Sustainable Society Environmental Protection through Democracy

Hyloscirtus Antioquia, Chocolate Frog
© Erika Torres, 2019

Halting future environmental crises is one of the greatest challenges the world is facing today. To do so, creating democracies and societies that are politically committed to the planet seems imminent.

Humans leave traces of their presence on Earth. The footprint we are leaving on nature today is reaching critical levels, and our impact on the planet is becoming increasingly evident and undeniable. The list is long: sea and soil pollution, massive deforestation, rising temperatures, extreme droughts, overexploitation of resources, polar melting, oil spills, large-scale use of pesticides, species extinction... This process has even set in motion a new geological epoch, which reflects man’s impact on Earth: the so-called Anthropocene.
The environmental crisis we have been experiencing for at least half a century—the most urgent sign of which is climate change—is now among the central issues of our time. And it is undoubtedly the most important for the future because it compromises the very existence of human life. This is not the first transformation we have faced in human history, but it is the only one whose multiple effects puts us at risk as a species. If we do not respect the biophysical limits of the planet, any desire for future prosperity will be limited.

Democracy as a Vehicle for Sustainability

What could be the solution to this crisis and the path to a sustainable society? One proposed means is to transform formal democracy: to make it a vehicle for sustainability. In this way, the generalized common interest would allow the democratic-deliberative political system to generate decisions to directly favor that very interest, thus culminating in the distinction between democracy as process and sustainability as product.
A society with aspirations for sustainability—one that promotes intergenerational environmental equity and a healthy relationship with the environment—must be based on inclusive, synergistic, and proactive participation. In this kind of society, all social groups, affected communities, political representatives, and citizens, as a whole, can establish a set of ideas based on consensus in order to identify and solve socio-environmental problems. It is a process whereby people are protagonists in problem solving, contributing their own creativity, points of view, knowledge and resources and sharing responsibility in decision making. Such a model seems imperative, given the magnitude of the current environmental problems and, consequently, the challenges contemporary societies are facing.
No one in their right mind, today, would think that environmental problems can be solved without the participation of civil society or that only the state or corporations can provide—or pretend to provide—solutions to environmental crises. And yet, this continues to be the case. One obvious result is the sustained increase in conflicts. There are many examples of this in Latin America: social mobilizations against mega-mining; the fight for the rights of nature; disputes over traditional land use; the protection of biodiversity; and many other situations where civil society is trying, through social struggle, to make room for participation and decision-making, which traditional institutions are denying them.    

Participatory processes are thus a fundamental strategy for solving socio-environmental conflicts since they grant greater legitimacy to public decisions by creating a sense of shared responsibility among citizens and various economic and social actors. The connection between sustainability and democracy becomes evident when we discern that environmental problems are, in fact, political and have underlying political causes and, ideally, should have political solutions.

Science, Technology and Traditional Knowledge

Democracy and the environment must go hand in hand. Full citizenship is unthinkable in a degraded environment on the brink of collapse. If we aspire to contribute to the creation of a new environment, we must transform societies so that they themselves are the most visible expression of the environment. The idea of a new democracy incorporates the need for citizen participation in environmental issues. And, in the case of Latin America, it involves science and technology as legitimate instruments of progress, in addition to respect for and the incorporation of traditional knowledge, for instance knowledge about native peoples.
The aim would be to create a kind of environmental citizenship. This means inventing a new development paradigm, which places citizens at the center of development processes; considers economic growth to be an ecologically constrained process as a means to achieving a higher level of human well-being and not as an end in and of itself; protects the life opportunities of current and future generations. Which, in essence, respects the integrity of the natural ecosystems that allow the planet to exist.
This is an immense challenge, which implies very demanding work, including building spaces and institutions for citizen expression, developing public opinion and active social actors, organizing groups that exercise community control over government policies, promoting proactive dialogue between information networks and knowledge production of organized citizens, creating public spaces to negotiate environmental agendas…  This is the only way to ensure the implementation of public policies that reflect the demands and proposals of civil society, while also creating and formalizing mechanisms for conflict resolution.
This kind of model, for Latin America—and indeed for most of the world—is still little more than hopeful. The challenge of this “citizenship for sustainability” requires taking on new public policies, however, as of now, there seems to be no clear intention to do so. But if there were, it would open the path to more democracy, greater participation, an increase in equity, and the viability of building societies that are directed at solving environmental problems—perhaps the most important issue the human race is facing this century.

This article was first published by Humboldt Magazine.