extreme gravity and urgency of the
global ecological crisis has been con-
veyed to the public by sustained media
exposure of the problem. The public has
become alarmed, and individuals have
begun, in small ways, to modify their
consumption patterns - for instance, by
giving preference to 'environment
friendly' products. They appear to be
anxious that governments should act. At
the same time, however, there is a sense
that, having switched to benign products
and signalled their concern to govern-
ments, ordinary citizens are absolved
from any further responsibility, and can
simply hand the problem over to the
authorities. It may be, however, that the
lifestyle changes that the ecological crisis
demands are broader and deeper than the
public is willing to acknowledge, and that
the social and economic costs of these
changes would be higher than the public
would be prepared to accept. Lacking a
popular mandate for vital environmental
reforms then, a democratic government
would appear to have little power to im-
plement them, and even if it had the

Vol. 16, No. 4, August * 1991

Freya Mathews leaches philosophy at La Trobe
University. Her book, The Ecological Self, was
published by Routledge this year.

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