Rowman and Littlefield International

Sustainability and democracy: long journeys in the same direction


Published on Monday 27 Mar 2017

One of the most valuable insights from critical political studies is that the domain of democracy extends well beyond institutional politics. I was well aware of this when, some five years ago, I decided to investigate democracy in the public sphere. However, what puzzled me was that deliberative democracy, one of the main strands of contemporary democratic thinking, had paid only limited attention to the role of democratic deliberation in the public sphere.

Participatory democrats, rather than deliberative democrats, had led the way in the study of the public sphere. There certainly were great works informed also by a deliberative sensibility in the study of the public sphere: from Jane Mansbridge’s seminal book Beyond Adversary Democracy to Francesca Polletta’s path breaking Freedom is an Endless Meeting. Yet, it was participatory democratic ideas that were at the center of debates on and investigations of democracy in institutions such as workplaces and businesses, families and religious communities, civil society associations and social movements.

I was somewhat puzzled by deliberative democrats’ tendency to focus on circumscribed experiments of democratic deliberation when Habermasian arguments pointed at society-wide deliberative democratic engagement as the main way to address the growing complexity of our world. Certainly, the extensive body of studies on deliberative (state or popular) institutions provided a fundamental resource for understanding the functioning of democratic deliberation. Nevertheless, many agreed, it was problematic that much less attention had been given to the role of deliberation in the considerably broader and messier realm of the public sphere.

So, my intention to look at the deliberative democratic qualities of a social movement was timely; and I decided to focus on Transition, a really fascinating and ever evolving transnational movement promoting sustainability and resilience. Yet, there were some lingering questions. First, why study the deliberative democratic qualities of a movement mobilizing for sustainability and resilience? That is, why not look, instead, at the democratic qualities of movements mobilizing for democracy?

The question of the type of movement I chose to study was easy to answer. To begin with, a burgeoning literature on deliberation in pro-democracy movements around the world was already emerging, I could have added only little to it. Second, while the case of pro-democracy movements was surely different from that of citizen deliberation, both shared a similar commitment to the direct promotion of deliberative democracy. The tendency to focus on such actors was something of a limit for our field, and I intended to contribute redressing it. Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, a growing body of research pointed at the affinities between environmentalist and deliberative democratic ideas. My interest in having a deeper look into the matter was not unwarranted. 

A tougher question, however, was something of this sort: If my community groups were not to display any deliberative democratic quality, could they be blamed for it? After all, they were not striving for more deliberation and democracy but for more sustainability and resilience. Of course, blaming is not what I was setting out to do, but, could I criticize the movement I was studying if I found it to display little or no deliberative democratic qualities? My sense was that there were really two questions in the above statement: one normative, the other empirical. I thought it right to start with the latter.

I thus investigated four Transition communities, two in Italy and two in Australia. In all cases, I was welcomed by some of the kindest and most generous groups of people I have met. Yet, it didn’t take long to realize that participants were more grounded in…well, resilience and sustainability rather than democratic theory. Hardly surprising after all. However, if I talked about the need for spaces for exchange of ideas and perspectives in respectful, egalitarian and inclusive ways, people understood me. They were often as eager for it as they were for local sustainability and resilience.

My four cases were taking action in very different contexts (Tasmania, Brisbane, Sicily, Emilia-Romagna). It was clear that the appreciation of deliberation and the ability to engage in it were not only related to the internal characteristics of the group (compositions, main values, organization). They also depended on the extent to which such engaging in democratic deliberation was perceived as a “useful” way to achieve the group’s objectives. 

Thus, the answer to the more normative part of my puzzle started to emerge. In a democratic society we can expect that citizens organizing for a cause do so in democratic ways. But what that democratic engagement consists of is a complex matter, not just in theorists’ brains. Democratic deliberation is better pursued not for its own sake, but when it furthers the pursuit of another objective (in the case of my groups sustainability and resilience). If deliberating is largely inconsequential, it is hard to blame activists for not doing it.

The deliberative qualities of my groups changed from case to case but, at a minimum, virtually everyone acknowledged the need for a critical space for democratic deliberation as a key asset in striving for their own objective. The quest for spaces for democratic deliberation and the parallel one for sustainability, after all, emerged as intimately connected. More precisely, we could couple both endeavors under one heading: the construction of a critical public. That is, a public that is able to reflect upon our current situation and to conceive of ways to improve it by caring about the community we live in (of which the environment is a vital component) and by seeking to promote freedom and equality.

Critical engagement is necessary for the pursuit of both democratic and sustainability goals, in institutions as well as in the public sphere. Acknowledging that there is a synergy between struggles that are based on critical engagement is particularly important to counter rising demagoguery and to assert the prospect of a future that is worth fighting for.


Andrea Felicetti is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, Center on Social Movement Studies (COSMOS), Scuola Normale Superiore, Italy.