Democracy is the world's dominant political system. But it's poorly equipped for intergenerational challenges like climate change, resource scarcity and ageing or expanding populations. These challenges could even put democracy under great strain around the world; an argument that we regularly deploy at the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (www.fdsd.org) to make the case for our work.
Democracy as practised over the past two hundred years or so has been a means to deliver 'more'.
At the same time, the environmental pressures and impacts of the human thirst for 'more' are becoming ever-clearer: in the opening words of the summary of the authoritative 2012 GEO-5 Global Environmental Outlook, an initiative of the UN Environment Programme: "[t]he currently observed changes in the Earth System are unprecedented in human history". Already, the report cautions, "several critical global, regional and local thresholds are close or have been exceeded", bringing the likelihood of multiple and possibly irreversible changes to planetary life-support functions and to human social systems.
Mainstream economic growth models are blamed by many, if not most, environmental advocates, for driving unsustainable production and consumption. And here lies a problem. Democracy too often appears to be associated in the minds of its elected representatives with the mainstream economic growth models that underpin unsustainable patterns of development. The general tendency holds generally true whatever one's view of the partial exceptionalism of contemporary politics on the Latin American Left in countries like Bolivia and Ecuador.
Many non liberal democracies are prone to economic short-termism too of course. The challenge for sustainable development stems as much from various forms of cultural and political self-interest as from ideology (i.e. liberalism in politics and the economy). That means that responses to the 'democracy/economic growth interface' need to be capable of playing out at the cultural as well as the political level, and to do so in ways that dislodge vested interests and elites to provide greater space for the ideas of equity and equality.
If the link between democracy and mainstream economic growth (and financial) models isn't good for sustainable development, it's not necessarily good for democracy either. The ongoing financial and sovereign debt crises that plague much of Europe have shown how badly things can go wrong for democracies (think the technocracy of Italy or the recent political paralysis of Greece for example) when economic and fiscal models are allowed to prioritise short-term financial benefit and political self-preservation without regard to longer-term social costs. In turn, these crises have made it more difficult for cash-strapped democracies to prioritise social justice, let alone climate change or environmental protection. And it's striking that much of the political rhetoric in Europe is about finding ways to return to economic growth - almost as if all other human goals are subordinate to that aim.
The signs that elected representatives in many democracies prioritise economic growth over other societal goals isn't matched by evidence that democracy is actually better for economic growth, either.
David Keane notes, on a review of the evidence, that "only one thing is certain: the findings [do] not confirm the commonplace that democracies are friends of economic growth - even supposing that quantitative economic growth is a desirable good" (John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy, 2009, Simon and Schuster, London, at page 844 (footnote). There is no consistent evidence, he argues, that democracies consistently outperform dictatorships in achieving economic growth.
The problems facing some of Europe's most recently re-emerged democracies have powerful psychological as well as economic spillover effects.
If it is to thrive in the face of the challenges ahead, democracy will need to outcompete the sometimes seductive lure of its more authoritarian competitors, reflecting the reality that it is not the only game in play when it comes to securing improvements in living conditions. And because so many people want 'more', and define it narrowly, that becomes more difficult in times of recession - or, equally, at times when the consequence is to ask the people of rapidly growing nations to accept 'less'.
At the same time, if we take sustainable development seriously, democracy is essential; a fact recognised in the formal outcome of this year's UN Conference on Sustainable Development, The Future We Want. In paragraph 10, UN member states acknowledge 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 job of ensuring that democracy is resilient needs to begin now. This is why, in June 2012, the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD) launched international public consultations to develop a Manifesto for Democracy and Sustainable Development (see www.fdsd.org/manifesto and www.fdsd.org/manifesto/consultation_eng).
The open consultation runs to mid-November 2012, and after a synthesis workshop with Salzburg Global Seminar in December, FDSD aims to launch the manifesto for sign-on early in 2013. It'll be short, setting out a vision, principles and actions for a practical agenda for change. We envisage a 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.
As we progress with the consultation, the link between democracy and economic growth is in our sights. Among the six principles which FDSD is consulting on, we propose the following:
Get beyond money: by finding ways to break the apparent bond between liberal democracy and mainstream economic growth models that support unsustainable production and consumption
Tell us what you think.
If the 'problem' of getting beyond the money is clear, a good manifesto should also set out an agenda for change. So we need ideas on practical actions that could accompany each of our proposed principles. Would it be enough for the manifesto simply to reflect the best of the current political fashion for seeking to enable the growth of a 'green economy' (though without explicitly tackling the 'non-green' economy)? What other actions could foster widespread public (democratic) demand for new economic models? And what steps could make it politically feasible for elected representatives at national and sub-national levels democratically to lead a transition away from current growth models and guarantee fairness in the distribution of winners and losers?
Please help create the ripple effect that's needed if we're to equip democracy to deliver sustainable development.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Halina Ward can be reached via email@example.com