Democracy and sustainability:

Jon Nevill               Revised November 2005

The present expression of democracy must be recognised as a process driving the planet towards eco-catastrophe: reform is possible and urgent.

The roots of democracy originated in Greece in the fifth century BC, where all Athenian citizens were free to vote and speak in the Assembly. Democracy is now  generally accepted as the most desirable form of government for nation-states, and has the endorsement of several key United Nations declarations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (Article 21) and the Millennium Declaration 2000 (Article 25). According to Wikipedia (25/11/05) 120 of the world's 192 nation-states have democratic governments.

The First World owes much of its wealth and egalitarianism to the fundamental tenets of democracy: elected representatives, one vote one value, the decision of the majority, multi-party elections, freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, non-political armed forces, and a mixed economy where political control is retained over decisions relating to national security, border control, national economic drivers (like interest rates and money supply), health, education, welfare and the management of natural resources.  Capitalism in a mixed economy harnesses human enterprise, while moderating to acceptable levels the worst aspects of human greed and lack of foresight. Over the last three centuries, the 'western world' has evolved a democratic political framework which, for the most part, works towards efficient, equitable and effective social and economic outcomes. 

However, the same cannot be said for the way the long term resources of the planet are being managed.  Here, our version of democracy is failing us.  Across the globe, resources are being 'mined' rather than harvested responsibly and sustainably (Ludwig et al. 1993).  We are mining our soils, our forests, our oceans, and our freshwater resources (see other parts of the OnlyOnePlanet website for further information).

Democracy creates decision makers (the politicians) whose jobs depend on meeting the immediate needs of existing voters. Future generations do not vote, and their needs will hold little sway whenever hard trade-offs between the interests of present-day voters and future generations are involved.  The reality is that politicians will make unsustainable decisions to keep their jobs - and why wouldn't they?  They won't be around to face the wrath of the future generations whose interests they are prejudicing.  Examples of decisions made for these reasons are becoming increasingly common-place (back-downs by Australian and USA governments over international greenhouse commitments, for example).  

This situation can only be remedied by constraining the decisions available to politicians by a political system which enshrines environmental principles - which in themselves reflect not only wise use of the planet's resources, but a deep respect for the planet and its life forms. 

How can this be achieved?  There is no easy solution, and change can only occur at this level after massive community discussion and debate.  How can we create cultures and political institutions which respect the planet?  The core values of societies must change, and when we look at the prime drivers of change, the media, we see massive explicit promotion of short term and materialistic values.

There seem to be, however, certain aspects of democracy which we could change, reasonably quickly, if we could achieve a general awareness of the gravity of the crisis faced by our planet, and an awareness of the importance of  political decision-making processes.  I believe eight elements stand out:

First, we must provide politicians with job security.  We need rolling elections which place politicians in position for a considerable length of time, perhaps somewhere in the range 12 to 20 years.  Each year (if we used a twenty-year term), one twentieth of Australia's politicians would face election - plus those who had retired voluntarily in the preceding year would be replaced.  The positions of ruling parties would be more stable, and would change gradually rather than suddenly. 

Second, we need legislation which requires (rather than encourages) sustainable decisions.  Legislation must be developed, preferably through whole-of-government approaches, which enshrines the objective of sustainable decision-making ABOVE all other objectives. If a whole-of-government approach is used, core sustainability objectives would be established in a key statute, then reflected in subsequent statutes relating to specific functional areas. For example, several of Tasmania's current statutes (the Water Management Act 1999 for example) all refer to a suite of core principles established by the State's planning statute. Such legislation must require ministers and other functionaries to further these objectives. There must be sanctions for non-compliance, and standing must be provided to allow third parties (the general public) to take court action where a significant breach of duty may have occurred.  Current Australian legislation generally places the achievement of ecologically sustainable development on a par with objectives such as ensuring fairness (equity), and the promotion of economic development.  Due to the historic prominence of equity in common law, the inevitable result of this situation will be a primacy of equity issues above considerations of sustainability. Strong and thoughtful steps must be taken to reverse this situation.

Third, we need to underpin ALL decision-making processes with requirements to utilise sustainability principles at all decision-making levels, from national, to State, to local government.  Ways of constraining corporations within sustainable frameworks must be found and implemented (mandatory product recovery legislation, for example). Ministers and agencies must also be required to apply sustainability principles, especially the precautionary principle.

Fourth, we need to move towards consensus decision-making models, by building into our political processes increased reliance on bi-partisan committees to make "difficult" sustainability decisions.  In Australia, some of the wisest reports published over the last fifty years are those from bi-partisan working groups, and these reports are also some of the most widely ignored by the ruling politics.

Fifth, we need to consider the qualifications we want in our politicians.  I suggest that we need to require certain qualifications before a person can stand for parliament.  Either that, or a requirement that, after election to office, certain accredited training courses be undertaken.  This has nothing to do with a person's values, and I am not suggesting that any requirement relating to values would be desirable.  However, I am suggesting that we need politicians to have a certain minimum level of awareness regarding social, environmental and economic matters.

Sixth, we need to make more use of independent statutory authorities to make resource management decisions, thus removing politicians from the business of implementing policy decisions relating to sustainable management. While an essential aspect of democracy which should be retained is the creation of high-level national and State policies through the political process, history has shown that the ideals of policy are often corrupted through piece-meal and distorted implementation, often brought about by short-term pressures on politicians close to election date. 

A useful model for such authorities is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, created under the Commonwealth's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975. The Authority is governed by a Board and is independent of, but reports to, Ministers from both Commonwealth and Queensland Governments (the Great Barrier Reef occupies both Queensland and Commonwealth waters). The constitution of the Board (in terms of skills, experience and stakeholder allegiance) can be weighed against short term interests (in this case fishing and other harvesting activities) which could undermine sustainable decision-making. The Act itself requires conservation objectives to precede other objectives in the formulating of management plans and zoning arrangements. The fact that Board members are appointed for long terms, and can only be removed for dereliction of statutory duties, enables the Board to make difficult long-term decisions where short term costs (although outweighed by long-term benefits) are still significant.

Seventh, as Christopher Stone has argued, we need to create an institution which has authority and legal standing within the decision-making structure of the State, and the role of safeguarding the interests of future generations - a 'guardian of the future'. This institution needs to be independent of government and have 'permanent' funding to place it outside short-term political influence. It should have a respected environmental scientist or environmental lawyer as its head, and sufficient funds to not only prepare scientific discussion papers on key issues, but prepare educational material and fund public awareness programs in mass media. Token and temporary funding will not suffice. It should also be able to fund visits of key international authors writing on sustainability issues.

Eighth, the difficulties of controlling the cumulative effects of  incremental development ("death by a thousand cuts) need to be addressed in a more intelligent and strategic way. Nevill 2003, dealing with the management of freshwater ecosystems, has suggested that five key principles need to be addressed simultaneously for any program to succeed in managing cumulative effects. This is an exceptionally important issue which needs much more public as well as academic discussion. The five principles are of such importance that they need to be institutionalised into the decision-making process in some way.


Ludwig, D, Hilborn, R & Walters, C (1993) 'Uncertainty, resource exploitation and conservation: lessons from history.' Science, vol. 260, no. 2, p. 17.

Nevill, J (2003) 'Managing the cumulative effects of incremental development in freshwater resources', Environment and Planning Law Journal, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 85-94.  Updated version.

Stone, CD (1995) 'Should we establish a guardian to speak for future generations?' in T-C Kim & JA Daton (eds), Creating a new history for future generations, Institute for Future Generations, Kyoto Japan.