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is democracy good for sustainability?

By: James Miller

Sustainability Salute - Green Olympic Volunteers, Beijing China_0050
Sustainability Salute from the Green Olympic Volunteers

I’m teaching a course in religion and the environment this term, and my students are preparing to debate this very question: is democracy good for sustainability?

By way of background, they have been reading Judith Shapiro’s book Mao’s War Against Nature, which forcefully details the way that Maoist ideology trumped scientific reason in charting China’s development in the twentieth century, resulting in famine, population explosion, and environmental disaster.

The question is, does this argument still hold today?

In his recent International Herald Tribune op-ed about Pan Yue, vice-minister of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Daniel Gardner writes approvingly of China’s new-found faith in sustainability (props to John Liu at Yale University for sending me the link). Gardner says:

… Chinese indifference to the environment is a myth. In the last few years China has begun to take aggressive action to bring its air and water pollution under control.

Here are a few examples:

  • China’s fuel-efficiency standard for cars is currently pegged at 43 miles per gallon, which means that when America’s 2020 standards of 35 mpg go into effect they’ll be lower than China’s minimum standard of today.
  • Coal-fired plants must install or retrofit filtering devices in their smokestacks.
  • Chief executives of companies found responsible for waste-dumping are being fined 50 percent of their previous year’s salary.
  • Approval of new industrial projects in cities along China’s four major rivers has been suspended indefinitely. 

Gardner goes on to write that the credit for these policies is due “mostly to one man,” Pan Yue. The unflattering comparison with US environmental policies raises the question of whether a democracy or a more authoritarian form of government is best suited to responding to the ecological crisis.

The downside of democracy is that politicians have to respond to the immediate desires of their electorate every four or five years, whereas environmentalists are often concerned with the “big picture.” When you worry about what’s going to happen in the next twenty years as a result of global climate change, it’s very hard to convince politicians to change their policies in the here and now. Especially in a recession, people are worried about jobs, health care and more immediate issues. 

The downside of authoritarianism, as Shapiro documents, is when the politicians at the top get their policies wrong, and everyone suffers as a result. She argues that a democracy is better for the environment because it is easier for scientists and NGOs to challenge governments and to dissent from official orthodoxies. 

While I certainly agree that it is a good thing that democracy gives space for dissent, it doesn’t immediately follow from this that democracy is good for the environment. In modern democracies, environmentalism is fighting for cultural space along with consumerism, creationism, capitalism and a whole host of competing value systems.

The problem that environmentalists such as Gus Speth note is that time for change has run out. Democracy has failed to bring about the kind of radical environmental change that is necessary to ensure sustainable forms of economics and global trade. Instead we have economic volatility and the unsustainable and geopolitically destabilizing downloading of environmental problems onto developing countries.

In such circumstances, Gardner makes China’s authoritarian politics seems tempting. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the USA had its own Pan Yue? 

It’s worth remembering two things in all of this. One is that although China does not have direct popular elections, neither is it a dynastic totalitarian state like Cuba. China has a relatively robust political system for the transfer of power from one generation to another–it just takes place within the politicking of the Communist Party.

Secondly, there is a broad grass-roots environmental movement in China, led by a host of NGOs and GONGOs (Government-Organized Non-Governmental Organizations) such as Friends of Nature and the Chinese Environmental Culture Promotion Association (CECPA). Without them it would be difficult for politicians such as Pan Yue to command the attention that they do among China’s political elite.

In my view, the situation of China and the West is remarkably similar. We both require broad-based grass-roots organizations, and we both require inspiring leaders who have the power to put good environmental policies into place.

Categories: Blog, Opinion, Questions


  1. I would say that democracy is good for sustainability to the extent that the voting population is engaged and wants sustainability. Or even sustainability at all costs. It is growing on the agenda as an issue to be dealt with, but with democracy “growing” tends to not equal the majority needed to get the representation to get things done. So whether democracy is good for sustainability is slightly a red herring in my opinion. Democracy is not necessarily good nor bad for sustainability. If the leadership engages it as a policy, it almost matters not whether it is done as a result of democracy or authoritarianism. The Chinese government may indeed have put the regulations in that the article requires. The Chinese population, at least as of 2002, still disposed of rubbish on trains by throwing it out the window, with extra points for getting it in a stream as the stream would wash it away. The population in democratic countries may be beginning to push sustainability. The leadership hasn’t caught on yet. My question becomes “is capitalism good for sustainability?” and the answer is “it can be if we make it so.” Which comes to think of it is the same answer to your original question.

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