The Challenge

Since 2009, FDSD has considered, debated and offered proposals on how to improve the relationship between sustainable development and democracy. You can find a summary of our thinking to date below, and a longer version in a briefing paper: The Relationship between Democracy and Sustainable Development.

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 – the ability of all people to come together and be involved in decisions about how we live and the goals we want to achieve as societies.

The justice, legitimacy and transparency achieved by democratic contests and safeguards make the achievement of sustainable development fairer and accepted. The survival of democracy will also be very difficult in an unequal, resource-constrained and overheated world. In other words, sustainable development itself is foundational to any democratic political system.

Any such discussion also has to take into account the role and power of the economic system in creating problems and opportunities for both sustainable development and democracy, as well as the increased complexity and uncertainty of the challenges facing humankind.

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. Some of these tensions are set out below:

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

It is also likely there is a need for increased public awareness and supportive norms to enable any democratic changes to be accepted, as well as an increased reliance on trusted knowledge and data (both scientific and more informal) to inform understanding and potential responses.

This challenge is also part of the wider pressure on current models of democracy to respond to people’s needs for a different kind of politics and engagement.

We are building up Ideas in Action which illustrate the different ways that people are addressing these challenges under the following themes:

  • Constitutions, rights and law embedding long-term, nature, future generations and sustainable development principles.
  • Political institutions and policy-making that incorporate sustainable development and the long-term, integrate decision-making and appropriately value options, risk and uncertainty.
  • Participation and accountability to improve decisions, implementation, justice and legitimacy.
  • Multi-level Governance to better respond to the challenges of impacts and causes at different spatial levels.
  • Promoting Culture, Values and Awareness that create supportive norms, understanding and collaboration.
  • The Roles of Civil Society and Business in adapting and innovating democracy to address sustainable development

We have chosen to focus on three of these themes to collaboratively explore what works and doesn’t, and consider new ideas for appropriate change.

We have also looked at these issues in relation to climate change specifically in ‘The Future of Democracy in the Face of Climate Change‘, a series of five papers which culminated in four future scenarios to 2050: transition democracy, post-authoritarian democracy, technocratic democracy and rationed democracy (based on two uncertainties: nature and availability of technology, and values prevalent in society).

climate change scenarios