The Relationship between Democracy and Sustainable Development


At one level, the ideas and reality of sustainable development and democracy overlap and are interdependent. Common to both sustainable development and democracy is participation. There are also tensions and differences between the two ideas which need to be resolved in order for current political democratic systems to adapt in the direction of achieving sustainable development.

Pressures on our current democratic systems, particularly the demand for a very different kind of politics or engagement, and the challenges of tackling complex problems, also imply that our democratic system and practices need to evolve.

This paper sets out both the similarities and tensions between democracy and sustainable development, and scopes out the ways in which these tensions might be resolved.

Tensions between existing liberal democracies and sustainable development

Existing liberal democracies Sustainable development implications
Responsive and adaptive, although with tendency to short-termism Long-term impacts and focus on intergenerational equity and stewardship
Defined political geographies and legally defined citizens Drivers and impacts cross political geographies, and governance levels. Affected people include those in other political jurisdictions and future generations
Economic growth given primacy Sustainable development requires integration and trade-offs between economic, environmental and social considerations
Environmental limits not generally taken into account Environmental limits to human activity
Tendency towards policy silos and the use of socio-economic policy tools for choice and resource allocation Integrated and precautionary policy in recognition of complex and uncertain environmental, economic and social impacts and interactions; supported by multi-criteria and multi-discipline policy tools
Competing ideas Shared goals
Individual freedom as dominant ethic Shared values which incorporate future orientation and concern for nature