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Rethinking democracy in
times of crises: Towards
a pragmatist approach to
the geographies of
Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies ‘Futures of Sustainability’, University of Hamburg, Germany
How do societies respond to ‘super wicked’ problems that often occur at very large
spatial and temporal scales? On the one hand, there exists a tendency to conceive of
liberal democracy as inconvenient, inflexible and as incapable of dealing with complex
and elusive issues such as climate change or questions of environmental injustice. On
the other, these issues have given rise to manifold ‘emerging public spheres’ inside and
outside existing democratic institutions. Since both of these tendencies refer to the
idea of sustainability, this contribution discusses the relationships between different
future trajectories of sustainability and democracy in particular with regards to their
inherent spatialities. Building on this, and following the works of contemporary political
theorists and human geographers, it suggests conceptualizing democracy from a
pragmatist point of view as coined by the North American philosopher John Dewey.
In doing so, it becomes possible to reframe democracy in the Anthropocene and to
conceive of it as an ever-evolving phenomenon of problem-solving communities that
convene around different issues of shared concern. This perspective allows thinking
beyond theorizations of global democracy, in favor of a democratic model that shows
openness for social complexity and uncertainty and which accepts that the spaces of
democratic action are not given from the outset but that they are brought into being
by the emerging publics themselves.
Anthropocene, democracy, emerging publics, John Dewey, socio-ecological crises,
super wicked problems, sustainability
Benno Fladvad, Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies ‘Futures of Sustainability’, University of Hamburg,
Gorch-Fock-Wall 3, Hamburg, 20354, Germany.
1007107SSI0010.1177/05390184211007107Social Science Information 60(2)Fladvad
2 Social Science Information 00(0)
Comment les sociétés répondent-elles aux « problèmes extrêmement compliqués »
qui surviennent souvent à de très grandes échelles spatiales et temporelles ? D’un
côté, une certaine tendance consiste à voir la démocratie libérale comme étant peu
pratique et peu flexible, rendant impossible la gestion de problématiques complexes et
difficilement saisissables, telles que le changement climatique ou les questions d’injustice
environnementale. D’un autre côté, ces problématiques ont engendré de multiples
« sphères publiques émergentes », à l’intérieur comme à l’extérieur des institutions
démocratiques existantes. Puisque ces deux tendances se rapportent à l’idée de
durabilité, cet article s’intéresse aux relations existant entre différentes trajectoires
durables et démocratiques futures, et plus particulièrement aux spatialités qui leur sont
consubstantielles. À partir de ce constat, et en s’appuyant sur des travaux contemporains
en science politique et en géographie humaine, cet article avance l’idée qu’il faudrait
conceptualiser la démocratie à partir d’un point de vue pragmatique, tel qu’il a pu être
formulé par le philosophe nord-américain John Dewey. De cette manière, il devient
possible de concevoir à nouveaux frais la démocratie à l’ère de l’Anthropocène et de
l’appréhender comme un phénomène en perpétuelle évolution fait de communautés
dédiées à la résolution de problèmes et qui se rassemblent autour de diverses questions
pour lesquelles elles partagent un intérêt commun. Cette perspective nous permet de
réfléchir au-delà des efforts pour théoriser une démocratie globale, afin de privilégier
un modèle démocratique qui ferait preuve d’ouverture face à la complexité sociale et
à l’incertitude, et qui accepterait que les espaces d’action démocratique ne soient pas
prévus à l’avance mais plutôt construits par les publics émergents eux-mêmes.
Anthropocène, crises socio-écologiques, démocratie, durabilité, John Dewey,
problèmes extrêmement compliqués, publics émergents
Introduction: On the need to rethink democracy
The current epoch of multiple socio-ecological crises, often referred to as the
Anthropocene, brings into view fundamental challenges for democratic societies and
their institutional procedures. One of the most obvious is a dilemma of electoral politics
that has both a temporal and spatial dimension. In temporal terms, it consists in the dif-
ficulty of formulating adequate long-term responses to the critical planetary condition,
while the every-day politics of representational democratic rule rather tend to focus on
immediate concerns that are framed by short-term electoral cycles (Chakrabarty, 2015;
Stehr, 2016). In spatial terms, it refers to the discrepancy between the fact that the coun-
tries of the Global North have contributed significantly to environmental degradation
and that they are having great difficulties dealing with issues that work on much larger
spatial scales (Connolly, 2019). This dilemma is also apparent in issues of environmental
injustice. While an increasing number of people, in particular in the Global South, is
severely affected by spatially dispersed and gradually unfolding threats, to which they
did not directly contribute, such as deforestation, displacements, land loss, or sea level
rise; they have only little chance to participate in democratic procedures that might avert
or mitigate these injustices. Yet, the integration of these forms of ‘slow violence’, as Rob
Nixon (2011) calls them, in the established procedures of democratic rule, is very diffi-
cult, not only because they often take place in remote contexts, but also because they
occur at temporal scales that are increasingly out of sync with the short attention spans
and the rhythms of electoral politics. These observations thus correspond to what Kelly
Levin and colleagues call ‘super wicked’ problems,1 which comprise four key character-
istics: time is running out, those who seek to solve a problem are actually causing it,2
there is no central authority, and – partly as a consequence of the first three features –
political decisions are often irrational and short-sighted in face of the severity of the
problems in hand (Levin et al., 2012).
One reaction to this ‘wickedness’ is the rise of a new democratic skepticism that con-
ceives of democracy as inert, inconvenient and incapable of dealing with the complexity
of global warming (Niemeyer, 2014; Stehr, 2016). These calls, stemming amongst others
from prominent voices of the environmental sciences, claim that climate scientists and
engineers must take the lead in an expert and technocratic society, which corresponds
with strongly anthropocentric narratives of the Anthropocene of a ‘planetary steward-
ship’, i.e. of ‘Man moving from environmental obliviousness to environmental con-
sciousness’ (Bonneuil, 2015: 23). These eco-authoritarian and techno-managerial
tendencies have to be taken seriously, since they could lead, as Nico Stehr (2016: 40)
puts it, to a gradual ‘erosion of democracy’, which could involve the disempowerment of
manifold alternative perspectives and emerging initiatives to respond to climate change
and environmental injustice. It is precisely for this reason, Stehr argues, that there is
urgent need to search for an alternative model, that ‘will be found only through revital-
ized democratic interaction in which alternative perspectives can be presented and tested’
(2016: 44). In other words, it means, to commit to democratic complexity and to con-
ceive of it – contra the democratic skepticism – as a prerequisite for dealing with the
‘super wicked’ problems (Levin et al., 2012) of the Anthropocene.
In this contribution, I take up Stehr’s considerations and aim at rethinking democracy
against the background of the current crises with a special focus on its inherent spatiali-
ties (which does not mean leaving completely aside its temporal dimension). My inten-
tion is, however, not to show within which scale – locally, nationally or globally
– democracy should be ideally implemented. Nor do I believe that it is necessary to
develop a new democratic theory from the bottom up. It is rather to discuss how the
apparent limitations of democratic proceduralism to respond to wicked, spatially exten-
sive and temporally elusive issues, such as climate change or forms of slow violence, do
not only lead to calls for more authoritarian governance, but also to the emergence of
new democratic energies inside and outside the established democratic institutions. I
therefore aim to elucidate under which circumstances and according to which principles
these ‘emergent public spheres’ (Barnett, 2014) are brought into being and what spatiali-
ties they engender. In doing so, I suggest conceptualizing democracy from a pragmatist
point of view. In particular, I draw on the work of the North American philosopher John
Dewey, who elaborated his democratic theory in the interwar period of the 1920s against
the background of increasing social complexities and a growing skepticism towards lib-
eral democracy that reveals many parallels to the current situation3.
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This paper is organized as follows: to begin with, I show how far current claims for
dealing with the current crises relate to and challenge the idea of democracy as well as
its spatial framings. Proceeding from the notion of ‘exceptional circumstances’ (Stehr,
2016), I demonstrate how the invocation and the narration of crises and disasters have on
the one hand a strongly depoliticizing effect but that they may, on the other, also engen-
der new democratic energies. Since these dynamics refer to the idea of sustainability, I
subsequently draw on Frank Adloff and Sighard Neckel’s (2019) approach on the ‘futures
of sustainability’ as a conceptual lens to show what kind of democratic ideas and spatial
imaginaries are implied in different sustainability trajectories. In a third section, I turn to
the work of John Dewey. Originating from his definition of ‘the public’, and following
the works of contemporary political theorists and human geographers, I discuss how and
due to which circumstances emerging publics come into being. Subsequently, I focus on
Dewey’s experimental idea of democracy, which allows conceiving of democracy as an
experimental process of problem-solving that emerges due to different issues of shared
concern. Finally, in the conclusion, I argue – both from an analytical and normative point
of view – that in the epoch of the Anthropocene it is essential to think beyond theoriza-
tions of global democracy in favor of a democratic model that shows openness for social
complexity and which accepts that the spaces of democratic action are not given from the
outset, but that they are brought into being by the emerging publics themselves.
Sustainability as a challenge for democracy
The growing awareness that environmental problems exceed national governance mech-
anisms, have led in the 1990s to the integration of environmental issues in institutions
and procedures of global democracy. This idea to decouple environmental governance
from national institutions and to scale up the idea of deliberative democracy has thus
engendered new and wide-ranging forms of public negotiations and democratic proce-
dures. Not only has the scope of the polity and the number of actors increased signifi-
cantly, but also their variety as well as their degree of participation (Biermann and
Pattberg, 2008). In the last years, however, and in particular after the failed climate sum-
mit in Copenhagen in 2009, different scholars have criticized the ineffectiveness of these
mechanisms, either due to their incorporation in modern consumer capitalism that con-
tradicts the willingness to find sustainable solutions (Blühdorn, 2011), or due to their
manifold democratic deficits and institutional weaknesses (Dryzek, 2019). Prominent
voices from the environmental studies (Hansen, 2009; Jamieson, 2014; Lovelock, 2009)
went one step further in questioning whether liberal democracy is capable at all to tackle
the massive, urgent, and ‘wicked problems’ of environmental degradation and – above
all – climate change. They conceive of it as inconvenient, slow and inflexible, and argue
that mass mobilization and profound transformations towards sustainability are perhaps
not possible in democratic societies due to the elusive, complex and abstract character of
the current crises (see also Shearman and Smith, 2007; for critique and discussion
Niemeyer, 2014; Stehr, 2016). In doing so, they (and in particular James Lovelock)
invoke a warlike narrative, and express the need for strong leadership: ‘We all need mod-
ern Churchills to lead us from the clinging, flabby, consensual thinking of the late
twentieth century and to bind our nations with a single-minded effort to wage a difficult
war.’ (Lovelock, 2009: 32)
In view of these tendencies, Stehr (2016: 39) argues that climate change has given rise
to the invocation of ‘exceptional circumstances’ that legitimize the granting of additional
powers for governments and scientific experts in order to pursue a single political pur-
pose, namely to stop global warming, if necessary by means that are not democratically
legitimized. However, the invocation of exceptional circumstances, which resembles the
calls for neo-Malthusian, eco-authoritarian approaches of the 1970s (Niemeyer, 2014;
Shahar, 2015), does not necessarily have to have depoliticizing effects, it also may inhere
the power of releasing new democratic energies as is explained in the following.
Of crises and disasters
During the last years, talks of crises and disasters have become omnipresent in Western
societies. This phenomenon is further fueled by a growing skepticism towards liberal
democracies (in particular by right-wing populists), the financial crisis of 2008, and the
growing awareness of ecological deterioration, in particular of climate change, and its
manifold consequences. Crises and disasters have thus become part of a ‘new normal’
and float freely from one topic and situation to the other, while they are being connected
to either dystopian, pessimistic scenarios or progressive, transformative and utopian
political claims (Runkel and Everts, 2017). Despite an apparent effect of habituation
(Grammelsberger, 2013), these ‘exceptionalist’ narratives thus inhere a strong political
momentum, since they are often tied to the claiming or the reinforcement of political
power and sovereignty (Hempel and Markwart, 2013). This becomes even more obvious
in view of Carl Schmitt’s (1922: 1) controversial but yet influential definition of sover-
eignty, which states that ‘[s]overeign is the one who decides about the exception’.
According to Schmitt, ‘the sovereign’ does therefore not appear in quotidian situations,
although it always latently remains in force, but rather in exceptional moments of emer-
gency, in other words, in times of crises, in which the question of ‘what should be done’
is understood as a genuine act of power (Korf and Schetter, 2012: 154).
However, whereas Schmitt had in mind the state as the ultimate entity of sovereignty,
this concept today is far more contested and fragmented. In many contemporary political
struggles it serves as an argumentative resource in order to prescriptively raise particular
claims and forms of governance above and beyond the state (Kalmo and Skinner, 2010).
Moreover, a ‘state of exception’ always underlies and could not be declared without a
particular ‘geography of fear’ (Korf, 2009: 153) that emerges due to a current or impend-
ing external threat, such as a terrorist attack or natural disasters. In other words, to declare
a state of exception, in essence, requires the existence and the construction of a ‘state of
emergency’, that serves as the basis of legitimacy for the former (Korf, 2009: 153).
Exactly because of this reason, talks of crises and disasters become so important. In
pointing to the critical planetary condition and in framing environmental deterioration as
an apocalyptic scenario, a fundamental, non-negotiable norm, an imperative for urgent
action is created that inheres the power of justifying the changing and the suspension of
the law, in other words, the exertion or the claiming of sovereignty.
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In doing so, catastrophic narratives serve on the one hand as a means to maintain and
to confirm a model of dominant rule, and to show that there are no alternatives to the
hegemonic interpretations of social reality. The calls for eco-authoritarian governance
are very good examples, since they do not, despite their calls for urgent action, claim a
change of the current socio-economic order, but rather plead for technical approaches
that do not question the underlying systemic causes of climate change and ecological
deterioration (Swyngedouw and Ernstson, 2019). On the other hand, talks of crises and
catastrophes often engender and motivate new democratic energies and transformative
claims. It therefore reflects the fragility and radical openness of every political order
(Mouffe, 2005), and is often accompanied by attempts to delegitimize and transform
otherwise undisputed social norms (Dünckmann, 2020). Recent environmental move-
ments such as Extinction Rebellion or Fridays for Future serve as good examples. In
their actions they warn against an impending collapse with wide-ranging consequences
and appeal to governments to acknowledge the catastrophic reality of mass extinction
and climate change, as well as to undertake urgently needed and wide-ranging political
actions. At the heart of the claims of these social movements thus lies the accusation that
political decisions and institutions are too shortsighted and too slow to adequately
respond to the catastrophic long-term consequences of global warming and its exponen-
tial exacerbation. Put differently, in the view of many activists, the climate system does
not wait for public deliberation and half-baked compromises. ‘Time is running out’
(Levin et al., 2012: 127) and there is only little time left for societies to avoid, or at least,
to attenuate the coming climate catastrophe (Klein, 2019).
Notwithstanding, calls for more serious and profound consideration of environmental
concerns have also led to institutional changes and new democratic dynamics within
established forms of governmental rule that cannot be assigned to the dichotomy of
either ‘top down’ authoritarianism and democratic skepticism or ‘bottom up’ radicaliza-
tion and calls for transformative politics. In fact, existing political institutions and proce-
dures are often subject to renewal and change without being fundamentally transformed;
and, likewise, they may become more authoritative without completely rejecting demo-
cratic values. Moreover, the desire to respond to environmental degradation and climate
change, in particular at the local level, has led to new democratic dynamics in-between
political scales and institutions that are often seen as separate and inflexible. This is
demonstrated for example by the idea of ‘sustainable cities’, which have contributed to
new multilevel environmental governance mechanisms between communal and state
institutions, as well as to new transnational alliances between different municipalities
and non-state actors (Bulkeley and Betsill, 2005).
In addition, scholars have recently theorized more in-depth the temporal dimensions
of politics in the Anthropocene, in particular the inconsistency between geological ‘deep-
time’ scales and the short-term intervals of democratic procedures and institutions
(Galaz, 2019).4 Some have even provided practical suggestions for new institutional
designs, such as embedding a ‘deep-time perspective’ within societal and political organ-
izations and establishing (analogously to multilevel governance) a multi-temporal gov-
ernance architecture (Hanusch and Biermann, 2019). Another, yet more established
approach, is to enhance the reflexivity and responsiveness of democratic institutions in
order to prepare them for the uncertainties and exponential dynamics of future develop-
ments (Dryzek and Pickering, 2019: 155f.).
Democracy and the ‘futures of sustainability’
Apparently, the dynamics explained above assemble around the principle of sustainabil-
ity. It would however be misleading to dismiss sustainability as a fuzzy signifier that
points to all and nothing at the same time and that has been structurally undermined by
neoliberal capitalism (Swyngedouw, 2010; Blühdorn, 2011). In fact, sustainability has
certain meanings that exceed its vague understanding as a principle according to which
current actions should not endanger the needs of future generations. It involves at least
three diverging and potentially conflicting trajectories – an ecological modernization,
transformative approaches and politics of control (Adloff and Neckel, 2019) –, which
each underlies different spatial imaginaries and relationships towards democracy.
Obviously, a politics of control reflects what Stehr (2016) means by ‘exceptional
circumstances’. It involves a partial or temporary suspending of democracy by sovereign
authorities, in order to exercise specific ‘top-down’ policies, such as comprehensive sur-
veillance or regulations and policies that aim at enhancing the resilience of certain groups
(Adloff and Neckel, 2019). Accordingly, sustainability is framed as a technocratic and
eco-managerial issue (Luke, 2006), in which initiatives from the civil society and forms
of direct or participatory democracy are generally ignored. In this regard, the control-
path involves two different geographical imaginaries: on the one hand, it engenders a
separated world of enclosures and clear demarcations in order to protect privileged
groups from the effects of global warming and climate change-induced migration. On the
other, it rests on a geographical imaginary that can be described as ‘the planetary’, since
it transfers, without further ado, the large-scale thinking of earth system science onto the
social world, thus envisioning a global elite that ought to ‘guide’ humanity towards sus-
tainability, using technologies with global impact and other wide-ranging managerial
approaches (Bonneuil, 2015: 23; Neckel, 2021).
Ecological modernization, instead, centers on economic liberalism and market-based
solutions, as well as on the securing of the regenerative potentials of resources and on
guaranteeing the potentiality of future development opportunities (Neckel, 2018: 16). In
doing so, approaches of modernization are often organized around the merging of demo-
cratic participation, sustainable behavior and economic rationalities. This is demonstrated
for instance by the strategy to shift the political responsibility of creating more sustaina-
bility towards individual consumers and their choices, which coalesces with a liberal and
cosmopolitan imaginary of a community of environmental citizens as the central agents of
social change (Bell, 2005). Moreover, the idea of ecological modernization is embedded
in diverse global environmental governance mechanism, in particular multi-stakeholder
dialogues, which have contributed significantly to a democratic interaction of private,
governmental and non-state actors that deliberatively aim at finding consensus between
economic, ecological and social concerns (Biermann and Pattberg, 2008).
Yet, the relationship between ecological modernization and democracy is not unprob-
lematic. In the case of the ‘citizen-consumers’, it privileges individual, private self-inter-
ests over citizenship goals and profound systemic changes (Johnston, 2008). This idea
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thus drives the idea of sustainability – which in itself represents a matter of public con-
cern – from the public (and democratically negotiable and controllable) realm into the
private sphere (Grunwald, 2010). Likewise, multi-stakeholder processes primarily create
non-legally binding instruments such as voluntary guidelines, certifications and corpo-
rate standards that rather follow economic rationales and often lack transparency
(Lipschutz, 2005). In view of the apparent power imbalances between the actors involved,
and due to the fact that stakeholders, who do not adhere to the idea of ecological mod-
ernization, are often not represented,5 the democratic quality of these processes is indeed
questionable. Critical scholars thus classify the modernization path as leading to an
entirely ‘post-democratic’ society (Blühdorn, 2019; Swyngedouw, 2011).
Proponents of the transformation path – such as peasant and indigenous movements
from the Global South or members of the de-growth movement – seek instead to move
beyond market logics and claim to create counter-hegemonies that rest on principles of
solidarity and justice and on the democratic self-organization of commonly shared
resources (Tauss, 2016). In so doing, these movements often build on a geographical
imaginary that includes on the one hand a radically different understanding of the nature-
culture-relationship, i.e. as holistic and spiritual (Acosta and Martínez, 2009), and on the
other, the idea that the transformation towards sustainability has to be achieved locally,
from the bottom up, in the form of multifaceted practices of a solidary way of life (Brand
and Wissen, 2021). These transformative movements are however not merely regionalist
or place-based, nor do they solely rest on changes of lifestyles and behaviors towards
sufficiency and individual self-restraint, as some advocates of the de-growth movement
argue (Paech, 2012). Instead, most of them are embedded in broader emancipatory and
counter-hegemonic networks that call for a fundamental shift and a radical democratiza-
tion of the socio-political and economic order (Eversberg and Muraca, 2019). Therefore,
their political actions seem to relate to a disruptive and agonistic idea of democratic poli-
tics (Mouffe, 2013): in radically contesting existing social and symbolic orders, these
movements aim at expressing pluralism and dissent and thus bring into being multifac-
eted ‘interstitial spaces’, in the sense of diverse, post-capitalist initiatives and practices
in the ‘cracks’ of the dominant system (Wright, 2010).
In sum, the three distinct trajectories of modernization, transformation and control
show that sustainability has a complex and multifaceted relationship towards democracy.
Whereas the control path rather tends to constrain public deliberation and participation
by diminishing or partially suspending democratic rule, the modernization path builds on
the idea of an increased participation of non-state actors, and of establishing new demo-
cratic governance mechanisms above and beyond the state. However, due to the trend of
privatizing sustainability issues, the modernization path has a rather tensed relationship
towards democracy, understood as a model that essentially builds on freely accessible
space of public deliberation (Habermas, 2004). The transformation path, instead, rests on
radicalizing democracy and contesting existing structures and procedures. This brings it
in proximity to an agonistic understanding of democracy, which, albeit its diverse and
conflicting interpretations (Wenman, 2013), likewise emphasizes the disruptive nature of
democratic action as well as ‘the human capacity for creation [. . .] to bring new ways of
being into the world’ (Wenman, 2013: 7). Yet, this does not mean that the transformation
path automatically leads to a deepening or an enhancement of liberal democratic values.
In fact, within this path, there exist tendencies that show similarities to the control path
and to the democratic skepticism discussed earlier, not least because their advocates
often present their claims as being without alternative and the only solution to avoid the
coming disaster (Adloff and Neckel, 2019: 1022).
Of course, the three future trajectories of sustainability and their particular relation-
ships towards democracy are primarily analytical categories, since in reality they may
intermingle, contradict or reinforce each other. Nevertheless, they allow a more nuanced
perspective on sustainability’s complex and tensed relationship towards democracy.
Moreover, they reflect, at least to a certain extent, a common and stylized contrast between
different understandings of the core values of democracy: one that is rather consent ori-
ented (e.g. in the form of attempts to balance interests between economic, ecological and
social concerns, or to scale up the idea of deliberation in multi-stakeholder dialogues) and
one that rather emphasizes the transformation of democratic institutions and the disrup-
tion of established patterns of social life, as exemplified by movements of the transforma-
tion path. This contrast of ‘deliberation vs. agonism’, most prominently discussed by
Chantal Mouffe (2005, 2013), who strongly advocates for the latter, serves as a suitable
point of orientation for the argument in the next section. Therein I turn to the pragmatism
of John Dewey to discuss an understanding of democracy that is neither reducible to con-
testation nor to deliberation and which provides important insights for rethinking and
reframing public action in the epoch of the Anthropocene.
Adopting a pragmatist perspective
As noted above, the current epoch is marked by ‘super wicked’ problems (Levin et al.,
2012), most notably climate change, environmental degradation and concomitant forms
of environmental injustice. These are characterized by high complexity, urgency, elu-
siveness, lack of central authority, irrational and shortsighted political decisions, as well
as by the circumstance that those who try to solve the problem have essentially contrib-
uted to its creation. Given these challenges, it may indeed seem tempting to respond to
them in a ‘top down’, expertocratic fashion, and to temporarily suspend democratic pro-
cedures – according to the logic that high complexity and severity require determined
action and professional expertise. Such view, however, glosses over the empirical evi-
dence that authoritarian and technocratic regimes have a very poor record on environ-
mental (justice) challenges (Shahar, 2015). Furthermore, it overlooks the fact that the
exceptionality of the circumstances (that would legitimize suspending democracy) is in
fact not limited in time, but – given the irreversibility and depth of changes of the earth
system – rather a distinctive and permanent feature of the Anthropocene (Mert, 2019:
139). The idea of a temporal suspension of democracy to return to a pre-crises condition
is thus at best naïve, and at worst a dangerous fallacy. Moreover, as Stehr (2016: 43) puts
it, “[t]he problem is not one of democracy, but of the complexity of social change”. This
means that democracy, understood as the only type of governance that commits to social
complexity and its dilemmas, is not only necessary, but also indispensable to deal with
the current crises.
However, a simple call for ‘more’ or deeper democracy is not sufficient. Instead, a
profound rethinking and re-imagining of democracy is necessary, which means to go to
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the core values and meanings of democracy and to ask, what kind of democracy and
democratic imaginaries are possible and necessary in the epoch of the Anthropocene
(Mert, 2019: 129). Such an approach thus requires to move beyond the contrast between
either deliberative or agonistic approaches (as described above) and to search for a model
that not only prioritizes pluralism, dissent and contestation, but which also highlights the
importance of creating and engaging in new institutional designs both inside and outside
existing structures and procedures of democratic rule.
The democratic theory of pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, to which I will turn in
the following, offers valuable insights for such an approach. Although Dewey is gener-
ally regarded as liberal thinker, he was highly critical of classic liberalism and proponent
of a ‘social liberalism’, in which individuals are not atomic entities but always embedded
in social interactions and relations (Antic, 2017: 154ff.). His theory therefore centers on
the thought that individuals are, in a self-reflexive way, capable of distancing themselves
from their self-interests, in order to balance their own interest with the interests of those
with whom they share the political space (Rogers, 2016: 5). In this regard, Dewey con-
ceived of the formation of a democratic will as ‘a process of thoughtful interaction in
which the preferences of citizens are both informed and transformed by public delibera-
tion [. . .] to decide which policies will best satisfy and address the commitments and the
needs of the community’ (Rogers, 2016: 6).
Dewey’s understanding of democracy is however not reducible to the deliberation of
interests within certain governmental institutional arrangements. He rather conceived of
it as a ‘political ethos’, a ‘moral ideal’ that affects and pervades ‘all modes of human
association’. In other words, as Dewey put it, democracy ‘is the idea of community life
itself’ (Dewey, 2016: 171, 175). This idea of democracy is thus an entirely radical one,
since it is not merely understood as a set of rules, but as an always-incomplete process of
experimental and collective problem-solving6 that derives out of situated contexts and
experiences of everyday life. In so doing, Dewey’s democratic vision is highly norma-
tive, because he regards democracy as a valuable and defendable asset, whose core ideas
are deeply entrenched in and correspond with the cooperative character of the human
nature (Adloff, 2016: 53ff.). At the same time, due to its emphasis on communication,
problem-solving and participation, Dewey’s democratic theory reveals a profound ana-
lytical depth and is regarded as an important cornerstone for deliberative democratic
theories of the Habermasian tradition. The following subsections will explore these
aspects in more detail.
The geographies of emerging publics
The apparent failure of established democratic institutions and procedures to deal with
the ‘wickedness’ of issues such as climate change and environmental injustice raises
several questions. In particular, when these issues become so pressing, wicked and severe
that they can no longer be ignored – as it is the case with the manifold effects of climate
change and forms of environmental injustice – and when the affected people reflect on
and take action against them, the question of how to integrate these emerging public
spheres in the existing democratic procedures arises. Connected with this are yet further
questions, such as the questions of who belongs to the emerging publics, how they may
lead to the creation of new democratic institutions and according to which principles
their members recognize themselves as belonging to communities of shared concerns.
In particular, Dewey’s understanding of ‘the public’, which forms the centerpiece of
his democratic theory, is most helpful in this regard. ‘The public’, for Dewey, is not
reducible to any institutionalized and predetermined form, rather, it ‘consists of all those
who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is
deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for’ (Dewey, 2016:
69). In other words, it means that the public sphere comes into being as soon as certain
transactions and their non-intended consequences (e.g. carbon emissions, sea-level rise,
agro-industrial activities, land-loss, destruction of habitats), affect a group of individuals
to such magnitude that political action is required. Yet, in denoting that ‘the public’ forms
up as a reaction of ‘indirect consequences’, Dewey does not imply that the impact itself
is weak or elusive – in fact, it can be severe, harmful and profound as Nixon’s descrip-
tions of ‘slow violence’ show – but that ‘the public’ is formed by individuals that are not
immediately involved in the transaction itself (Dewey, 2016: 66). Therefore, according to
Dewey, a matter of public concern is not determined by its content, but by the fact that it
considerably affects people who have not directly contributed to its causation.
In contemporary political theory, in particular in theories that stem from the
Habermasian tradition, such as Nancy Fraser’s, Dewey’s understanding of ‘the public’
corresponds with the so-called ‘all-affected principle’. This principle holds ‘that all those
affected by a given social structure or institution have moral standing as subjects of jus-
tice in relation to it’ (Fraser, 2005: 13). In so doing, this principle does not only inhere a
strongly normative force, but brings in a decidedly geographical dimension into theori-
zations of democracy, since it addresses the question of the spatial framing of public
action (Barnett and Bridge, 2013; Barnett, 2017). Whereas this question was formerly
answered by equating the ‘all-affected-principle’ with the territorial state, in the sense
that the state served as the only and taken-for-granted frame for guaranteeing justice, the
manifold extra- and non-territorial forces, demonstrate that the state today is not suffi-
ciently able to fulfill this function and that injustices of various kinds transcend its
boundaries. What then arises are forms of ‘meta-political-injustices’ (Fraser, 2008: 62)
that occur when the polity through which decisions are negotiated does not match with
the scope and extend of the injustices that certain people experience. In these cases, the
‘subjects of justice’ are completely barred from participating in political decision with
regard to the injustices they experience – in Fraser’s words, they become ‘misframed’
(Fraser, 2008: 62).
But how do those that are ‘misframed’, such as people that are affected by ‘slow vio-
lence’, recognize themselves as a community of subjects of justice? Again, the ‘all-
affected principle’ provides orientation, since it reflects the Deweyian argument that
publics are not defined a priori in the form of political membership (to a state), nor in
virtue of the sheer fact of being human (as proponents of a cosmopolitan global justice
approach suggest). Rather they are being defined in virtue of a joint ‘co-imbrication in a
common structural or institutional framework, which sets the ground rules that govern
their social interaction’ (Fraser, 2005: 13). This definition, however, still lacks of explan-
atory power and requires analytical differentiation. In fact, as soon as the ‘all-affected
principle’ is understood merely as a causal and objective criterion, as it is the case in
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Habermas’ theory (Marres, 2007), i.e., when the ‘fact’ of affectedness is used as a neutral
rationale for determining who is a legitimate member of a democratic community and
who is not, it falls victim to over-complexity and arbitrariness, since it is ‘rather difficult
to disentangle simple relations of cause and effect’ in complex social systems (Barnett
and Bridge, 2013: 1026). Moreover, it neglects the questions of power and subjection to
certain structures, and thus fails to identify morally relevant claims, because it implicitly
presumes that different people are to the same extent affected by indirect consequences,
which is the reason why Fraser (2008: 65) prefers to speak of the ‘all-subjected princi-
ple’, instead of merely being causally affected.
When applying the principle of all-affectedness, it is thus necessary, as the human
geographer Clive Barnett (2017: 187ff.) argues, to differentiate between an objective and
causal criterion on the one hand, in the sense of ‘having an interest’ in an issue, and a
normative and affective criterion on the other, in the sense of actively ‘taking an interest’
in one. This two-fold interpretation of the ‘all-affected principle’, between being caus-
ally affected, and self-reflectively identifying oneself as affected, also allows, following
Barnett (2017: 187ff.), a more nuanced understanding of Dewey’s understanding of ‘the
public’: whereas it might seem at first sight indeed a merely causal principle (people
mechanistically react because they are affected by indirect consequences), Dewey put
more emphasis on the reciprocal perception and recognition of individuals around an
issue of shared concern. Therefore, Dewey understood the formation of a public to a
lesser extent as a chain of cause and effect, and rather as emerging from both the cogni-
tive reflection and the embodied feeling of being affected by spatially and temporally
wide-ranging consequences of human transactions and of coordinating action against
them. As Dewey (2016: 78, my emphasis) puts it: ‘When these consequences are in turn
realized in thought and sentiment, recognition of them reacts to remake the conditions
out of which they arose. Consequences have to be taken care of, looked out for. [. . .] For
the essence of the consequences which call a public into being is the fact that they expand
beyond those directly engaged in producing them.’
Although Dewey did not make it explicit in these lines, it becomes clear that the public
is not only a contingent and situative phenomenon, but that it is also a pluralist one.
Distinct consequences (or problems) do not only engender different publics around which
people constellate and form distinct political identities (Rogers, 2016: 37), they also
implicate different actors antagonistically in an issue of public concern (Marres, 2007:
773). Moreover, according to Dewey, the formation of publics represents a highly com-
municative process, since it is ultimately brought into being by the capacity of humans to
reflect and to communicate, as well as to experience emotions that enables them to recog-
nize and to imagine themselves as being part of broader complex systems with spatially
dispersed and temporally elusive consequences. Given these insights, it is no wonder that
Dewey’s theory represents an important intellectual basis for Bruno Latour’s democratic
experimentalism (Latour, 2004a) with which he seeks to re-materialize democracy and
establish a democratic model that assigns a special role to objects and ‘things’. Yet, a
‘thing’, for Latour, is not reducible to artifacts or material entities. He rather intends to
give political shape to commonly shared and problematic ‘matters of concern’ – under-
stood as issues which are subject to disputes, to diverging assessments and valuations –
and which are, from his point of view, being falsely treated as non-negotiable ‘matters of
fact’, i.e. as allegedly neutral things, devoid of social values and emotions (see also Latour,
2004b; Marres, 2007).
In sum, Dewey’s understanding of the public, or rather publics, offers a helpful theo-
retical approach to reflect on the democratic challenges sketched in the introduction. It
shows that the inability of democratic institutions to deal with ‘wicked’ issues on much
larger scales (or ‘matters of concern’) is closely connected to the fact that those who are
involved in these institutions often lack of the ability to cognitively reflect and emotion-
ally feel that they are being affected by certain indirect consequences. In Latour’s (2004c:
205) words, they lack of the capability of ‘learning to be affected’, that is, of being bodily
put into motion by humans and non-human entities. Moreover, it points to the fact that
emerging ‘publics are [. . .] not merely found’ (Barnett, 2014: 10) on the basis of preex-
isting democratic frames, nor on the sheer fact of being human, but on the basis of being
causally affected (or subjected to use Frasers term) and the ability to reflect and to take
action, i.e. of affectively ‘taking an interest’. In doing so, it allows to perceive of ‘the
public’ as an ‘imaginative entity’ (Barnett, 2017: 188f.) that is neither reducible to short-
term politics nor to predetermined democratic frames. Instead, it emerges on the basis of
individuals who are cognitively and emotionally affected by the consequences of certain
transactions (i.e. of toxic waste, use of GMOs, deforestation or sea-level rise), and who
coordinate and organize themselves via practices of joint communication in order to take
care of these shared ‘matters of concern’ (Latour, 2004b).
Democratic experimentalism and the ‘politics of swarming’
Conceptualizing the public as an ‘imaginative entity’, however, does not mean that pub-
lics are purely ideological, in the Cartesian sense of a distinct sphere that is detached
from bodies and the material world. This would be a contradiction to Dewey’s (2013)
philosophical key assumptions, according to which the evolution of humans and their
environment is being embedded in a reciprocal and dynamic continuum out of which
new subject positions and relationships emerge. Mind and matter are, according to
Dewey, no distinct categories but co-constituted, as ‘body-minds’, and constantly in flux,
which, again, shows the close proximity to Latour’s theory. Central to this philosophy, is
Dewey’s anti-Cartesian understanding of ‘experience’, which refers to the notion that the
production of knowledge derives out of a ‘continuum of response’ (Bridge, 2013: 305)
between non-human organisms, objects and the environment. Humans and non-human
entities are thus in constant ‘transaction’, meaning that they are never fully developed
and closed, but embedded in a permanent process of reciprocal co-evolution and reor-
ganization (Dewey and Bentley, 2008).
However, as soon as problematic situations arise, in which habituated procedures are
interrupted and the indeterminacy of the future becomes apparent (e.g. extreme weather
events or land-loss due to climate change, agro-industrial activities, or toxification),
human experience shifts to what Dewey (2013) called, ‘secondary experience’. This kind
of second-order knowledge production differs from ‘primary experience’ insofar as
humans start to engage in a differentiated and future-oriented process of reflection and
problem-orientated activity in order to overcome and to adapt to the new situation. Such
process is neither individual nor merely cognitive in the sense that it can be reduced to
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rational choices of individual actors. Instead, it represents an entirely social activity that
is creatively and collaboratively enacted with others as well as with the non-human
world (see for an early elaboration of this thought: Joas, 1997).
At present, there exists a whole range of grassroots initiatives and newly emerging
public spheres both inside and outside existing institutions that are paradigmatic for
Dewey’s arguments: in the last years, affected people and communities in different parts
of the world have been developing very diverse answers to climate change and forms on
environmental injustice. These include for instance self-governed renewable energy pro-
jects of indigenous people in Canada (Stefanelli et al., 2018), resettlement strategies of
environmental migrants in the Pacific region (Klepp and Herbeck, 2016), or the struggle
for food sovereignty of peasant communities in the Global South (Fladvad et al., 2020).
These movements and initiatives do not only claim more protection against the structures
that harm them, as well as self-determination and participation in respective decision-
making processes, they also collaboratively create new institutional designs and seek to
realize their own legal strategies of dealing with climate change and/or environmental
injustice. For example, in the case of food sovereignty, new transnational alliances
between peasants and indigenous peoples have recently resulted in the United Nations
Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, which
was adopted by the United Nations in 2018. This declaration demonstrates how the man-
ifold local experiences and initiatives of peasants worldwide have been transformed into
a new framework, which opens up new legal spaces and possibilities for grass-roots
democratic policies in the rural sector (Claeys and Edelman, 2020).
Although this notion of an experimental, or rather ‘creative democracy’, as Dewey
(2011) called it, might appear as straightforwardly consensual, as if conflicts, power rela-
tions and differences have to be deferred for the sake of the common good, this is far
from Dewey’s intention, since he conceived of democracy as being highly contingent on
pluralism, agonistic relationships and competing interests. As he put it ‘genuinely demo-
cratic faith in peace is faith in the possibility of conducting disputes, controversies and
conflicts as cooperative undertakings in which both parties learn by giving the other a
chance to express itself, instead of having one party conquer by forceful suppression of
the other’ (Dewey, 2011: 153). The peasant organizations of the food sovereignty move-
ment illustrate this idea very clearly, for example in debating at their events possible
contradictions between claims for gender equality in the rural sector and agriculture in
traditional, patriarchal societies or between local production and international trade.7 In
consequence, the democratic ideal Dewey envisioned (and for which the food sover-
eignty movement provides a good example), does not follow superordinate objectives of
social living together. Rather it aims at providing the possibility of open debate, conflict,
critique and reflection in order to learn from each other, to engage in collective problem-
solving and to adapt institutionally to the unanticipated changing of certain circum-
stances (Antic, 2017).
This perspective also provides, as Clive Barnett and Gary Bridge argue (2013; see
also Bridge, 2005, 2013), an alternative understanding of the spaces of democratic action,
namely, one that does not decide in advance how democracy should be ideally structured
(e.g. as containers or networks) and at which scale democratic institutions are best estab-
lished (local, national, or global). Instead, it allows conceiving of democratic spaces as
emerging from the formation of problem-solving communities that constellate around
issues of shared concern and who bring into being their own spatialities that may differ
in reach, structure and formalization. They can emerge locally and regionally, they may
territorialize or form relational networks between different actors and institutions as, for
example, the case of ‘sustainable cities’ shows (Bulkeley and Betsill, 2005). Moreover,
they also may support existing democratic institutions and frames, such as the state, as
long as these institutions are flexible and open for modification. If this is not the case, i.e.
if institutions impede the experimental reorganization of their very own foundations, the
formation of emerging publics stands in a rather agonistic relationship to established
institutions and democratic frames. In these cases, as Dewey (2016: 81) put it, ‘the public
has to break existing political forms’, even if this entails the risk of failure. This is an
important aspect to keep in mind since, according to Dewey, there are no pre-given rules
or categories that distinguish a failed state from a ‘good state’. Instead, ‘[t]he formation
of states must be an experimental process [. . .] with diverse degrees of blindness and
accident’ (2016: 82).
Given the violent history of the 20th century and the apparent failure of diverse ‘state
experiments’, this idea of experimentally searching for ‘good’ democratic institutions
must of course be considered very carefully. Nevertheless, it provides important insights
for the democratic challenges of today. In fact, it is exactly this quality, i.e. the simultane-
ous accentuation of the formation of democratic publics as disruptive, counterhegemonic
‘spaces of agonistic encounter’, as well as their feature of ‘experimenting with institu-
tional designs’, that distinguishes a pragmatist understanding from democratic theories,
which either overemphasize the value of agonism and disruption, or the norm of consen-
sus finding and deliberation (Barnett and Bridge, 2013: 1025). In short, Dewey’s prag-
matism allows moving beyond this contrast and conceives of democratic action as an
ongoing experimental process of collective learning, of try and error, that is neither
reducible to conflict and contestation, nor to intrinsic value of participation, but which
involves a commitment to both of these democratic qualities.
Notwithstanding, in the face of the spatially dispersed character of many contempo-
rary issues (such as climate change or injustices in the rural sector), the question remains
of how citizens from disparate sites and regions recognize themselves as joint communi-
ties of ‘the affected’ (e.g. as part of a food or climate justice movement), how they learn
from each other, and how they organize themselves as part of a broader, yet pluralist
public. It is precisely here where the political theorist William Connolly (2019: 123ff.)
takes Dewey’s pragmatism further. Inspired by the idea of a ‘honeybee democracy’ he
develops the concept of a ‘politics of swarming’ that consists of the interaction of mani-
fold experimental approaches within multiple sites and scales of political action, such as
‘churches, worksites, consumption localities, investment, universities research, teaching
[. . .] each carrying some potential to augment and intensify the others with which it
becomes associated’ (Connolly, 2019: 125). In doing so, Connolly assigns a special role
to ‘specific intellectuals’, i.e. to specific individual citizens such as people working in
bureaucracies, scientists, writers-activists, mechanics, manufacturers, teachers, religious
leaders or journalists that use their specific knowledge in order to modify (in their niche)
certain habits or institutional and structural arrangements and to make things public. The
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tasks of these ‘scouts’, as Connolly calls them, is therefore to engage in manifold ‘micro-
practices of creative experimentations’ and to use the complexity of contemporary life,
in order to bring into being a cross-regional ‘assemblage of multiple actions’, in other
words, a public that consists of multiple publics and constituencies.
In short, Connolly maps out an idea of deterritorialized democratic politics that is very
close to Dewey’s theory: when and where it is deemed necessary, i.e. where specific prob-
lems arise and become urgent, people may organize and convene around matters of shared
concern and engage in creative ‘role experiments’ to activate shifts and adjustments
within, and often in opposition to, the existing institutional settings. The ‘swarming’ meta-
phor, in this regard, is very appropriate, since it underlines the argument, put forward by
Barnett and Bridge (2013), that there is no external authority or centrally coordinated
structure that determines how the spaces of collective problem-solving should look like,
but that they follow their very own unpredictable ‘swarming’-dynamics.
Conclusion: Moving beyond global democracy
This contribution has aimed at rethinking democracy against the background of the cur-
rent crises and corresponding debates around sustainability with a special focus on its
inherent spatialities. Of central concern has been how the ‘wickedness’ of issues such as
climate change, as well as the apparent democratic deficits to deal with environmental
(justice) challenges, contribute to a growing democratic skepticism, which manifests
itself through evocations of catastrophic, warlike scenarios and calls for expert and tech-
nocratic forms of governance. According to this view, democracy is seen as an impedi-
ment to sustainability and ‘ordinary citizens’ as inert, ignorant and impossible to mobilize
for action. This tendency corresponds to what Adloff and Neckel (2019) call the ‘control
path’ of the ‘futures of sustainability’: to invoke a ‘state of exception’ and to strive for
sustainability by diminishing or even suspending democratic rule, which may lead to a
world of enclosures for the benefit of a few and the detriment of many.
Yet, the current crises and the growing awareness for environmental concerns and
sustainability have also given rise to diverse transformative social movements (e.g. the
movement for food sovereignty or the manifold climate justice movements) and to a
revitalization of democratic life within established institutions and procedures, at the
municipal level for instance, in the form of ‘sustainable cities’ or through similar initia-
tives. These transnational dynamics – which relate quite differently to democracy,
depending on whether they rest on the idea of an ecological modernization, on a politics
of control, or on transformative claims – attest that the complexity of contemporary
social life, as well as the urgency of the problems it has brought about, do not necessarily
lead to depoliticizing or anti-democratic tendencies. Rather, they demonstrate that the
‘super wicked’ problems of the Anthropocene manifest and are negotiated in diverse
manifold public spheres that bring into being their own spatialities and democratic
Analytically, these ‘emerging publics’ are best conceptualized by taking the core
insights of Dewey’s pragmatism seriously. That means to acknowledge – and herein lies
one of the central benefits of Dewey’s theory – that democracy is not reducible to spe-
cific standards and rules, geographical scales or institutional procedures, but that its
fundamental core consists of an always-incomplete and cooperative process of experi-
mental problem-solving that derives out of the indirect consequences of human transac-
tions and the manifold practical experiences of people in different situations and places.
Recognizing these problems and searching collectively and in an experimental way for
institutional solutions, thus, means – normatively speaking – to decentralize and to plu-
ralize democracy in favor of multiple epistemologies, ontologies and worldviews
(Mouffe, 2013). Or, to put it in the words of John Urry (2016: 64), ‘in the case of wicked
problems such as climate change [. . .] there is no permanent way of getting the right
policies in the right place in the right time’.
As a consequence, dominant theorizations of a global or cosmopolitan democracy
(e.g. Beck, 2006; Held, 1995), according to which – broadly speaking – the scale of the
polity is adjusted to the scale of the problem, should be viewed very skeptically. These
imply, as Fraser (2008: 64) puts it, a ‘one-size-fits-only’ approach, which is ‘oblivious to
actual or historical social relations’ and ‘forecloses the possibility that different issues
require different frames or scales of justice’. In a similar vein, Mouffe (2005: 90ff.)
argues that the cosmopolitan approaches, if put into action, for instance in the form of
shifting more decision-making power to international institutions, would not only under-
mine and delegitimize local and national sovereignties, but also disregard the enormous
power imbalances and antagonisms between peoples and regions of the world.
A pragmatist approach offers a promising alternative, both from a normative and an
analytical point of view. It not only strengthens and concretizes Stehr’s (2016: 44) argu-
ment that the best political answer to the complexity of climate change and to the erosion
of democracy is a revitalization of democratic interaction; it moreover allows to analyti-
cally focus both on the disruptive energy of emerging publics, and on their capacity to
experiment with and to establish new and decentralized institutional designs (Barnett and
Bridge, 2013). In doing so, Dewey’s pragmatism provides a philosophical basis for, for
instance, a polycentric approach to the governance of common pool resources (Ostrom,
2010), as well as for approaches that highlight the importance of institutional and eco-
logical reflexivity8 for providing an effective response to the Anthropocene (Dryzek and
Pickering, 2019). In addition, it enables researchers to understand that the issues, around
which these emerging publics convene, are not positively given, and that the moral
incentive to take action against them doesn’t derive out of an objectively assessable
affectedness. Instead, it highlights that issues of shared concern arise as soon as the
established democratic institutions fail to deal with them, and when people who are
affected by them are capable of recognizing them, of taking an interest, and of coordinat-
ing action against them. Therefore, issues of shared concern have to be publicly identi-
fied, examined, articulated and transformed into political action in order to qualify as
such (Dewey, 2016: 224f.). Such a ‘critical democratic’ approach to determine ‘how’
problems are being determined and ‘who’ stands as a subject of justice in relation to them
(Fraser, 2008: 41ff.), thus underlines that the proper frames of democratic action should
not be determined by scaling up the polity, nor by prioritizing national or local sovereign-
ties. Rather, it suggests that the spaces of democratic action should derive out of a dia-
logical and yet agonistic process of experimental problem-solving, i.e. from the emerging
publics and their democratic procedures themselves. These ‘emergent public spheres’
(Barnett, 2014) therefore unfold unforeseeably, and follow, to use Connolly’s (2019)
metaphor again, a spatial logic that can be best described as a ‘swarming’.
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In sum, Dewey’s pragmatism serves two purposes. On the one hand, it serves as a
means for reframing and rethinking normative political theories in the light of the com-
plexities and democratic challenges of the Anthropocene, in particular with regards to
the core values of democracy and related aspects, such as the relationship between
experts and lay citizens as well as the need for reflexivity and experimentation. On the
other, it serves as an analytical framework for investigating the geographies of these
emerging public spheres. It thus helps to analyze how and according to which principles
emerging democratic collectives convene, how they connect to each other, how they
institutionalize, and how they relate to established forms of democratic governance. In
doing so, a pragmatist perspective provides both more nuanced insights into the practice
and the liveliness of democracy, as well as an inspiration for an urgently needed discus-
sion about the future of democracy in the Anthropocene.
I would like to thank the members of the Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies ‘Futures of
Sustainability’ and the anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments on an earlier version of
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article: This research was funded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche
Forschungsgemeinschaft - DFG).
Benno Fladvad https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6016-6315
1. The concept of ‘wicked problems’ was first described by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber
(1973), who argued that, in contrast to ‘tame problems’, ‘wicked problems’ have features
such as: not being definitively solvable, dependent on their framing, a possible symptom
of other problems, subject to different worldviews and changing circumstances. In political
science and planning theory, there is an ongoing debate on this term (see for an overview
Ritchey, 2011; for current empirical examples and political discussions: http://www.wicked7.
org/). In this contribution, I will, however, not discuss the respective literature as a whole, but
limit myself to the definition coined by Levin et al. (2012), since it is very suitable for current
ecological and environmental issues.
2. This second feature has to be considered carefully. It is certainly true that policies against
climate change, in particular mitigation strategies, are often developed in the same countries
that have contributed significantly to global warming. This however does not reflect that there
exist several strategies of dealing with climate change in different parts of the world, e.g. in
small and vulnerable Pacific islands states, that have not, or only to a small degree contributed
to it, in particular in relation to their affectedness (Klepp and Herbeck, 2016). Moreover, it is
important to keep in mind that this feature does not imply a direct chain of cause and effect,
but rather an indirect responsibility in the sense of non-intended consequences of collective
activities (Levin et al. 2012: 127).
3. I am referring here to the so-called Lippmann-Dewey debate, which centered on the ques-
tion of the extent to which ‘ordinary citizens’ should participate in questions and decision-
making procedures of high complexity. Whereas Walter Lippmann (2017) – one of the most
renowned North American journalists and authors of the 1920s – endorsed an elitist vision of
democracy in which scientific experts take the leading role in dealing with complex issues,
John Dewey (2016) advocated for transferring more decision-making power and responsibil-
ity to citizens. Yet, Dewey did not envision citizens as omnicompetent and was highly aware
of the importance of experts, but was rather concerned about the relationship between citizens
and experts, in particular regarding the question of power relations (Rogers, 2016: 26).
4. It should be noted here that democratic action and thought are not per se understood as being
inconsistent with the deep-time perspective of the Anthropocene, but the majority of the insti-
tutions and procedures of liberal democracy (see for further elaboration Galaz, 2019).
5. A good example here is the RTRS, the Round Table on Responsible Soy (https://responsi-
blesoy.org/). Although several organizations from the civil society are represented in this
mechanism, important stakeholders, who are not in line with the RTRS-objectives, i.e. who
fight for a redistribution of land and for the recognition of peasants’ rights, do not participate
(Mier y Terán, 2011).
6. A problem-solving activity, according to Dewey, does not mean that existing problems lead
automatically to solutions that are satisfactory for all participants. In particular in the case of
‘wicked problems’ this would be impossible. Rather, it means that humans engage in a crea-
tive activity of dealing with problems, of identifying them and of creating problem awareness,
but not necessarily of finding solutions (see Rogers, 2016).
7. These two aspects were debated at the Congress “Global Peasants Rights” in Schwäbisch
Hall, Germany from 7 to 10 March 2017, which the author of this article attended (for more
details on the inherent tensions of the food sovereignty movement see Edelman, 2014).
8. Institutional reflexivity is based on the idea that institutions are flexible enough to learn from
past decisions and to respond to public deliberations, while they are at the same time sta-
ble enough to provide a framework for collective action and long-term policies. Ecological
reflexivity means that institutions are attentive and responsive to the earth system and unprec-
edented ecological dynamics (Dryzek and Pickering, 2019: 151ff.).
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Benno Fladvad is a human geographer and research associate at the Humanities Centre for
Advanced Studies ‘Futures of Sustainability’ at Hamburg University, Germany. In his past
research, he focused on the struggles for food sovereignty in Bolivia from a political geography
perspective. His current research is centered on conflicting imaginations of sustainability, climate
justice and geographies of democracy in the Anthropocene.