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Deliberation and the Promise of a Deeply Democratic Sustainability Transition

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Abstract

Ecological economics arose as a normative transdiscipline aiming to generate knowledge and tools to help transition the economy toward a scale which is sustainable within the bounds of the earth system. Yet it remains unclear in practice how to legitimize its explicitly normative agenda. One potential means for legitimation can be found in deliberative social and political theory. We review how deliberative theory has informed ecological economics, pointing to three uses: first, to support valuation of non-market goods and services; second, to inform environmental decision-making more broadly; third, to ground alternative theories of development and wellbeing. We argue that deliberation has been used as problem-solving theory, but that its more radical implications have rarely been embraced. Embracing a deliberative foundation for ecological economics raises questions about the compatibility of deeply democratic practice and the normative discourses arguing for a sustainability transition. We highlight three potential mechanisms by which deliberation may contribute to a sustainability transition: preference formation; normative evaluation; and legitimation. We explore each in turn, demonstrating the theoretical possibility that deliberation may be conducive in and of itself to a sustainability transition. We point to a series of challenges facing the “scaling up” of deliberative systems that demand further empirical and theoretical work. These challenges constitute a research agenda for a deeply democratic sustainability transition and can inform the future development of ecological economics and other normative, critical transdisciplines.
sustainability
Review
Deliberation and the Promise of a Deeply Democratic
Sustainability Transition
Michael B. Wironen 1,2 ,* , Robert V. Bartlett 2,3 and Jon D. Erickson 1 ,2 ,*
1Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Vermont, Burlington,
VT 05405, USA
2Gund Institute for Environment, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT 05405, USA;
robert.v.bartlett@uvm.edu
3Department of Political Science, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT 05405, USA
*Correspondence: mwironen@uvm.edu (M.B.W.); jon.erickson@uvm.edu (J.D.E.)
Received: 21 December 2018; Accepted: 11 February 2019; Published: 16 February 2019
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Abstract:
Ecological economics arose as a normative transdiscipline aiming to generate knowledge
and tools to help transition the economy toward a scale which is sustainable within the bounds
of the earth system. Yet it remains unclear in practice how to legitimize its explicitly normative
agenda. One potential means for legitimation can be found in deliberative social and political
theory. We review how deliberative theory has informed ecological economics, pointing to three
uses: first, to support valuation of non-market goods and services; second, to inform environmental
decision-making more broadly; third, to ground alternative theories of development and wellbeing.
We argue that deliberation has been used as problem-solving theory, but that its more radical
implications have rarely been embraced. Embracing a deliberative foundation for ecological
economics raises questions about the compatibility of deeply democratic practice and the normative
discourses arguing for a sustainability transition. We highlight three potential mechanisms by which
deliberation may contribute to a sustainability transition: preference formation; normative evaluation;
and legitimation. We explore each in turn, demonstrating the theoretical possibility that deliberation
may be conducive in and of itself to a sustainability transition. We point to a series of challenges facing
the “scaling up” of deliberative systems that demand further empirical and theoretical work. These
challenges constitute a research agenda for a deeply democratic sustainability transition and can
inform the future development of ecological economics and other normative, critical transdisciplines.
Keywords:
deliberative democracy; sustainability transitions; ecological economics; normative
science; modernity; social-ecological transformations
1. Introduction
Growing concern about the extent of human impact on the planet and growing awareness
of the deep interconnectedness of social and ecological systems have led to the emergence of
solutions-oriented science that spans traditional disciplinary boundaries. In this vein, conservation
biology [
1
], ecological economics [
2
], sustainability science [
3
], agroecology [
4
], political ecology [
5
],
and other “transdisciplines” aim to bridge theory and practice with a critical, normative framing that
guides research. This framing can be simple, often relayed in pragmatic terms: for example, the world’s
ecosystems are suffering; biodiversity is intrinsically and instrumentally valuable; and we should do
something to protect it. It is in this sense that Michael Soulé[
1
] (p. 727) described conservation biology
as “a crisis discipline.” Conversely, the framing can be more reflexive, building on a constructivist
critique of science.
Sustainability 2019,11, 1023; doi:10.3390/su11041023 www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability
Sustainability 2019,11, 1023 2 of 18
A central challenge for all science, crisis or not, is recognizing and acknowledging the normative
content guiding the descriptive, critical, and prescriptive aspects of research [
6
]. This challenge
becomes especially pronounced for science oriented toward an explicit normative goal, such as a
sustainability transition. In response, some suggest that scientists should draw a sharp line separating
research from advocacy or direct action (recalling Hume’s Guillotine and a positivist stance toward
science) [
7
]. Others, echoing hermeneutics, see the two as intrinsically connected, for example in
participatory action research [
4
]. An underlying question is whether and how the normative content
guiding science and advocacy can be justified or legitimated [
8
]. Is legitimacy conferred via an appeal
to authority (e.g., the scientist as member of the scientific establishment); or to process (e.g., science
as a product of peer review by credentialed experts); or to reason (e.g., prescriptive advice based on
a reasoned review of the facts)? Or via some other claim? The line between scientist working in a
discipline and activist participating in a social movement is both uncertain and contested.
Ecological economics exemplifies the challenges facing normative transdisciplinary science.
Emerging as a critique of the implicit values of orthodox economics—namely, an un-reflexive
idolization of efficiency and growth—ecological economists argue that these same values are, in part,
to blame for the social and ecological crises facing the planet [
9
12
]. The starting point is an ontology
that sees the economy as a subset of humanity’s myriad social institutions, with the social sphere itself
embedded in the broader ecosystem or environment [
13
,
14
]. Ecological economists, among others, have
used this shared ontology to challenge orthodox thinking that ignores or underemphasizes the human
species’ fundamental embeddedness in nature [
2
]. Like other explicitly normative fields, the critique is
situated within a broader appeal for a transition toward an alternative social arrangement [15].
In ecological economics, one prominent framing of the alternative is that of Daly [
16
], where
an ecological (or steady-state) economy is one that achieves sustainable scale, just distribution, and
efficient allocation. Setting aside whether this vision is representative, it illustrates a tension in the
broader literature—can the value claims of a transdisciplinary normative science be legitimated, and if
so, how? In work agitating for a sustainability transition, how does the vision garner social legitimacy?
While ecological economics may originate in a critique of economics, it does not fully embrace a
more radical interpretation of economics as social theory [
17
]. In justifying goals, Daly [
16
] and more
recently Daly and Farley [
18
] mix appeals to instrumental reason (recalling the “nature’s benefits” or
ecosystem services strand of the literature) with more metaphysical arguments about intrinsic value
and the “ultimate ends” that guide human life. Presumably, one who finds these claims compelling
will embrace the arguments and recommendations; if not, one is free to choose another author of closer
ideological alignment.
Our point is not to impugn the value of ecological economics or Daly and Farley’s work in
particular. Nor is it to paint all normative scholarship aimed at a sustainability transition as theoretically
ungrounded. Rather, it is to highlight an important, unresolved question: how can competing
value-claims be justified or legitimated so as to create some basis for collective action? What is the
normative theory that underpins normative science? As Cooke [
8
] (p. 379) notes, “Critical social
theories
. . .
(rely) on a number of important assumptions about human nature, society and history,
above all, the assumptions that human beings are formed
. . .
by the social arrangements in which they
are involved in their everyday lives and that these social arrangements are neither naturally necessary,
nor divinely ordained nor historically inevitable.” What then, if anything, can ground social critique?
Rather than reflect some defect in the literature or the science, we argue that questions around
normative legitimation reflect ongoing debates about ecological economics’ relationship to modernity.
We argue that some ecological economists have begun to embrace a possible answer—deliberative
social and political theory—but tentatively, in a problem-solving capacity. The problem-solving
utility of deliberative theory in ecological economics is indisputable, but we contend that a deeper
embrace could draw on the radical transformative potential of democratic deliberation, which has
been underrepresented in ecological economics, despite featuring prominently in work from other
disciplines on sustainability transitions and related topics (see for example [
19
21
]). The proposed
Sustainability 2019,11, 1023 3 of 18
connections between deliberation and social-ecological transformation raise the possibility that
deliberation can simultaneously nurture a sustainability transition and give rise to the transition
in and of itself; further empirical and theoretical work is needed to understand how these relationships
manifest in society. Finally, we raise questions that constitute a research agenda for a deeply democratic
sustainability transition, tying this to a reflection on the scope and reach of ecological economics as
a normative, critical transdiscipline. To date, much scholarship has addressed deliberative theory
broadly and in the context of environmental policy and management. This paper seeks to contribute
to this broader literature by explicitly reviewing the impact and relevance of deliberative theory to
ecological economics and, indirectly, the broader literature on sustainability transitions.
2. Normative Science and the Crisis of Late Modernity
The current social-ecological predicament—encapsulated in the notion of an Anthropocene
epoch—is very much a product of modernity. The rise of modernity in the West—manifested in
the Enlightenment, the emergence and spread of capitalism, and growing techno-scientific power
or mastery over nature—saw subject-centered reason triumph in a process of “disenchantment,” or
shedding of traditional values and forms of social reproduction [
22
]. In pre-modernity, normative
legitimacy derived from widely-shared faith in an external source of validity (e.g., tradition, the church,
the sovereign), whereas in modernity, a human’s innate capacity to reason provides the source of
legitimacy [23].
An optimistic take on modernity sees the rapid advance of science and technology, enabled via
the application of reason, as a source of growing power and control over our collective fate. There are
parallels with contemporary environmental discourses such as eco-modernism [
24
] where the current
ecological predicament is deemed resolvable through the application of more reason (e.g., getting the
prices right) and technology, the product of that reason. The notion of a strong fact and value dichotomy
is typical of modern thought [
25
], wherein facts are objectively visible and knowable to all through
science and reason, whereas values are subjective, with vestiges of the mystical. The neoclassical adage
of mainstream economics—“de gustibus non est disputandum”—captures this elegantly: we can agree
on external facts, instrumental reasons for action (e.g., efficiency), but our subjective valuations cannot
be compared in a defensible manner [26].
A pessimistic take views modernity’s liberational promise as false: new forms of domination
replace older forms, masquerading as subject-centered reason [
27
]. Reason and human consciousness
are not sublime; they are constructed from a socially and historically infused muck. If modernity
reveals anything, it is that all truth-claims are suspect, especially those claiming to be universal [
28
].
Domination in the name of an absent god is replaced by secular forms of domination. In practice,
the post- or anti-modern critique can take the form of an extreme skepticism bordering on complete
relativism about truth claims [
23
]. Any attempt to judge one subjective claim as superior to another is
a form of domination [29].
These two extreme interpretations set out the guideposts for our discussion of the challenge facing
normative science. Clearly, the scientific pursuit of knowledge has furnished great power to understand
and manipulate the world around us. Yet the postmodern critique is a necessary caution, because
power frequently dons the guise of liberational discourse. While modernity is a phenomenon that
emerged in a particular place and cultural context, it has not obliterated all pre-modern or anti-modern
societies and discourses. Values exist and matter, especially in the context of collective action. To agree
on a shared vision or set of value claims (“what ought to be”) is always to agree on some form of social
truth, however contingent.
The crisis of late modernity is the simultaneous rejection of external sources of normative
legitimacy and recognition of the limits of subject-centered reason. If subjective decisions, enabled by
science and technology, yield consequences that threaten the entire human endeavor, what should be
done? The critical theory of the rationalization of society—where instrumental rationality crowds out
forms of value rationality—echoes the ecological economics critique of an economic system blindly
Sustainability 2019,11, 1023 4 of 18
pursuing growth and efficiency, neglecting and sometimes undermining the values and systems
central to lived experience as humans. Per Habermas [
29
] (p. 355), “processes of monetarization
and bureaucratization penetrate the core domains of cultural reproduction, social integration, and
socialization.” The extension of bureaucratic and economic systems into the social world alienates
individuals from control over the lifeworld and, in the end, threatens social integration. As Fergus and
Rowney [
30
] (p. 25) note, “non-economic social frameworks, institutions, and cultural traditions have
less and less significance in the forming of society’s structures.” Indeed, “economic rationality has
become so prevalent in our society that it is difficult to use language in everyday life without referring
to the dictionary of economics” [
26
] (p. 22). This outcome is visible today, as political discourse
repeatedly appeals to the logic of the marketplace to justify social positions, including the need to
protect nature [31].
At the same time, the archetypal political institution of modernity, the Westphalian nation-state,
struggles to keep pace with economic and social forces that extend beyond the bounds of a traditional
polity [
32
,
33
]. Goods, services, people, ideas, and organisms routinely traverse distances that a century
ago would have been unthinkable. The effects of these flows are multifarious, complicating governance
and creating collective action problems that bedevil policymakers [34].
The heart of the challenge is one of normative commitment: how can plural individuals (and
the myriad groups to which they affiliate) agree on a normative basis for collective action? How
can value claims be evaluated and legitimized when both traditional sources of legitimacy and
innate, subject-centered reason are suspect? One potential answer is to seek legitimacy in un-coerced
communication, which may give rise to intersubjective forms of reason that can serve as the basis for
collective action. This work of theory, prominently associated with Habermas [
35
,
36
], builds on the
observation that when humans enter into communication, they seek to create a shared understanding
via deliberation to solve everyday problems, including making complex, value-imbued decisions.
The speech act becomes the fundamental building block for constructing deliberative or “discursive”
institutions that can navigate the complex landscape of late modernity [37].
The intersubjective, deliberative approach to understanding normative legitimacy has been
widely embraced in the governance literature. Deliberative democracy has been touted as a means
for moving beyond the limitations of interest-group liberalism [
37
39
]. Deliberative processes have
been proposed to facilitate the creation of shared preferences and norms to guide environmental policy
at the local, regional, and national levels and in new domains of “earth system governance” [
40
,
41
].
Deliberative theory has also been included, albeit on a more limited basis, in ecological economics and
the sustainability transition literature.
3. Deliberation in Ecological Economics
Ecological economists have drawn on deliberative social and political theory since at least the
1980s. In a review, Zografos and Howarth [
42
] (p. 7) highlighted two areas where deliberative theory
and ecological economics have aligned: first, in the context of environmental decision-making and,
second, in a critique of the ability of a “growth-oriented, capitalist economy to genuinely integrate
environmental goals in its operation.” The first topic has been the focus of much of the literature,
wherein deliberation has been used as problem-solving theory in the sense of Cox [
43
]. For example,
deliberation has been proposed as a means for valuing non-market goods and services in the context
of cost-benefit analysis. It has also been presented as a means of “democratizing” decision-making in
multi-criteria and structured decision-making processes. Yet there remains tension between the
democratic, process-focused use of deliberation in decision-making and the normative goals of
ecological economics. This is captured in Robert Goodin’s [
44
] (p. 168) oft-quoted remark that
“to advocate democracy is to advocate procedures, to advocate environmentalism is to advocate
substantive outcomes.” Deliberative theory points to a means to deepen democracy, helping legitimate
normative evaluation in the face of a daunting plurality of perspectives. It also provides a means to
grapple in the public sphere with contested concepts such as justice and wellbeing that are of central
Sustainability 2019,11, 1023 5 of 18
concern to a sustainability transition. But since deliberation emphasizes the procedural, the outcomes
cannot be fore-ordained.
The second topic, which, following Cox [
43
], draws on deliberative social and political theory as
critical theory, is a point of alignment less developed in the ecological economics literature. However,
one area in which deliberation has supported a (potentially) more radical critique of economic
orthodoxy is in grounding alternative theories of development, such as the capabilities approach. In this
section, we review in turn two problem-solving uses of deliberation in ecological economics—valuation
of nonmarket goods and services and support of multicriteria decision-making—as well as this more
fledgling, critical use.
3.1. Deliberation and Valuing Non-Market Goods and Services
Mark Sagoff [
45
] was an early proponent of the value of deliberative theory for ecological
economics, calling for juristic deliberation to support the formation and negotiation of environmental
and social values in collective decision-making. Sagoff’s work started from a critique of welfare
economics, specifically the use of cost-benefit analysis as a decision tool. Cost-benefit analysis and
its foundational assumptions have received withering critique in the ecological economics literature,
including that: contrary to assumptions, preferences are incomplete, especially with regard to
non-market goods [
46
]; contingent valuation and other methods give inconsistent, seemingly arbitrary
results [
47
]; experimental evidence challenges welfarist assumptions about human psychology [
48
];
treating all values as commensurable (and monetizable) does not reflect actual human values [
49
,
50
];
the process can be analyst-driven and opaque, undermining its legitimacy [
51
]; and efficiency (as
welfare maximization) is neither a neutral nor universal goal [
48
,
52
,
53
]. This broad critique reveals a
general concern in ecological economics that public decision-making may not accurately reflect the
value that people ascribe to nature and non-market social relations, not to mention the potential value
to future generations and non-human nature [54].
Many ecological economists have criticized the dominance of rational choice and revealed
preference theory in economics, arguing, among other things, that they may not hold when applied
to public goods and other aspects of the natural and social world that lie outside a market. Indeed,
valuation may be approached from at least two distinct perspectives: that of a consumer, emphasizing
the contribution to an individual’s personal utility or particular interests; and that of a citizen,
emphasizing the contribution to social utility or the general interest [
55
]. As a consumer, a person
may have no idea how much an endangered species is worth, either in dollars or utils, since it is not
a decision they have grappled with before. More generally, as a citizen that same person may not
grasp the value of an endangered species for society or the laws designed for its protection. Following
this line of reasoning, it is asking too much to ask someone to complete willingness-to-pay surveys or
vote on the value of endangered animals and plants without any further context [
56
]. Their subjective
preferences are not fully-formed, never mind complete, consistent, and transitive [57].
Deliberation has been proposed as a means toward better valuation by supporting preference
formation [
51
,
58
61
]. For example, in deliberative monetary valuation (DMV), participants are exposed
to important scientific and policy context about an issue and are then asked to deliberate in small
groups prior to making an individual (via stated preference survey, subsequently aggregated) or group
valuation (via consensus or voting) [
51
]. The DMV design can vary, impacting the result, but the
basic intent is to help participants form preferences about the issues at hand. The public aspect of
deliberation helps expose participants to different perspectives—technical, moral, and so on—that
they may not have come across independently, and can help reveal which claims have public support
and can withstand scrutiny [
58
,
62
]. Decisions made on the basis of DMV may better reflect reasoned
individual (consumer) and public (citizen) values, at least when compared to processes that lack a
deliberative element.
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3.2. Deliberation and Multi-Criteria Decision-Making
In ecological economics, some reject cost-benefit analysis tout court, arguing for example that
tradeoffs among competing values are best understood as “weakly commensurable” and hence
incompatible with monetary valuation [
49
,
63
]. Participants may hold lexicographic preferences,
for example with regard to impacts on sacred sites [
64
]. In situations such as these, DMV may be
inadequate, necessitating alternative approaches such as multi-criteria, structured, or consensus-based
decision-making, all of which have been embraced in ecological economics [2,6567].
Multi-criteria approaches are not necessarily deliberative; they may be entirely analyst-driven and
aggregative of individual preferences. But like DMV, they can integrate deliberation and support both
quantitative and qualitative methods [
67
,
68
]. Insofar as affected parties (or at least their perspectives)
are represented in the process, deliberation can confer legitimacy [
38
]. For example, structured
decision-making, which builds off a multi-attribute utility framework, can integrate deliberation
throughout the decision-making process to support problem definition, preference formation, choice,
and legitimation [
69
]. Taking this further, consensus-oriented decision methods, which hew more
closely to the Habermasian ideal, demand the careful evaluation of claims such that a consensus choice
can emerge [
41
,
70
]. This is the basis for the juristic model of decision-making, which has been explored
widely in the governance literature but less frequently in ecological economics.
In ecological economics, deliberation also aligns with the transdiscipline’s normative commitment
to valuing non-scientific sources of knowledge, such as traditional ecological knowledge [
71
].
Deliberation provides forums in which non-scientific knowledge and expertise, as well as values, can
be shared and evaluated, contributing to the legitimation function of deliberation [49,72].
3.3. Deliberation and Alternative Theories of Development
Zografos and Howarth [
42
] argue that ecological economics and deliberative theory align in a
shared critique of the ability of capitalism to substantively incorporate environmental values. Although
there is certainly potential alignment, the broader sociological critique of capitalism and modern
society—a central component of critical theory—has received scant attention in ecological economics.
The closest parallel is in attempts by ecological economists to decouple economic development as
qualitative improvement from that of quantitative growth in biophysical throughput [9].
Ecological economists have extensively criticized the idolization of growth in mainstream
economics, re-centering the economic process on the production of “an immaterial flux of the enjoyment
of life,” to use the language of Georgescu-Roegen [
73
] (p. 353). There have been numerous proposals for
what development could or should constitute in the sustainability transition, many of which propose
specific outcomes or material endowments [
74
80
]. Given the contested, socially constructed nature of
development as a concept, these alternative proposals are subject to the same problems of normative
evaluation and legitimation to which deliberation responds in the context of public decision-making.
One alternative approach to defining development is the capabilities approach, which has
been somewhat embraced within ecological economics. The capabilities approach is fundamentally
deliberative, in that it relies on “public reasoning” as a means for justifying a subjective, particular
notion of development [
81
83
]. An individual’s choices must withstand public scrutiny, unlike
traditional welfarist concepts of utility maximization built on utilitarian ethics [
84
86
]. Sen [
81
,
87
,
88
]
has developed a robust critique of utilitarian ethics in welfare economics, broadly criticizing its
indifference to distribution, its neglect of rights, freedoms, and other non-utility concerns, and its
inability to factor in mental conditioning and subjective interpersonal comparisons. In contrast, the
capabilities approach places emphasis on “the substantive freedoms—the capabilities—to choose
to live a life one has reason to value” [
81
] (p. 74). This draws a distinction between the freedom
to use capabilities (the procedural aspect) and the actual use made of capabilities (the outcome, or
functionings), emphasizing that economics is typically concerned with outcomes and not possible
choices [
85
,
89
]. In this sense, the capabilities approach reemphasizes the importance of institutions
Sustainability 2019,11, 1023 7 of 18
in providing individuals with both specific capabilities (e.g., health, education) and the freedom to
exercise those capabilities (e.g., via security, guarantee of basic rights) [90].
At the heart of the capabilities approach is a concept of freedom based on the notion that one must
use public reason to justify that which one values [
81
,
87
]. This demands that individuals legitimize
claims about their freedoms and how they exercise them, thereby creating and contributing to social
norms that govern choices. This provides room for plural concepts of value and justice to coexist,
insofar as they can be reconciled via deliberation (a “bounded” form of value pluralism).
In ecological economics, the capabilities approach has been incorporated in a problem-solving
sense: to understand the relationship between nature and human development [
85
,
91
]; to examine
conflict [
92
]; in the context of intergenerational equity [
93
]; and in its broader sense of providing a basis
for understanding the “social” objectives of economic activity [
76
,
84
,
94
96
]. There remains tension,
however, between the procedural focus on public reasoning that undergirds the capabilities approach
and the normative “sustainability” goals of ecological economics. And importantly, what Sen remains
silent about is whether and how the larger political-economic edifice needs to change to create the
vibrant public sphere so essential to the capabilities approach.
4. Deliberation as Catalyst for a Sustainability Transition
Ecological economics is motivated by general concern about the impacts of human society on
the earth system and the feedbacks that this might engender. In evaluating how to transition toward
a less impactful and more just future, deliberative political and social theory have been helpful in
solving problems related to valuation, decision-making, and grounding alternative concepts for human
development. Yet given the open-endedness of deliberative processes, the question remains whether
deliberation can be a reliable partner in a sustainability transition, especially when the goals remain
mutable, opaque, and contested.
Several central functions of deliberation—including preference formation, normative evaluation,
and legitimation—provide potential feedbacks that could advance a “sustainable” social-ecological
transformation. For each function, there are multiple approaches that fall on a spectrum of deliberative
designs (Figure 1). These functions can contribute to mechanisms by which deliberation can scale to
create a more reflexive society.
Sustainability 2019, 11, x FOR PEER REVIEW 7 of 18
legitimize claims about their freedoms and how they exercise them, thereby creating and contributing
to social norms that govern choices. This provides room for plural concepts of value and justice to
coexist, insofar as they can be reconciled via deliberation (a “bounded” form of value pluralism).
In ecological economics, the capabilities approach has been incorporated in a problem-solving
sense: to understand the relationship between nature and human development [85,91]; to examine
conflict [92]; in the context of intergenerational equity [93]; and in its broader sense of providing a
basis for understanding the “social” objectives of economic activity [76,84,94–96]. There remains
tension, however, between the procedural focus on public reasoning that undergirds the capabilities
approach and the normative “sustainability” goals of ecological economics. And importantly, what
Sen remains silent about is whether and how the larger political-economic edifice needs to change to
create the vibrant public sphere so essential to the capabilities approach.
4. Deliberation as Catalyst for a Sustainability Transition
Ecological economics is motivated by general concern about the impacts of human society on
the earth system and the feedbacks that this might engender. In evaluating how to transition toward
a less impactful and more just future, deliberative political and social theory have been helpful in
solving problems related to valuation, decision-making, and grounding alternative concepts for
human development. Yet given the open-endedness of deliberative processes, the question remains
whether deliberation can be a reliable partner in a sustainability transition, especially when the goals
remain mutable, opaque, and contested.
Several central functions of deliberation—including preference formation, normative
evaluation, and legitimation—provide potential feedbacks that could advance a “sustainable” social-
ecological transformation. For each function, there are multiple approaches that fall on a spectrum of
deliberative designs (Figure 1). These functions can contribute to mechanisms by which deliberation
can scale to create a more reflexive society.
Figure 1. Deliberative functions and the range of potential approaches from minimally- to maximally-
deliberative.
4.1. Deliberation and Preference Formation
Deliberation directly contributes to preference formation. In entering into deliberation, a
participant is signaling a willingness to be exposed to new facts and perspectives—to listen and
learn—that may change their preferences regarding an issue or topic. Passive exposure to information
may help shape an individual’s preferences, without necessarily demanding engagement with
broader questions of social or public concern. But deliberation goes further, with passive processes
com plem ented by an activ e pro cess o f dis cussi on with other members of the deliberative community.
Preference Formation
Normative Evaluation
Legitimation
Deliberative Function
Individual/Consumer
Aggregative
Rational
Minimally-Deliberative
Social/Citizen
Consensus-Based
Reasonable
Maximally-Deliberative
Figure 1.
Deliberative functions and the range of potential approaches from minimally- to maximally-deliberative.
4.1. Deliberation and Preference Formation
Deliberation directly contributes to preference formation. In entering into deliberation, a
participant is signaling a willingness to be exposed to new facts and perspectives—to listen and
learn—that may change their preferences regarding an issue or topic. Passive exposure to information
may help shape an individual’s preferences, without necessarily demanding engagement with
broader questions of social or public concern. But deliberation goes further, with passive processes
complemented by an active process of discussion with other members of the deliberative community.
This communicative process involves the sharing of different perspectives and the making of normative
claims and is ideally representative of the broader community affected by a particular decision or issue
Sustainability 2019,11, 1023 8 of 18
of concern. Representation can be at the level of the individual or group (following more traditional
liberal theory) or the discourse (following more critical discursive theory) [97].
For complex environmental and social issues that lie outside routine experience, deliberative
settings provide for a public, social process of learning. This is one reason for the emergence of
deliberative monetary valuation as an antidote to contingent valuation. At a minimum, deliberation
helps ensure that a participant’s subjective preferences are formed in the light of important facts and the
private and public values that are intertwined with their interpretation. In a discursively representative
deliberative forum, discourses representing the interests of non-human nature, future generations,
communicatively-limited humans, and distant but affected parties may be aired, challenging
parochialism in preference formation [
37
,
98
]. Given that many decisions have dimensions that
extend beyond the bounds of a traditional polity, discursive representation can provide deliberation
with the more cosmopolitan framing that it may merit. Discursive representation, combined with
a commitment to listening and learning, provide deliberative pre-conditions that help ensure that
relevant environmental claims are expressed and considered (given “voice”) in preference formation.
4.2. Deliberation and Normative Evaluation
Deliberation in its more radical, critical theory sense departs from the premise that normative
claims can and should be evaluated or ranked, so as to enable legitimation and social critique. It is
not simply that personal preferences are shaped through communication, but also that the process
itself can allow for normative evaluation (i.e. social choice) through public reasoning, or the giving
and scrutinizing of claims. In this sense, participants in a deliberative process may inter-subjectively
(via communication) agree to an ordering of claims (i.e., A is preferable to B), achieving partial or
complete consensus on a social choice. Baber and Bartlett [
40
] delimit three camps of such normative
evaluation: the “full liberalism” of Amy Gutmann, Dennis Thompson, and James Bohman; the
mandatory discourse of Habermas; and, the normative pre-commitments of Rawls. To this we add a
fourth: the evaluative “public reasoning” of Amartya Sen (Figure 2).
Sustainability 2019, 11, x FOR PEER REVIEW 8 of 18
This communicative process involves the sharing of different perspectives and the making of
normative claims and is ideally representative of the broader community affected by a particular
decision or issue of concern. Representation can be at the level of the individual or group (following
more traditional liberal theory) or the discourse (following more critical discursive theory) [97].
For complex environmental and social issues that lie outside routine experience, deliberative
settings provide for a public, social process of learning. This is one reason for the emergence of
deliberative monetary valuation as an antidote to contingent valuation. At a minimum, deliberation
helps ensure that a participant’s subjective preferences are formed in the light of important facts and
the private and public values that are intertwined with their interpretation. In a discursively
representative deliberative forum, discourses representing the interests of non-human nature, future
generations, communicatively-limited humans, and distant but affected parties may be aired,
challenging parochialism in preference formation [37,98]. Given that many decisions have
dimensions that extend beyond the bounds of a traditional polity, discursive representation can
provide deliberation with the more cosmopolitan framing that it may merit. Discursive
representation, combined with a commitment to listening and learning, provide deliberative pre-
conditions that help ensure that relevant environmental claims are expressed and considered (given
“voice”) in preference formation.
4.2. Deliberation and Normative Evaluation
Deliberation in its more radical, critical theory sense departs from the premise that normative
claims can and should be evaluated or ranked, so as to enable legitimation and social critique. It is
not simply that personal preferences are shaped through communication, but also that the process
itself can allow for normative evaluation (i.e. social choice) through public reasoning, or the giving
and scrutinizing of claims. In this sense, participants in a deliberative process may inter-subjectively
(via communication) agree to an ordering of claims (i.e., A is preferable to B), achieving partial or
complete consensus on a social choice. Baber and Bartlett [40] delimit three camps of such normative
evaluation: the “full liberalism” of Amy Gutmann, Dennis Thompson, and James Bohman; the
mandatory discourse of Habermas; and, the normative pre-commitments of Rawls. To this we add a
fourth: the evaluative “public reasoning” of Amartya Sen (Figure 2).
Social
Choice
(Complete)
Individual
Preferences
(Initial)
Formal Deliberation
Social
Choice
(Complete)
Individual
Preferences
(Initial)
Aggregation Process
Social
Choice
(Complete)
Individual
Preferences
(Initial)
Individual
Preferences
(Revised)
Informal
Deliberation
Aggregation
Process
Normative
Evaluation via
Simple
Aggregation
(e.g., voting)
Normative
Evaluation via
Deliberative
Consensus
(e.g., Rawlsian,
Habermasian)
Normative
Evaluation via
Deliberation
and
Aggregation
(e.g. Full
Liberalism, Public
Reasoning)
Social
Choice
(Partial)
Formal
Deliberation
Normative Evaluation Process
Figure 2.
Normative evaluation and social choice: aggregative and deliberative models. Simple voting
and aggregative procedures do not lead to changes in preferences. Deliberative processes aim to change
preferences, leading to consensus or, via aggregation, a complete or partial social choice.
Sustainability 2019,11, 1023 9 of 18
The full liberalism strand of deliberative theory aims to set the preconditions for public
deliberation, without any particular constraints on the types of reasons that are given. In other
words, while the requirements for a “legitimate” deliberative setting are quite strict, helping to remedy
fundamental injustices with social arrangements and standing, once deliberation begins there are
few restrictions about what happens and the resulting outcomes. Hence both particular and general
claims are allowed, consensus is not mandated, and aggregative procedures can be used. The aim
is a fair process and an enriched debate that will, hopefully, help solve collective problems, at least
temporarily [40].
Similarly, Rawls [
40
] sees the point of deliberation as limited to establishing “just institutions”
within which individuals can pursue their personal interests. In this sense, deliberative consensus
should be achieved on the basis of “public reasons,” which are reasons that all are willing to
ascribe to—in this sense, any particular individual claims are excluded from deliberation. This
more transcendental or idealist approach to deliberation and justice is of limited usefulness for making
everyday decisions and navigating actually existing questions of injustice, but may serve constitutive
purposes [87].
Slightly less exacting is the theory of Jurgen Habermas [
35
,
36
], where deliberation can admit a
broader array of topics, yet is still intended to address matters of common concern. The goal remains
consensus via a process that explicitly aims to evaluate general normative claims, discarding those
that cannot be deemed communicatively or inter-subjectively rational. Rationality is found in mutual
acceptance of the validity claims of speech or discourse; validity claims pertain to matters of empirical
(mind external) fact as well as normative subjects such as moral rightness, aesthetic value, and so
on. This mutual acceptance of normative claims relies in part on a shared lifeworld of the subjects
of communication. The broader goal of deliberation is to establish normative legitimacy that can be
used to critique and therefore reshape society. The conditions Habermas sets for deliberation are strict,
representing a practical ideal perhaps more than a workable model.
Sen establishes a middle ground between the “full liberalism” and Habermasian models, in that
he sees deliberation as necessary to the evaluation of normative claims yet allows for aggregation
(rather than strict consensus) to determine the evaluative outcome [
87
]. In acknowledging the deeply
pluralistic nature of human society, he accepts that in many cases the results of deliberation followed by
aggregation may yield only a partial ordering of normative claims (“we agree that B is manifestly unfair
and should be stopped, yet we cannot determine whether A or C is better”) (ibid.). This aggregative
approach demands evaluation via deliberation but does not demand agreement on the reasons for the
ranking, something Habermas might demand in determining the rationality of validity claims. In this
sense, Sen hews closely to Sunstein [99] on the acceptability of “incompletely theorized agreements.”
Deliberation as a means for normative evaluation opens up space for consideration of an array
of moral, ethical, and aesthetic claims that may, in non-deliberative settings, be obscured by power
structures advancing instrumental claims. It demands that claims be evaluated publicly, potentially
privileging those that appeal to the general interest rather than the particular. As Dryzek [
100
] (p.
204) argues: “
. . .
the human life-support capacity of natural systems is the generalizable interest par
excellence,” so environmental claims may receive more weight in deliberative decisions, whether via
aggregation or consensus under more or less strict conditions. It is harder to sustain a claim in favor
of your own particular interests in a public forum constituted of those who would potentially bear
the costs of such a claim. This is the constraint that Sen [
81
] imposes on his form of “development as
freedom”—an individual can pursue their own interests only insofar that they can be publicly justified.
In this sense, utilitarian calculation takes place in the agora of public assembly rather than the agora of
the marketplace.
4.3. Deliberation and Legitimation
The connection between deliberation and the discourse of modernity lies most clearly in the notion
of legitimation, the process whereby a course of action or discourse gains legitimacy. Legitimacy can
Sustainability 2019,11, 1023 10 of 18
be understood as occurring when something “is accepted as proper by those to whom it is supposed
to apply” and is an essential aspect of democratic governance [
97
] (p. 21). Deliberation can be viewed
as a legitimation process, in that deliberation seeks to construct among the participants a shared
understanding of the issues at hand and some agreement—full or partial—on the facts, preferences,
and norms that are at play and their relative importance and validity. Deliberative legitimacy in
an ideal sense demands the free and willing participation of all those affected by a decision, the
recognition of deliberative capacities in others, and some alignment between the decision made as
a result of deliberation and the corresponding actions taken [
38
]. This ideal form raises complicated
questions about representation and scale, including the ability to deliberate about decisions that affect
large groups of people, non-human nature, or those lacking deliberative capacity [97,101].
In the strictest sense, legitimacy derives from the achievement of reasoned consensus on issues
of general concern. Particular interests can be pursued on the basis of instrumental rationality and
hence do not demand deliberation. In this sense, Rawls distinguishes between claims that are rational
and those that are reasonable [
102
]. It may be rational for a hungry individual to eat all the food in
the communal bowl, but if they are part of a community of hungry people this behavior may not be
deemed reasonable according to shared moral and ethical standards. For Habermas, reasonableness
emerges through the intersubjective renewing of validity claims via communication. In a less strict
sense, deliberation can be understood as the process of forming a shared understanding of the rational,
the reasonable, and their relationship in a given context [103].
This legitimation function of deliberation has the potential to both support and give rise to
a sustainability transition. Insofar as environmental concerns are privileged in deliberation, the
legitimacy-conferring capacity of deliberation can potentially render decisions more stable, heading
off conflict and contestation that might otherwise arise if the same decision were made after a less
legitimate procedure. This is further enhanced by the goal of achieving decisions that are reasonable,
rather than simply (instrumentally) rational. The deeply democratic intent of deliberative processes
may confer longevity and engender skills and attitudes among participants that are, for lack of a
better term, pro-social. In fact, a central goal of deliberative processes is to maintain the willingness of
participants to continue deliberating [
38
]. In this sense, deliberation can in itself create deliberants who
hold the democratic and socially-oriented citizen preferences (potentially) necessary for a sustainability
transition [41].
4.4. Deliberative Systems for Sustainability: Reinvigorating the Public Sphere
Deliberative social and political theory fundamentally breaks with the subjective model of reason
characteristic of modern thought. In locating reason in the intersubjective, there is acknowledgement
that the fixed and unquestioned “subjective preferences” of individuals are in fact socially constructed,
malleable, and subject to normative evaluation. This has parallels in ecological economics, where
similar arguments mark a break with neoclassical theory and the idea of the impossibility of
intersubjective utility comparisons. Deliberative political theory marks a break with democracy
conceived as passive preference aggregation and a potential escape from some paradoxes of social
choice by voting [
104
]. In critical theory it marks a break with postmodernism, “rescuing” the
critical project by locating a quasi-universal basis for a normative critique of society [
29
]. In the most
radical interpretation, deliberation can be constitutive of social transformation, in that deliberation
reinvigorates the public sphere, allowing for the emergence of a collective critique of society that
provides the basis for legitimate, transformative collective action.
The shared basis for critique is, in most interpretations, constrained by the bounds of the group
taking part in deliberation. This begs the question of “mini-publics and their macro consequences” [
97
]
(p. 155). How can deliberative processes, which under most designs involves tens to hundreds of
people, scale up to a deliberative system? As [
39
] (p. 1) note, “no single forum, however ideally
constituted, could possess deliberative capacity sufficient to legitimate most of the decisions and
policies democracies adopt.” Given that many environmental and social concerns span multiple
Sustainability 2019,11, 1023 11 of 18
scales and levels, this question evades easy answer. At the level of the nation-state, the issue of
representation and scale has been addressed by acknowledging that deliberation can (and should)
happen at multiple sites, including traditional political venues. This risks privileging existing sources
of power (experts, legislatures, interest groups) that can mobilize deliberative capacity or otherwise
dominate the system [
39
]. In this sense, there is a risk that a call for deliberation and participation can,
in fact, reinforce (and even emanate from) technocratic and elite discourses [19].
Although the nation-state remains the principal vehicle for converting public opinion into
administrative power, the importance of networked governance, transcending the “demos” of the
nation-state, has been widely recognized [
32
,
97
]. This complicates the process of turning deliberative
outcomes into administrative power. Networked governance may provide a vehicle for achieving
the cosmopolitan vision of some deliberative democrats, in that networks can build deliberative
capacity and processes that span traditional polities. But networked governance can exist in elite
spaces that are hard to hold accountable via traditional democratic politics. Dryzek [
97
] suggests
that governance networks can be analyzed in light of the standards of deliberative democracy (i.e.,
non-domination/non-coerciveness, reciprocity), helping identify deliberative democratic deficits.
Given that many of the sustainability challenges documented by ecological economists and others
are regional or even global in scope, a deliberative approach to governance demands consideration of
how micro-level deliberative processes can work in a larger deliberative system [
105
]. The deliberative
functions and potential positive feedbacks for a sustainability transition can be viewed as operating
at two interacting levels that cannot be viewed in isolation [
106
]. First, they serve a micro (political)
function, helping clarify interests and evaluate claims in support of better decision-making. Second,
they serve a macro (social) function, cultivating pro-social behavior and democratic norms that may
help invigorate the public sphere. The micro-processes (designed or otherwise) will take place within
(and constitute) a broader macro-system that can directly affect the success of turning micro-scale
deliberation into meaningful social outcomes.
The fundamental challenge for normative transdisciplines such as ecological economics is
legitimating normative claims so as to turn analysis and critique into social action. A sustainability
transition involves motivating a collective response to decades of scientific warnings about the status
of the planet’s life-support systems. If one accepts the deliberative premise, this process of legitimation
can happen via deliberation amongst the parties (or their representatives) affected by a given decision
or concern. Translating the outcomes of legitimate deliberation into social action is the crux of praxis.
Yet given the complex, interconnected nature of many environmental problems, it is not conceivable
under present-day political circumstances that a unique process of deliberation be arranged to address
each and every collective decision.
Habermas points to a potential solution in a radicalized (or reinvigorated) public sphere [
36
,
107
].
The public sphere is a space of un-coerced deliberation about collective problems and the general
interests that pertain in solving them; it is the space where social critique can be formed and
gain legitimacy. Habermas does not see the public sphere as necessarily existing in any physical
space or institution, but rather consisting of an inclusive process of communication that takes place
in multiple locales and media, generating a form of public opinion that can challenge, critique,
and ultimately shape the functioning of the political-economic superstructure [
107
]. Hence the
micro-processes of deliberation—including those adapted by ecological economists—may both
demand and cultivate the behaviors and social norms conducive to a thriving public sphere. Insofar as
deliberative processes demand and seek to promote inclusivity, reciprocity, open-mindedness, and
public-mindedness (among other conditions), they may become “value-articulating institutions” [
108
]
that actually cultivate the types of deliberants conducive to a sustainability transition [
109
]. In this
capacity, the purported link between pro-social norms and pro-environmental behavior merits further
exploration [
110
,
111
]. The question becomes whether norms cultivated through micro-scale processes
have the capacity to trigger a “norm cascade” that leads to their broader acceptance in society [
112
].
In this sense, despite a daunting plurality of views, the expansion of deliberative processes could
Sustainability 2019,11, 1023 12 of 18
help create shared norms that can become sufficient for normative evaluation at a supra-national
(“quasi-universal”) level.
5. A Deeply Democratic Sustainability Transition: Some Open Questions
The allegedly utopian promises of deliberative theory, combined with the strict conditions
imposed by some of the earlier advocates (e.g., Habermas’s Ideal Speech Act) have opened deliberative
theory to extensive critique, especially with regard to the design of deliberative processes. The
major criticisms have been well explored in other work, for example: the problems of scale and
representation [
39
,
97
]; concerns about inequality and suppression of rhetoric and other forms of
subaltern politics [
37
]; problems of legitimacy [
101
]; and problematic participants [
40
]. The response
has been to introduce different forms of representation, allow for aggregation, permit forms of speech
that violate the stricter standards of communicative rationality, and generally accommodate the
ideal forms of deliberation to the complex realities of political life. The risk is that accommodation
reproduces the status quo.
In scaling up from the individual deliberative process to the broader deliberative system, questions
abound about the limits of the deliberative model. Deliberative democracy is, in many ways, a
revolutionary normative theory of democracy, in that it specifies a set of conditions that when realized
constitute an authentically deliberative process [
113
]. While Habermas locates the root of deliberative
legitimacy in quasi-universal speech processes, there is no law that existing power structures acquiesce
to claims emanating from the public sphere, never mind actively strive to support deliberative
governance. Even in nominal democracies, the notion that an individual can have little impact
on the superstructure can create a collective action problem discouraging deliberative engagement [
40
].
Likewise, deliberative processes at the global scale may be conducted by elites with little legitimacy in
the eyes of the governed. Dryzek [
97
] points to some potential for deliberation within authoritarian
states, yet the development of a truly global, vibrant public sphere may be constrained by the profound
lack of democracy in many parts of the world. It may be the case that contentious politics—perhaps
aided by deliberation—is needed to create the opening for deliberative democracy to spread to the
more authoritarian corners of the world.
Within (and beyond) liberal democracies, group polarization stands as an important threat to
the functioning of the public sphere [
114
]. Group polarization tends to occur in deliberation amongst
like-minded groups, where the result is to drive decisions “to extremes” rather than toward the
center (ibid). This challenge has been answered with design solutions, for example using random
deliberant selection or “discursive representation” to avoid homogeneity in formal deliberative
settings [
41
,
97
]. This solution begs the question of who designs the process, important in its own
right. But group polarization is more problematic in the public sphere writ large. For example, there is
increasing evidence that the changing media and communications landscape is allowing people to
self-segregate into groups that are likeminded, meaning that deliberation in the public sphere may in
fact exhibit polarization tendencies [
115
]. This may be compounded by actual physical segregation
along ideological lines, although the evidence on partisan sorting, at least in the United States, is
mixed [
116
]. The potential for deliberative processes to support a reinvigoration of the public sphere
conducive to a sustainability transition is subject to changing social conditions.
The actual conditions (including capability deprivations) facing many people around the world
may constitute a barrier to participation in a vibrant public sphere. In terms of deliberative capacity, we
do not refer to the ability of deliberants to communicate (i.e., we set aside questions about non-human
nature, the disabled, future generations, etc.), nor the particular structures of a political system that
enable deliberation to function [
97
]. We refer rather to achievement of the broader development
conditions (or “minimum capabilities”) conducive to active participation in a vibrant public sphere,
regardless of political context. In this vein, Nussbaum [
82
] has proposed a minimum set of capabilities
based on a conception of a good human life (“eudemonia”) and the idea of humans as fundamentally
social beings [
84
]. It is not so much that these are preconditions for deliberation but instead constitute a
Sustainability 2019,11, 1023 13 of 18
minimum standard of development that may be needed to sustain a deliberative system. These claims
merit investigation, but clearly the conversion of deliberative agreement into administrative action is
challenging in the context of a failed state, deep authoritarianism, or famine conditions. To respect
Sen’s view that capabilities be determined solely through public reasoning, one could envision a
structured, global deliberative process to specify a set of “minimum” universal capabilities, similar to
global norm formation as advanced by Baber and Bartlett [
41
]. For ecological economists, the challenge
then becomes identifying efficient, fair, and legitimate means to provide the minimum capabilities
while remaining within planetary boundaries.
Beyond the various barriers to a global, vibrant public sphere, deliberative scholars must also
respond to concerns relevant to a sustainability transition. Deliberative processes are designed to
foster slow, careful reasoning and to provide space for the airing of many views. Yet the ecological
crises motivating many normative transdisciplines are perceived as urgent, demanding immediate,
major action. For example, it remains unclear whether a deliberative system is capable of generating
the course correction needed to avoid the effects of transgressing critical ecological thresholds [
117
].
As Baber and Nartlett [
40
] (p. 203) note, “markets, legal systems, bureaucracies, and other political
institutions of all kinds have imperialistic tendencies, resist deliberative innovation, and are vested in
the status quo.” While deliberation may have the capacity to counter this, the process may be slow. The
promise of greater legitimacy may help create durable decisions, weakening or undermining resistance
borne of exclusion or a perceived lack of representation. At the expense of rapid decision-making,
deliberation may provide more decisive decisions. Legitimation may even confer strength to
counter-hegemonic discourses. Yet when faced with hard choices, it is unclear that the reasoned
or consensus decision will be sufficient. As Deriu [
31
] (p. 556) succinctly puts it:
. . .
the paradox of
democratic freedom is that ... we are called on to use our own freedom to affirm the limits to that very
freedom in the most radical way.”
Finally, there are open questions about the feasibility of representing deeply ecocentric discourses
in deliberation. Deliberative theory has multiple points of origin, and in the problem-solving sense,
all build on an arguably liberal humanist foundation. Deliberation seeks to respect and preserve
the freedom and autonomy of the individual human, recognizing that each human exists within a
pluralistic society lacking normative consensus. The procedural norm of deliberation trumps any
particular “comprehensive doctrine,” to use Rawlsian terminology. This privileging of individuals
engaging in procedure appears to be—and is often formulated as—an anthropocentric orientation for
deliberative democracy [118].
In the interest of a sustainability transition, the question remains whether deliberative theory
can support a more ecocentric orientation (assuming such a thing is necessary) [
98
,
119
]. In line
with Dryzek’s [
97
] notion of “discursive representation” as the basis for legitimacy in deliberation,
Eckersley [
98
] notes that the interests and perspectives of non-humans may deserve representation even
if they are not actually the concern of any individuals party to the deliberation. As described earlier,
deliberation may privilege normative claims that invoke the general interest, which could include
recognition of the rights of other species, future generations, or reparation of past injustices. The social
liberal approach leaves room for ecocentric values to emerge, but does not require them [120,121].
6. Conclusions
The challenge for any normative transdisciplinary science, such as ecological economics, is
accepting that scientists’ normative claims can only be socially legitimated in a deeply democratic,
unpredictable and open-ended process. Rigorous, peer-reviewed analysis that appears to indicate an
impending crisis may, despite demands to “act with urgency,” yield little in the way of immediate
or coordinated response. Deliberation in its problem-solving mode can help improve environmental
decision-making and, in a more abstract sense, ground alternative theories of development. This role
for deliberation has been embraced and developed within ecological economics. Yet the more radical
promise of deliberative systems as catalyst for social-ecological transformation remains at the level of
Sustainability 2019,11, 1023 14 of 18
untested theory. Much work remains to link micro-level deliberative processes with the macro-effects
necessary for a deeply democratic and legitimate sustainability transformation.
Author Contributions:
The paper was conceived and led by M.B.W. and revised and refined through collaborative
writing and editing with R.V.B. and J.D.E.
Funding:
General funding was provided to M. Wironen by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
of Canada, the Gund Institute for Environment, and the Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation.
Acknowledgments:
The authors would like to thank Peter Brown, Josh Farley, and Sam Bliss for helpful comments
on earlier versions of the manuscript.
Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest.
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... The normative and democratic foundations of governing innovation and transitions move far beyond traditional understandings of liberal democracies (Wironen et al., 2019;Eckersley, 2017;cf. Brown, 2009;Latour, 2004). ...
... Stirling, 2014). As such, democratization of socio-technical transitions often evolves around processes of participation and deliberation of citizens, publics or other societal stakeholders in transition experiments and spaces such as transformative labs to reflect upon, co-create or implement transformative (social) innovations (Kok, Gjefsen, et al., 2021;de Hoop, 2020;Wironen et al., 2019;Chilvers and Longhurst, 2016). Importantly, deliberative democratization is considered key to legitimizing transition governance and the radical changes it aspires to bring along (e.g., Wironen et al., 2019;Dryzek and Pickering, 2017). ...
... As such, democratization of socio-technical transitions often evolves around processes of participation and deliberation of citizens, publics or other societal stakeholders in transition experiments and spaces such as transformative labs to reflect upon, co-create or implement transformative (social) innovations (Kok, Gjefsen, et al., 2021;de Hoop, 2020;Wironen et al., 2019;Chilvers and Longhurst, 2016). Importantly, deliberative democratization is considered key to legitimizing transition governance and the radical changes it aspires to bring along (e.g., Wironen et al., 2019;Dryzek and Pickering, 2017). At the same time, scholars also stress that tensions can arise between transition governance approaches and institutions of (traditional) representative democracy. ...
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In this paper, we explore the relation between democracy and justice in governing agri-food transitions. We argue that a deeper understanding of democracy is needed to foster just transitions. First, we present a multi-dimensional understanding of justice in transitions and relate it to scholarship on democratizing transitions. Then, we argue that three paradigm shifts are required to overcome current unsustainable dynamics: (1) from expert toward pluralist understandings of knowledge; (2) from economic materialism toward post-growth strategies; and (3) from anthropocentrism toward reconnecting human-nature relationships. We explicate what these paradigm shifts entail for democratizing transitions from distributive, procedural, recognition and restorative justice perspectives. Finally, we highlight six challenges to institutionalizing deep democratic governance. These entail balancing tensions between: multiple justice dimensions, democracy and urgency, top-down and bottom-up directionalities, local and global scales, realism and idealism, and roles of incumbent scientific systems. This requires thoroughly rethinking transition studies’ normative and democratic ambitions.
... In particular, reflexivity is still mainly stressed in theoretical or conceptual work (Ainscough et al., 2018;e.g. Baumgärtner et al., 2008;Wironen et al., 2019) and less in empirical research. ...
... O'Neill et al., 2008;e.g. O'Neill and Spash, 2000;Wegner and Pascual, 2011;Wironen et al., 2019). Deliberative valuation builds on the idea that openly discussing and negotiating values may help overcome fundamental flaws associated with conventional valuation theory and practice. ...
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This thesis is about whether it is a good idea to place monetary value on nature, to remedy the fact that we treat it as having no particular value to us humans, although it clearly has. The thesis is based on five research papers that can be said to position themselves on opposite sides in the debate on monetisation of nature. The first two papers consider the basis of neoclassical environmental economics and apply the value theory and valuation methods from normative neoclassical welfare theory, on which monetisation of nature is based. The other three papers examine, with increasing degrees of criticism, this theory of value and especially its central assumption that value can be derived from people’s choices, or “revealed preferences”. The thesis itself is a “reflective story” about the journey I made as I learned to think about and understand neoclassical environmental economics in new ways. I reflect upon my work from a philosophy of science perspective, consider how for-granted-taken ideas from neoclassical economics affect environmental economic analysis and its conclusions, and examine the subject of value and valuation from what has become my new theoretical standpoint, ecological economics. It concerns meta-theoretical questions about ontology, that is, ideas in a research discipline about how things really are (what is), and epistemology, ideas about how researchers can provide relevant knowledge about reality. Such ideas are often taken for granted in neoclassical economic analysis and how they affect the analysis and its conclusions is not seldom unreflective. In the thesis, I move from explaining why neoclassical environmental economists advocate monetisation and pricing of nature as important solutions to environmental problems, to exemplifying how this turned out in research projects intended to serve as decision support in practice, and then to exploring and clarifying an alternative theory of value and valuation from ecological economics based on value pluralism and so-called deliberative valuation. In a concluding discussion, I point out that there are reasons to be sceptical about whether monetisation of nature is the right path to follow if we want to change our unsustainable relationship with nature and tackle the serious ecological crises we currently face. I show that monetisation of nature in practice requires a considerable amount of pragmatism, since the applied version of the theory deviates far from its idealised claims about the possibility to capture actual, total values. I also show that the descriptive (so-called positive) part of neoclassical theory and its normative part overlap in a way that makes it very difficult to speak of “objective” science in environmental economics. Instead, and despite strong recognition in the discipline that environmental problems are “market failures”, neoclassical theory has an ethical and ideological bias that favours individuals’ freedom of choice and market solutions, at the expense of collective decision-making and discussions about values that cannot be quantified. The important contribution of the thesis is that it clarifies the consequences of a central idea in the theory behind environmental economic analysis, namely the idea of values as commensurable, that is, measurable in one single unit. This idea links to the misleading conception of choices as “trade-offs”, where all choices are essentially viewed as the result of people’s constant exchange of costs and benefits within themselves in every choice they make, with the result that everything gets better (or at least not worse). Based on my research, I suggest that, in reality, people do not generally “make” trade-offs. If anything, people try to avoid them, especially when it comes to difficult choices, such as those concerning the true value of nature, because such choices involve moral conflicts between values that are incommensurable. As a basis for valuing transformational change, monetisation is therefore unsuitable, as it conceals rather than reveals the ethical dilemmas that are the very definition of sustainability problems and causes us to search for the efficient or so-called “optimal” solutions claimed possible in neoclassical theory and rhetoric, although such solutions do not exist. What we need instead is to represent public opinion in environmental decision-making in ways that do not conceal people’s actual moral considerations. Environmental valuation is political. It must be done together with others through reason-sensitive means, where people’s actual experiences of value conflicts – within us and between us – can be deliberated before making decisions. This makes decision-making more complex, but as an alternative to monetisation, this realism is not necessarily unrealistic. The fact that incommensurability is grounded in human experience means that the complexity of social and environmental decision-making has a real counterpart in conflicts within ourselves. One could see this as a potentiality, because we may have more confidence in people’s ability to recognise the relevance and necessity of less simplification and more complexity in decision-making. People need to “deliberate values” rather than “consuming” them and being expected to express all sorts of values through money.
... The fourth is the principle of combining subjectivity and objectivity. Qualitative or quantitative indicators with clear conclusions should be identified through testing, surveys, and reviews (39), and the indicators should improve the collection and gathering of specific data so that the indicator system can objectively and truly reflect the consumption of public medical and health system costs in order to ensure the validity of the evaluation. ...
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... From an institutionalist perspective, widening the space for such debate may facilitate a shift in what is seen as 'normal' or 'acceptable'. This could be facilitated by establishing forums for consumer and citizen communication such as public assemblies (e.g., Wironen et al., 2019). As we have seen, habits are strongly influenced by social norms and changing these couldaccording to this perspectivebest be facilitated by expanding the space for communication over what is 'right to do'. ...
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... Some suggest that finding the correct balance between broad and in-depth participation can be a powerful combination [37]. Effective collaboration and dialogue result in better decisions, increase the legitimacy of public institutions when confronted with difficult decisions [38], promote and accelerate sustainability transformations [39], and strengthen governance approaches [40]. ...
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... The fourth is the principle of combining subjectivity and objectivity. Qualitative or quantitative indicators with clear conclusions should be identified through testing, surveys, and reviews [52], and the indicators should improve the collection and gathering of specific data so that the indicator system can objectively and truly reflect the consumption of political costs associated with environmental issues in order to ensure the validity of the evaluation. Based on the above principles, this study selected sample events that provided the largest amount of information about the measurement of the political cost of environmental issues in order to facilitate field research, data collection and in-depth analysis. ...
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It is of great reference significance for broadening the research perspective of environmental issues, improving the efficiency of government environmental governance and the credibility of the government, to scientifically measure and analyze the political cost of environmental issues. This article takes the typical case “protest event of power generation project of R steel plant in T city, China” as the research background. First, the generation process and action mechanism of the political cost of environmental issues in the actual situation are investigated. Then, through in-depth interview, multi-case grounded theory and fuzzy subordinate function analysis, the scientific construction of the political cost index system of environmental issues are completed. Finally, based on G1 method/entropy method combined with weighting and fuzzy comprehensive evaluation method, the political cost of the protest events of R iron and steel plant in T city is measured. The results show that (1) it is important that good single dimensions and reliable indicators are embodied in the overall political cost scale. Among them, the behavioral political cost of the masses is the largest proportion of all indicators; (2) after the entire environmental mass incident is over, the political costs are difficult to repair, and some lagging ideas and behaviors shown by local governments lead to a continuous expansion of the political cost associated with environmental issues; and (3) local governments should not conceal information asymmetry. Instead, local governments should give greater freedom to other actors to deal with environmental problems. This will mitigate the effect of political costs. Corresponding policy recommendations are proposed.
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