Workshop Invitation: Democracy & Intergenerational Justice – Overcoming Harmful Short-termism Through New Institutions? (8–9 September 2020)

By Michael Rose

Sustainable development requires legitimate and effective governance for the long-term that somehow considers the needs of future generations. As part of the MANCEPT Workshops 2020, an annual conference in political theory at the University of Manchester (this time online), we co-organise a two-day panel to discuss the relationship between democracy and intergenerational justice and the opportunities and challenges of institutional reform.

Date: 8–9 September 2020, from 9 to 18:30 hrs (British Summer Time UTC+1), online

We welcome everyone who is interested in the topic! There is no fee for non-presenters, just send me an e-mail to get the Zoom login data. Let me know if you’d be willing to volunteer as a discussant (not required).

On Tuesday, Axel Gosseries will give a keynote speech “On Why We Should Not Expect Too Much from Intergenerational Legitimacy“ (11:3012:30).

On Wednesday, Simon Caney will deliver a keynote speech on “The Challenges of Governing for the Long-Term: Why the Problem is Deep” (11:0012:00).

Workshop Description

Democracies are commonly diagnosed with a harmful short-sightedness which makes it difficult to recognise and deal with long-term risks and challenges. This bias towards the present arises out of many institutional, cultural, and anthropological factors, among them the election cycle, the influence of special interest groups and the ineptitude of humans to deal with ‘creeping problems.’ In light of this, democracies seem ill-equipped to deal with challenges such as the climate crisis, artificial intelligence or microbial resistance. Thus, the ability of the living generation to take the interests of future people into account and to fulfil its obligations to future people is hampered.

Consequently, several countries have taken measures to facilitate long-term oriented decision-making, e.g. by establishing commissioners for future generations (Hungary, since 2008; Israel, 2001-06; Wales, since 2016) or a parliamentary committee for the future (Finland, since 1993), some of them having considerable capabilities for influence. Furthermore, scholars discuss a wide range of proposals for new future-oriented institutions (F-Institutions). These include the representation of future generations in parliament, ombudspersons for the future, regulatory impact assessments, advisory councils, deliberative mini-publics as well as the enfranchisement of the young, the disenfranchisement of the elderly and many more.

Despite the growing range of proposals for F-Institutions, questions regarding their justification and legitimacy, design, and implementation deserve further discussion. Intergenerational equity, democratic legitimacy, and generational sovereignty all exert their normative pull on the democratic system and consequently on the design of F-Institutions. For example, the ability of each generation to govern itself collectively seems incompatible with the idea of institutionally binding the currently living to ensure that they meet their obligations of intergenerational justice. Further, honouring obligations of intergenerational justice may suggest installing F-Institutions with extensive influence on the political decision-making process, while a concern for democratic legitimacy might foreclose many proposals for F-Institutions.

In sum, this workshop aims to bring together moral, political, and legal theorists and practitioners interested in democracy, intergenerational justice, long-term decision-making and short-termism to discuss the various tensions associated with these concepts on both the theoretical and empirical levels.

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.

The perils of technocratism: Will environmentalists learn from Brexit?


Excellent thoughts by colleagues from Seattle, highlighting the role of justice and participation in sustainability transformation.


By Nives Dolsak and Aseem Prakash.  What do the Brexit vote, the rise of Trump and Sanders, and apathy towards climate change mitigation have in common? The perils of relying on technocratism to justify policy choices.

Much will be written on why the British have voted for Brexit. There are already dire predictions about the future of the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the world economy. Mainstream newspapers are puzzled as to why the British voted for the exit even though it might hurt them. They blame populism, the rise of the far right, fears about immigration, economic globalization and so on.

While this is true, the mainstream media has not seriously engaged with the source of voter dissatisfaction with the EU. More broadly, we ought to ask: why are voters less willing to take marching orders from the economic and scientific elites? Why are they willing to…

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New doctoral programme “Democracy under Stress” – 7 PhD positions

Leuphana’s Center for the Study of Democracy has been awarded a major grant for funding a total of 14 PhD scholars. The first 7 scholarships are advertised now.

The doc­to­ral pro­gram in­ves­ti­ga­tes how the new po­li­ti­cal, eco­no­mic, eco­lo­gi­cal, and cultural chal­len­ges (‘stress fac­tors’) that mo­dern de­mo­cra­cies en­coun­ter are per­cei­ved, dealt with, and sol­ved in view of the exis­ting ten­si­on bet­ween po­li­ti­cal le­gi­ti­ma­cy and re­stric­ted per­for­mance. It will fur­ther look into the im­pli­ca­ti­ons that dif­fe­rent mo­des of pro­blem-hand­ling have for the ‘sur­vi­val chan­ces’ of de­mo­cra­cy. This two­fold re­se­arch agen­da will be ana­ly­zed in three fiel­ds of stu­dy that re­pre­sent the core func­tions of de­mo­cra­cies: par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on, re­pre­sen­ta­ti­on, and in­clu­si­on.

The first field of stu­dy is con­cer­ned with how ci­ti­zens in de­mo­cra­tic so­cie­ties per­cei­ve cur­rent so­cie­tal – e.g. environmental or sustainability-related – chal­len­ges in light of in­cre­a­sing ’eman­ci­pa­ti­ve’ va­lue ori­en­ta­ti­ons and how the­se per­cep­ti­ons are trans­la­ted into po­li­ti­cal be­ha­viour (participatory democracy).

In the frame­work of the se­cond field of stu­dy, the re­pre­sen­ta­ti­ve ca­pa­ci­ty of po­li­ti­cal in­ter­me­di­a­ry or­ga­niza­t­i­ons as well as po­li­ti­cal in­sti­tu­ti­ons wi­t­hin and outs­ide the na­ti­on sta­te will be ana­ly­zed (representative democracy).

By me­ans of selec­ted po­li­cy fiel­ds (e. g. en­vi­ron­men­tal, cli­ma­te, sci­ence and me­dia po­li­cy) the third field of stu­dy looks into the is­sue of how new forms of po­li­ti­cal par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on in­ter­act with tra­di­tio­nal in­sti­tu­ti­ons, ac­tors, and pro­ces­ses of re­pre­sen­ta­ti­ve de­mo­cra­cy (inclusive democracy).

Deadline for submission of applications is 12 June, 2016.

For more information, please see