Macro-Level Datasets for Sustainability Governance

By Michael Rose

Comparative politics scholars love macro data. To comparatively analyze all kinds of nation states and institutions, they build datasets on their characteristics. For example, there are several datasets and indices that help to assess and eventually measure democracies and autocracies worldwide, such as the Freedom House Index, Varieties of Democracy, The Economist’s Democracy Index, or the Polity Project. But data are systematically collected and made available to the research community far beyond democracy indices (see below).

In sustainability governance research, though, these kinds of databases are rarely used or developed. This is a pity, as comparative (macro) data could help to conduct mid- and large-n studies, account for important parts of context variance in comparative case studies, and thereby facilitate relating and cumulating knowledge.

The following list offers a selection of open access datasets used in political science that can be of great benefit for sustainability governance scholars. Feel free to post additional datasets in the comment section!

The Comparative Constitutions Project codes the world’s constitutions, including variables on the states’ polity (branches of government, formal institutions, election rules, federalism) and the constitutions’ issue areas, e.g. if and how the constitution refers to the environment and natural resources. Constitutional changes are tracked on a yearly basis (Elkins et al. 2019).

Polity IV accounts for democratic and authoritative regimes, including variables such as the central state authority, executive constraints, political participation, and transitions (Center for Systemic Peace 2019).

ParlGov provides data on parties, elections and cabinets for 37 western democracies (Döring and Manow 2019).

The Party Manifesto Project codes, inter alia, the party family of ecological parties and statements regarding environmental protection and sustainability in party manifestos (electoral programs) (Volkens et al. 2019).

World Values Survey and European Values Study include aggregatable information on the interviewee’s membership in environmental organizations, attitudes towards environmental care, participation in demonstrations for the environment, donating behavior towards ecological organizations, confidence in the environmental protection movement, and satisfaction with issues such as air quality, public transport, or water quality (Inglehart et al. 2019; European Value System Study Group et al. 2019).

The Sustainable Governance Indicators analyze the policy performance and governance capacities in EU and OECD countries. This includes environmental policies and outcomes (such as waste and GHG emissions), the participation in multilateral environmental agreements and evidence-based instruments such as sustainability checks (Bertelsmann Stiftung 2018; Schraad-Tischler et al. 2018).

The Environmental Performance Index analyses 24 performance indicators for 180 countries (Wendling et al. 2018).

And, of course, the statistics departments of international organizations such as the World Bank and the OECD provide many additional time-series data on key economic, social, environmental, government and development indicators (World Bank 2019; OECD 2019).

Moreover, in their Sustainable Development Report, the Bertelsmann Foundation and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network jointly track the SDG achievements of most of the world’s nations statistically (Sachs et al. 2019).

Cited literature

Bertelsmann Stiftung (2018): Sustainable Governance Indicators. Gütersloh. Available online at http://www.sgi-network.org.

Center for Systemic Peace (2019): Polity IV Project. Vienna (Virginia). Available online at https://www.systemicpeace.org/polityproject.html, checked on 8/14/2019.

Döring, Holger; Manow, Philip (2019): Parliaments and governments database (ParlGov). Information on parties, elections and cabinets in modern democracies. Available online at parlgov.org, checked on 8/13/2019.

Elkins, Zachary; Ginsburg, Tom; Melton, James (2019): Comparative Constitutions Project. Informing constitutional design. Available online at https://comparativeconstitutionsproject.org.

European Value System Study Group; Tilburg University; GESIS (2019): European Values Study. Tilburg, Mannheim. Available online at https://europeanvaluesstudy.eu, checked on 8/13/2019.

Inglehart, R.; Haerpfer, C.; Moreno, A.; Welzel, C.; Kizilova, K.; Diez-Medrano, J. et al. (2019): World Values Survey. Edited by JD Systems Institute. Madrid. Available online at http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org, checked on 8/13/2019.

OECD (2019): OECD.Stat. Paris. Available online at https://stats.oecd.org/.

Sachs, J.; Schmidt-Traub, G.; Kroll, C.; Lafortune, G.; Fuller, G. (2019): Sustainable Development Report 2019. Transformations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Edited by Bertelsmann Stiftung, Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). New York. Available online at https://sustainabledevelopment.report.

Schraad-Tischler, Daniel; Schiller, Christof; Hellmann, Thorsten; Lopes, Elisabeth Faria (2018): Policy Performance and Governance Capacities in the OECD and EU. Sustainable Governance Indicators 2018. Edited by Bertelsmann Stiftung. Gütersloh. Available online at https://www.sgi-network.org/docs/2018/basics/SGI2018_Overview.pdf, checked on 8/2/2019.

Volkens, Andrea; Krause, Werner; Lehmann, Pola; Matthieß, Theres; Merz, Nicolas; Regel, Sven; Weßels, Bernhard (2019): The Manifesto Data Collection. Manifesto Project (MRG/CMP/MARPOR). Edited by Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB). Berlin. Available online at https://manifesto-project.wzb.eu, checked on 8/13/2019.

Wendling, Z. A.; Emerson, J. W.; Esty, D. C.; Levy, M. A.; Sherbinin, A. de; et al. (2018): 2018 Environmental Performance Index. Edited by Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. New Haven. Available online at https://epi.yale.edu.

World Bank (2019): World Bank Open Data. Free and open access to global development data. Available online at https://data.worldbank.org/.

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.