Participatory and collaborative environmental governance – just symbolic exercises to sustain unsustainability?

By Jens Newig

No matter if it’s about siting new landlines, declaring protected areas or developing water management plans: Citizen panels, stakeholder roundtables and deliberative decision-making have become commonplace in Western democracies. While great hopes have been placed in such participatory and collaborative forms of governance to advance environmental sustainability, the debate is now more nuanced and partly skeptical as concerns both their democratic and their sustainability-oriented benefits. Ingolfur Blühdorn and Michael Deflorian from WU Vienna add an interesting facet to this debate, building strongly on Ingolfur Blühdorn’s earlier work on simulative politics and democracy. Their thought-provoking article entitled “The Collaborative Management of Sustained Unsustainability: On the Performance of Participatory Forms of Environmental Governance” was published just two weeks ago in Sustainability.

What makes this an interesting read is its broader sociological perspective. Rather than asking how governance does or should function to achieve normative goals, the article investigates why participatory and collaborative forms of governance are proliferating and which societal functions are served through these. The authors start out by arguing that collaborative and participatory forms of governance are neither (1) particularly democratic nor (2) likely to be effective in the sense of their transformative potential towards sustainability. This, they argue is because (1) collaborative and participatory forms of governance are typically coopting citizens or selectively empowering only some actors who do not have a clear democratic mandate, and (2) because “their proliferation has, as yet, not taken modern consumer societies much closer to the great socio-ecological transformation”. This, the authors speculate, is “perhaps because the prevailing forms of decentralized and collaborative governance are explicitly designed not to disrupt the established order and are, therefore, structurally unable to deliver the kind of change that scientists and environmental movements demand.” If this is so, then why are collaborative and participatory decision-making processes becoming so prevalent?

The key to understanding this apparent puzzle, the authors argue, lies in the performative aspect of governance. Referring to the title of our 2018 paper on conceptualizing the “performance of participatory and collaborative governance”, the authors re-interpret the notion of ‘performance’. In a nutshell, they distinguish

  • performance as delivery of outputs – both in a “democratic” and in a substantive (“systemic”) sense – from
  • performance as theatrical display, enactment or illusion in the sense of symbolic or simulative politics.

It is this second perspective that the article focuses on, proposing “that these new modes of environmental governance have become so prominent because they actually correspond very closely to the particular dilemmas, preferences, and needs of contemporary consumer societies—notably the desire to sustain particular lifestyles and understandings of freedom and self-realization, which are known to be socially and ecologically destructive (unsustainable)”. Hence, new modes of environmental governance, “if assessed from the perspective of these contemporary dilemmas, preferences, and needs, they do actually perform exceptionally well. More specifically, they provide contemporary consumer societies with a practical policy mechanism that helps them to reconcile the widely perceived seriousness and urgency of socio-environmental problems with their ever more visible inability and unwillingness to deviate from their established societal order, patterns of self-realization and logic of development.” Put simply, while we cannot achieve sustainability and at the same time continue the established logic of consumption, participatory governance helps us to at least symbolically resolve this apparent contradiction. ‘Symbolic’ stems from the Greek term symballein, meaning to ‘throw together’ – here otherwise irreconcilable aims (I’ve written earlier about symbolic politics and legislation, as it happens in a special issue edited by Ingolfur Blühdorn). Hence, ‘performing’ collaborative governance gives us the feeling of teaming up for sustainability, while at the same time we do not give up on our unsustainable lifestyles. As a consequence, these collaborative practices contribute to stabilizing (rather than transforming) current systems of unsustainability – thus the argument of the authors.

While I find these lines of arguments illuminating, my main point of criticism concerns the lacking empirical grounding. The authors illustrate their points by three empirical cases, but these of course cannot be representative. We should be aware, therefore, that the performative functions identified here may apply to some cases of participatory and collaborative governance, but not to others.

Assuming we do strive for environmental sustainability, and assuming further that governance (by whatever mode) can play a vital, if not indispensable role in this – what insights do we gain from this article? In terms of normative guidance, this paper may leave us with a fatalistic impression that not much can actually be done, because – and so long as – societies embrace the “notions of freedom, self-determination, self-realization”, which are “firmly based on the principle of sustained unsustainability”. Having said that, I see three productive lessons we may take from the article:

  • First, the paper is enlightening for all those of us who either adhere to rationalist and instrumentalist models of decision-making, or who see decision-making through the lens of power-play (in which big business tends to ‘win’). Having read this paper, one can no longer claim not to have heard of the potential dangers of participatory and collaborative governance – not just because it may be ineffective but also because in a subtle, hidden, yet striking way it may serve to obscure its symbolic functions which result in sustaining unsustainability.
  • Second, these insights by no means imply an empirically grounded verdict! Despite its three examples, this is not an empirical paper. In fact, the jury is still out on how participatory and collaborative environmental governance actually delivers (to avoid the term ‘performs’) in both a democratic and a sustainability-oriented sense. What is required, more than ever, is solid empirical evidence of which modes of governance ‘deliver’ und under what circumstances.
  • Third, from a governance perspective, it is one thing to be aware about the potential deficiencies and misleading hopes of participation; it is another to ask: What is the alternative? Should we go “back” to strong state-based decision-making? Is there just too much governance and too little government? Arguably, we not only don’t know enough about the delivery of participatory and collaborative governance, but also we lack robust evidence on the role of expert-led decisions, the role of administrative capacities and of elite-networks in shaping decisions for environmental sustainability.

All in all, I highly recommend this enlightening article – not least for use in teaching sustainability governance courses, confronting students with sobering insights on the functions of participatory and collaborative governance, and triggering discussions about ways to effectively govern towards sustainability – including or not collaborative forms.

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