Liberal Democracy and Environmentalism Seminar

The following is the abstract for a seminar paper being given on Campus on May 1 2013 by Daniel Hausknost. It is part of a series of events being supported funded by the Annual Fund

Abstract: Transition Impossible? Liberal democracy and the limits of radical environmental politics

Dr Daniel Hausknost

Institute of Social Ecology, Alpen-Adria Universitaet Klagenfurt

Wednesday 1st May 2013, Seminar 8, 15.00hrs

The transition of industrial societies from a fossil-energy-based economy to a post-fossil, ‘sustainable’ one arguably presents the defining challenge of the 21st century. Although there is significant disagreement as to the exact scope and nature of the changes required, there is a consensus building up that in their entirety these changes will have to lead to a kind of society substantially different from the ‘advanced capitalism’ that characterises the beginning of this century.

This paper looks into the feasibility of radical environmental reform within the liberal-democratic framework. Are liberal democracies able to initiate and facilitate forms of change that are radical and swift enough to avert dangerous climate change and crippling resource scarcities? Put differently: Can capitalist democracy deliberately transform itself into something more sustainable? We use the conceptual model of ‘epistemic legitimacy’ to approach this question. The model suggests that liberal democracies are existentially dependent on a thriving ‘external source of social reality’, aka a growing market economy, to sustain their own legitimacy. The opacity of the market is essential to establishing a form of reality that is perceived as ‘objective’ and to which the political realm can ‘react’. According to this model, then, the transition must be based on market mechanisms and on the business-as-usual model of capitalist reality-construction, including economic growth. Hence the popularity of the ‘green growth’ narrative with governments and European Union officials. The problem of course is that these mechanisms will no doubt fail to bring about the changes required for a sustainability transition. Faced with the alternative of intervening radically into the structures of reality and thus jeopardizing its own basis of legitimation and risking socio-economic collapse while maintaining the ‘epistemic’ basis of liberal-democratic legitimation, however, liberal democracies will (continue to) choose the latter option. Thus they will prefer entering and ‘managing’ a socio-ecological crisis that might end civilisation on our planet to actively averting it, although this would be technically feasible. This paper explains the mechanisms behind this seemingly irrational choice.

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