From Iceland — Democracy and Environmental Rationality

Democracy and Environmental Rationality

Published May 31, 2007

Democracy and Environmental Rationality

The Mismatch Problem
Why can the fundamental procedures of democracy not guarantee or encourage suitable outcomes in environmental issues? Stating that democracy is about procedures but environmental rationality is about outcomes hardly does more than hint at an answer to that question.

One reason to think that democracy is not likely to guarantee or encourage suitable outcomes stems from different spatial and temporal frames, namely the long range of environmental effects and the local focus of democratic decision. This is obvious if we consider issues like pollution: we drive cars, produce household waste, and eat agricultural products which are produced using artificial fertilizers. All of these activities pollute. But even if everyone agrees that these factors are partly to blame for the pollution, it is not clear what should be done. The relation between possible action and preferred consequences is rather loose and, as a consequence, it is difficult to form definite preferences and to reach a general consensus concerning environmental actions.

Democratic decisions, on the other hand, have a narrow focus. What triggers the need for a democratic decision is usually something pressing and present: lack of employment, a hope for tax reduction, a need for better roads, etc. Definite preferences are easily discernible in these cases. Furthermore, the relation between available action and possible satisfaction of preferences is relatively tight.

It is easy for people to form definite preferences concerning issues with a narrow focus. As the space of effects becomes larger and less concrete, as is often the case in environmental issues, forming preferences becomes more difficult. Moreover, environmental issues may demand a time frame extending far beyond that of democratic decision-making. A hydroelectric power project supplying energy to an aluminium smelter may require decades of research, whereas the decision to build an aluminium smelter is reached within a short time span based on market conditions and cyclical changes in the metal industry.

The clearest example of this mismatch between environmental values and narrow preferences is the struggle against climate change. By now, it has been proven even beyond a reasonable doubt that the climate is changing and that human produced green house gases are to blame. Yet, we still buy big cars, drive everywhere, and generally do little to reduce our impact when such actions would require changes in our everyday life.

The opportunity to invest in forestry to reduce the amount of green house gases is taken as a solution to a personal situation, even if it is obvious that the practice of growing trees is (a) not a solution to the problem and (b) is not sustainable (since suitable land is a very limited resource). What makes investment in forestry such a successful option is that it allows us to do something about the problem without affecting our ways of living. It allows us to respond to the present environmental situation, however ineffectively, without compromising our ways of living.

The conclusion is that while environmental values may be strong in theory, they turn out to be weak in practice because they interfere with other preferences which, even if superficial, are close to hand. I call this the mismatch problem.

Democracy as Aggregation of Preferences
What I have said so far does not really show that democracy undermines environmental rationality. It only shows that democracy, which focuses on peoples’ preferences, tends to do so. But we should take a moment to consider what democracy is – or rather, what it should be.

In his influential book Democracy and its Critics, the American philosopher Robert A. Dahl presents an idea of democracy that fits the common conception of the term in many ways. Dahl suggests the following four criteria for democratic procedure:

1) Effective Participation: Throughout the process of making binding decisions, citizens ought to have an adequate opportunity, and an equal opportunity, for expressing their preferences as to the final outcome. They must have adequate and equal opportunities for placing questions on the agenda and for expressing reasons for endorsing one outcome rather than another. (Dahl, p. 109)

2) Voting Equality at the Decisive Stage: At the decisive stage of collective decisions, each citizen must be ensured an equal opportunity to express a choice that will be counted as equal in weight to the choice expressed by any other citizen. In determining outcomes at the decisive stage, these choices, and only these choices, must be taken into account. (Dahl, p. 109)

3) Enlightened Understanding: Each citizen ought to have adequate and equal opportunity for discovering and validating (within the time permitted by the need for decision) the choices on the matter to be decided that would best serve the citizen’s interests. (Dahl, p. 112)

4) Control of the Agenda: The demos [i.e. those who have the right to vote] must have the exclusive opportunity to decide how matters are to be placed on the agenda of matters that are to be decided by means of the democratic process. (Dahl, p. 113)

Dahl outlines a conception of democracy according to which the main function of a democratic procedure is to pool the citizens’ preferences together and make binding decisions accordingly. In short, democracy is concerned with the aggregation of preferences. Dahl’s criteria are meant to guarantee that the democratic procedure is free from coercion and the unjustified elimination of people’s preferences, that the final decision is enlightened, and that the agenda is controlled by those affected.

Against an Aggregative Conception
The first of Dahl’s four criteria for democratic procedure lists three conditions for effective participation: citizens ought to have adequate and equal opportunities (i) for expressing their preferences, (ii) for placing questions on the political agenda, and (iii) for expressing reasons for endorsing one outcome rather than another. The third condition has little force on its own. The reasons people have certain preferences do not count in the final outcome, and there is nothing in the criteria which says that a procedure would be less democratic if these reasons were ignored. This is not because the requirement as such is foreign to democratic procedure – it should be important – but because it does not fit well into the aggregative conception. Effective participation means that people’s preferences get known, not their underlying reasons. The ordinary person takes part in a democratic procedure by casting her vote according to her preferences, and effective participation means that she understands what options best fit her preferences and that she casts her vote so that it gets counted.

Dahl might argue that if the citizens were not granted equal opportunity to express their reasons for endorsing a specific outcome their influence on the political agenda, or even on the final decision, might be unequal. If someone has a better opportunity to express her reasons for favouring a particular outcome, then she is in a privileged position to argue that some interests, that may be widely shared, are best served by this particular outcome. This would make her influence on the final outcome greater than the influence of others, which would violate the principle that all interests be given equal consideration.

As appealing as this argument may be, it militates against Dahl’s conception of democracy rather than supporting it. This argument undermines the idea of democratic procedure as a pooling of preferences, and supports the idea that democratic procedure is a procedure in which preferences are formed and transformed. This argument also moves the emphasis from voting to the discussion leading up to the final voting.

Political Justification
The conception of political justification that we get from the aggregative conception of democracy is too permissive; too much can legitimately be done. According to the aggregative conception, democratic procedure is primarily about voting, which yields a winner and a loser, and there is nothing within the democratic standards which prevents the winner from violating certain non-political rights, such as religious rights, of those who lose. In most democratic countries, various non-political rights are protected, but from the point of view of the aggregative conception their protection is not a matter of democracy. The protection of such rights is seen (from the aggregative point of view) as an external hindrance to authoritative action, be it an action driven by a simple majority vote or the action of an elected individual.

It is interesting to consider the relevance of future generations in this context. As a matter of fact, the preferences of future generations cannot be taken into account in the democratic process as laid out by the aggregative conception, since those preferences have not yet been formed. This fact has severe consequences when decisions about environmental issues are taken, since such decisions usually have consequences which extend far into the future. The example of Kárahnjúkavirkjun should make this clear. The dam and the damage done by the reservoir will be there for generations to come and future generations will, when time comes, have various preferences regarding the whole Kárahnjúkar project. But those preferences had no weight in the decision to go forward with this project. To account for future generations, it would of course be possible to impose certain restrictions on the democratic procedure, such as a demand for sustainability and respect for certain enumerated rights. But such restrictions would be external to the democratic procedure, i.e. they would be external hindrances to what could be subject to democratic decision and, hence, democracy and concern for future generations would be at odds.

Deliberative Democracy
Because of the above problem (and various others) philosophers have looked for a different conception of democracy, one of which is the so called deliberative democracy. Under this heading are various theories, but common to all of them is a conception of the political process as involving more than self-interested competition governed by bargaining and aggregative mechanisms (Bohman and Reg, p. xiii). A further common underlying idea is a conception of the state as a cooperative venue for the citizens to set themselves goals and to work towards them. Understanding the role of the state in this way raises questions about the legitimacy of state action in general, in particular its monopoly on the use of force. The need for democracy derives from the fact that the citizens must take collective, binding decisions concerning various issues, and such decisions will favour the preferences of some people at the expense of the preferences of others. The basic question then is: How can a state action, which goes against the preferences of some people, be seen by those very people as an action belonging to a cooperative venue to which they belong?

If a state action can only be justified on grounds which are incompatible with people’s basic values and rights, such action will be deemed illegitimate irrespective of its consequences. A ban on smoking in public places justified in terms of a lesser worth of smokers would be illegitimate, whether or not such a ban would be in violation of any rights or fundamental values. The illegitimacy of such a ban derives from an unacceptable justification which depicts some people as having lesser worth than others. However, a similar ban justified in terms of health risk towards non-smokers would be legitimate. According to the aggregative conception, majority vote is usually a sufficiently good justification for action, but according to the deliberative conception, people’s basic rights and fundamental values are assigned such weight that a majority vote may not suffice as a justification for action.

According to the deliberative conception of democracy, the requirement of political justification makes substantial demands concerning people’s rights and liberty and ultimately their sense of selfworth. This means that the protection of various non-political rights, such as religious rights, is inherent in the deliberative conception of democracy. It is not an external hindrance to democratic decisions as seen from the aggregative viewpoint.

Deliberative Democracy and the Mismatch Problem
The mismatch problem derives from the fact that people may have definite preferences concerning local matters, but in matters where the space of effect extends into the distance, either because it concerns remote regions or consequences that will only become relevant decades later, preference orderings becomes much trickier. This leads to the conclusion that trivial local preferences may outweigh fundamental preferences in matters that are more distant and elusive.

Solving the mismatch problem seems to require giving certain interests and preferences more weight than others by constructing barriers that are not part of democratic procedure in the aggregative sense, i.e. hindrances that constrain what issues can be put on the local political agenda, what political and social rights must be upheld, which principle to impose, etc. However, if the situation is viewed from the deliberative perspective, assigning different weight to different interests and preferences need not be foreign to a democratic procedure but may follow from the requirement that persons should be shown equal respect. In particular, showing special concern for the interests of future generations, say by imposing a requirement of sustainability, need not involve factors that lie outside the democratic procedure.

Showing people equal respect will directly involve future generations in so far as they will be affected by the decisions in question. Moreover, showing equal respect to individuals belonging to the present generation may require indirect concern for future generations, since individuals living now may derive their meaning of life from the thought that they may have children one day, and these children may, in turn, have children themselves. In the deliberative framework there are means to take such distant values into account. This is particularly relevant in the case of the environment, especially when it comes to unspoiled nature which is generally regarded as an important source of a meaning of life while being possibly, at the same time, an important provider of raw materials for industry which is driven by the immediate here and now.

The mismatch problem does not support the view that there is a fundamental conflict between democracy and environmental rationality. Why people have thought so lies partly in an unacceptable conception of democracy – the aggregative conception. Once democracy is seen as a deliberative procedure based on the assumption that the state is a cooperative venue for the pursuit of happiness, the appearance of such a conflict vanishes. And in general, the idea that democracy might undermine environmental rationality because the former is about procedures while the latter is about outcomes, is not justified since the deliberative conception of democracy makes substantial claims about outcomes.

James Bohman and William Rehg (eds.) Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 1997. Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and its Critics, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1989. The author is an assistant professor of philosophy at the Iceland University of Education. He has recently published a collection of philosophical essays called: Náttúrua, vald og verðmæti (Nature, Authority and Value) on the subject of envrionmental philosophy.

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