Title: “Irreversibility and Other Democratic Problems for Environmental Politics”
Speaker: Professor Lisa Ellis, University of Otago, Department of Philosophy
Commentator: Luc Bovens, Department of Philosophy, London School of Economics and Political Science & currently the Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Fellow, University Center for Human Values
Elisabeth Ellis is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Otago in New Zealand. She studied German and politics at Princeton (BA) and political science at Berkeley (PhD). Her current project, Extinction and Democracy, asks whether democracy and species conservation policy are compatible; some preliminary thoughts about democracy and environmental policy are forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook for Environmental Political Theory (2015). Working at the intersection of historical and analytical political thought, Ellis has written about Kant's political philosophy (2005, 2008, 2012, 2014, 2015), social science methodology (2004), Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (2010), social contract theory (2006), the meaning of modernity (2004), and other topics. She is co-president of the Association for Political Theory, political theory field editor for the Journal of Politics, and associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Political Thought. Her work has been supported by the Institute for Advanced Study, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst.
If reducing the scope of democratic decision available to other people or future generations is usually wrong (except when such decisions undergird the possibility of democratic decision-making as such), then it is hard to see how one could ever make a legitimate decision about something irreversible. As Adam Przeworski has argued, "an essential feature of democracy is that nothing is decided definitively.” It strikes one as undemocratic to have decisions that affect one made by someone else without even a consultation. A Kantian take on what is wrong with irreversible policies might argue that everyone affected by them is constrained by another's choice and thus cannot be said to be externally free. Irreversible decisions threaten to offend both democracy and freedom, and yet they are so common as to be unremarkable; for example, unique species of being go extinct every day due to anthropogenic causes like habitat loss and climate change. Environmental politics, then, offers particularly stark examples of irreversible choices made by relatively few people affecting the interests of everyone else in the sustainable provision of fresh air, clean water, and secure food.
Looking at the past few decades both of democratic theory and democratic practice from an environmental perspective, it would be easy to despair of the possibility that the environmental interests of this overwhelming majority could prevail. Theory has moved to replace the representation of real interests with essentially technocratic governance, while in practice decision-making power is moving steadily away from democratic institutions. While the recent histories of politics and political theory can seem very grim, I try to read them as a source of hope, especially environmental hope. Democratic institutions face formidable challenges in dealing with environmental problems like irreversible losses of species, arable land, productive oceans, and so forth. But these challenges are not insurmountable given the right framing of the issues and the right kinds of institutions. We should not despair about our record of failure to come to terms with irreversible environmental problems thus far. Environmental democracy has not failed: it has not yet been tried.