For more sustainability, add democracy

Democracy leaders: Norwegians gathered in Oslo in July 2011, following a horrific mass shooting, calling for more democracy to meet terror. Pic from and link to Escribanas.
Democracy leaders: Norwegians gathered in Oslo in July 2011, following a horrific mass shooting, calling for more democracy to meet terror. Pic: Escribanas

Over the last year, I have become increasingly convinced that a key solution to dealing with our global lack of action on climate change lies in building democracies. That’s not easy, nor is it a very heartening conclusion when democracies are sliding backwards everywhere, as the Economist Intelligence Unit concluded in 2010 in a report entitled ‘Democracy index 2010: Democracy in retreat’. I certainly think democracy is currently retreating in the United States and South Africa.

At dinner this evening, I found myself engaged in a somewhat passionate conversation with a friend and colleague who works in corporate sustainability, and who was arguing, if I do him justice, that we cannot rely on democracies to steer us in the right direction on climate change, and that we need ‘philosopher kings’, enlightened people of great power and influence to steer us through the climate crisis.

Is he right?

If my argument is good, then the world’s most democratic countries should also be its most sustainable countries.

Let’s take a look. The table below ranks the top ten democracies according to the EIU report I have just cited.

Then I’ve drawn on the first serious sustainability index I found, also for 2010, the Environmental Performance Index 2010 produced by Yale and Columbia Universities.

I’m also interested in equality and how that correlates to democracy and sustainability performance, so I’m going to add a column for that as well, from the Global Peace Index which draws from the UNDP Human Development Index.

Sustainability leaders (2010) Full democracy leaders (2010) Income equality leaders
Iceland (full democracy) Norway Denmark (full democracy)
Switzerland (full) Iceland Japan (full)
Costa Rica (full) Denmark Iceland (full)
Sweden (full) Sweden Sweden (full)
Norway (full) New Zealand Czech Republic (full)
Mauritius (full) Australia Norway (full)
France (full) Finland Slovakia (flawed)
Austria (full) Switzerland Finland (full)
Cuba (authoritarian) Canada Belarus (authoritarian)
Colombia (flawed) Netherlands Ukraine (flawed)

Looking at this list, four of the world’s sustainability leaders are also democracy leaders. Austria, Costa Rica and Mauritius are not top ten democracies, but they are also listed by the EIU as full democracies. So seven of the 10 sustainability leaders are full democracies. France and Colombia (like South Africa, ranked 30 most democratic) are flawed democracies – only Cuba is an authoritarian regime.

To me at least, this snapshot study very strongly suggests that the more democratic a country is, the more likely it is a sustainability leader.

The implications of this are pretty straightforward: trying to persuade policymakers to take climate change and other environmental crises seriously is likely pretty damn difficult where democracy is weak.

As corporate power has advanced and democracy has weakened in the United States in the last couple of years, so climate change has slid down the agenda there. If Obama is a philosopher king, he’s certainly not been a massive asset to the environmental movement.

Looking at the inequality figures I’ve drawn in as a secondary argument, there seems to be a fairly high level of correlation between sustainability, democracy and income equality. (Note that income equality is not the same as wealth equality.)

Interesting to note that the countries that are arguably noisiest about ‘promoting democracy’ – the US and UK – are not in fact its leading practical exponents…


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I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.

One thought on “For more sustainability, add democracy”

  1. Good article. You write “As corporate power has advanced and democracy has weakened in the United States in the last couple of years, so climate change has slid down the agenda there.” I would argue that corporate takeover of the US democracy has been steadily advancing since the early 80’s, since Ronald Reagan embraced the Neoliberal Economics agenda (in synch with Margaret Thatcher), furthered by every administration since then. What has occured in the last couple of years is the backlash from the public, 30 years in the making. True democracy divorces power from the influence of money, as we would be wise to learn from the U.S. experiment in corporatocracy. We would also be wise to resist the neoliberal agenda as advanced by the IMF, World Bank and WTO, much of their ideology pushed by the U.S. neoliberal agenda, geared toward the interests of corporations housed in developed countries.
    It is this very agenda that has allowed oil and energy companies to create obfuscation and influence their governments around the issue of climate change, and delay much needed action for over 17 years of ineffective UN climate negotiations. Perhaps more so than a move toward democracy, a resistance of corporatocracy is needed. South America is a great example of this. For this, we need to plug out of our corporate media to understand exactly what shape corporate influence over politics has taken since the dawn of neoliberalism. One of my favourite sites is, and I also find Al Jazeera, especially their documentaries and especially one called ‘people and power’, much more informative than BBC world or CNN.
    Also, one of the reasons democracies are in decline is because natural resources are becoming more scarce, and citizens support the move to authoritarianism out of self-protection. To counter this ecological decline and climate change, I believe we need to challenge Neoclassical economics, an understanding of the world developed when resources were abundant and environmental problems insignificant. Ecological economics, which places the economy as a subset of ecology and advocates a move towards valuing and thus protecting our natural resources, seems more grounded in our natural reality. We need to counter the growth paradigm and aim toward a steady state economy. We need to price current ‘externalities’ that damage the environment and peoples health. We cannot grow infinitely and consume our way to prosperity, we need an ethical and realistic economic system to inform our laws and economic interactions. Gross National Happiness is a more valid measure than is GDP, as ‘happiness’ scientists have proven that beyond a fairly modest level of wealth, happiness does not necessarily improve.

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