The Need for Environmental Democracy

This is part two of a two-part essay.

The Need for Environmental Democracy

In my previous article, I delineated how justice demands an “environmental egalitarianism” built upon Martha Nussbaum’s list of “basic capabilities,” wherein environmental rights are taken as prior to the capabilities that constitute a “fully human” being because egalitarianism presupposes environmentalism and sustainability, whilst environmentalism without egalitarianism is unjust. I have established that poor and marginalized communities are largely unrepresented by mainstream environmentalism, rendering them alienated from their environment and helpless against environmental oppression. But what of the oppression itself, which enabled, say, the creation of Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” in the first place? What of the policymakers who sanctioned a Shell refinery in the African-American neighborhood of Diamond without consulting its residents?

Environmental policymaking continues to deprive poor and marginalized communities of agency, thereby diluting the value of their democratic citizenship. And, because they cannot engage in policy decisions that can have gargantuan impacts upon their lives, such citizens are also denied the basic capability of political participation.[1] Therefore, environmental egalitarianism, which entails a fair, equal, and inclusive global community that does not privilege certain interests over others, requires “environmental democracy,” wherein the state is fully transparent and accountable to its constituents about policy decisions that affect them and their environment, as well as provides participatory opportunities for communities to determine land and resource use. Marginalized local communities must be empowered to reclaim their democratic rights as equal citizens, as well as resist the imposition of environmental harms upon them by states and organizations.

Only through meaningful participation in decisions concerning their communities’ natural endowments can citizens’ environmental rights be justly and equitably protected. However, measures are also necessary to safeguard environmental policymaking from the ills of unchecked democracy. Therein lies one potential problem: some communities may in fact reject environmental egalitarianism as the proper standard of justice, say, because it compromises short-term economic growth. This is a valid objection, but one I hope to resolve in due course.


I. Institutional Barriers to Environmental Democracy

There exist three main institutional barriers to environmental democracy.[2] First, the unavailability of information precludes meaningful and effective democratic decision-making. The importance of free access to information is enshrined in international law: Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration, to which 178 states are signatories, specifically recognizes the right to environmental information for the purpose of effective public participation.[3] Yet, although the Environmental Democracy Index (EDI) found in 2015 that 93% of 70 assessed countries have established the right to environmental information, only 55% have strong protections to ensure that citizens enjoy affordable and convenient access to said information. Furthermore, 46% fail to provide ambient air quality data for their capital cities.[4]

Second, the lack of consultation by policymakers with the local communities most impacted by environmental policies further impedes meaningful public engagement. Worryingly, 79% of countries scored fairly or poorly for public participation in the EDI.[5] The metrics for this rating include: the presence and enforcement of laws providing opportunities for the public to participate in environmental decision-making, laws obligating the state to proactively seek public participation, and laws requiring policymakers to integrate public input into policy decisions.[6] Even if information were freely available, democracy cannot obtain if states simply refuse to engage with their constituents.

Third, the lack of avenues for redress for environmental injustice prevents citizens from defending their constitutional rights. Courts in 73% of EDI-assessed countries provide fair, timely, and independent hearings of environmental cases, but few provide assistance for marginalized groups. Worse, only 14% have legal mechanisms that help women obtain redress when their environmental rights are violated.[7] Ergo, not only does mainstream environmentalism neglect the rights of the poor and marginalized, even state institutions fail to adequately protect the citizenry, particularly against corporations armed with considerable litigation power. Reforms for strengthening environmental democracy are therefore necessary if we are to actualize environmental egalitarianism. Here I offer three propositions.


II. “Right to Know”

First, the “Right to Know” must be embedded in both state and local law as a fundamental first step toward securing environmental democracy. The “Right to Know” movement champions freedom of information (FOI) laws requiring that environment- and health-relevant information be made freely available to citizens. With such information, citizens would be able to participate more effectively and confidently in political decision-making, as well as hold corporations and states accountable for infringements upon their environmental rights. It is therefore vital that this information be made accessible in every sense, accounting for differences in language, literacy, and technological proficiency, for instance.

The “Right to Know” must include basic environmental health and safety information, from air and water quality to the presence of hazardous substances and pollutants in products and practices; it should also entail corporations publishing their waste and pollution discharge records as open-access documents for public scrutiny. The legal principles of accountability and transparency, as espoused by multilateral agreements like the Aarhus Convention,[8] must be strictly upheld as a fundamental tenet of democratic citizenship, given that environmental egalitarianism cannot obtain without the leveling of information asymmetries between policymakers and citizens.


III. Facilitating Public Participation

Second, states must proactively and preemptively consult the citizenry on policies, inform them of avenues for greater participation, and provide opportunities for general environmental education. These opportunities must also be heavily or fully subsidized such that citizens can participate without incurring huge costs. This would enable and encourage citizens to engage with issues that concern their immediate environment. For instance, in response to widespread controversy over a proposed Mass Rapid Transit line that would run through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve – ostensibly causing significant and irreversible environmental damage – the Land Transport Authority of Singapore published a 1000-page environmental impact assessment online, free and open to all. Consequently, previously ambivalent local residents, now better informed and motivated to protect their environmental rights, are forming ad-hoc volunteer groups like “Love Our MacRitchie” and strengthening local environmental groups’ call for “zero impact” upon Singapore’s largest nature reserve.[9]

This spontaneous and organic growth in civil society and public participation, facilitated by increased transparency, promotes the self-determination of the citizenry, which Iris Marion Young regards an important function of democracy because it prevents the unjust domination of basic liberties.[10] Thus, with early and open communication, citizens can better exercise democratic self-determination and self-development, deliberating and determining the content of their social life as equal and respected members of their community.


IV. Environmental Courts and Tribunals (ECTs)

Finally, an open and inclusive system of redress for environmental injustice must be implemented to ensure that all citizens enjoy the full suite of constitutional rights when they have been harmed. Citizens should possess the unimpeded right to demand compensation, contest proposed policies or projects, and openly challenge violations of their environmental rights. Particularly, environmental class-action lawsuits should be highly subsidized given the primacy of environmental rights in enabling and protecting the “basic capabilities” that egalitarian justice demands. Remedies must be swift given the typically pressing nature of environmental disputes – communities like Diamond fighting to relocate from a heavily polluted area should be compensated expediently following their legal victory. The public should also enjoy open access to past judicial and administrative decisions, complete with full right of appeal. The goal is to establish and enforce mechanisms that promote greater accountability by organizations and states to the citizenry.

It is also crucial that environmental lawsuits be heard by an independent and impartial body. I channel Philip Pettit[11] here in arguing that the depoliticization of environmental jurisdiction will preserve the ability of citizens to resist environmental oppression when, for instance, the state has economic interests in protecting transnational mega-corporations.[12] Environmental courts and tribunals, like the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in India, should hence be established with full jurisdiction over all environmental disputes, and further mandated to operate with haste, such as with the NGT’s six-month case time limit. The effectiveness of ECTs in encouraging democratic contestation cannot be understated – in just under four years, between May 2011 and February 2014, the NGT adjudicated 460 cases in India alone. ECTs are especially important in locales containing poor and marginalized communities that suffer the harshest environmental harms.


V. Reasonable Limits to Public Participation

The argument thusly constituted, with its emphasis on individual participation and empowerment, posits a deliberative conception of democracy. Pettit suggests that democracy should promote public deliberation for the common good;[13] writ small, local communities must be empowered to deliberate and determine environmental policies that affect their locale. There is, however, a definite need to impose checks against potentially poor and unethical democratic decisions that violate environmental egalitarianism or sustainability.

Per the classic Schumpeterian concern of “human nature in politics,” individuals are less inclined to think critically about issues that are more distant from themselves, often yielding to either political manipulation or irrational impulses.[14] This will be worse with environmental issues, which are typically less straightforward than, say, economic crises. People are also highly susceptible to the “psychology of crowds,” wherein congregations succumb to a frenzied “mob mentality” that impedes rational decision-making.[15] There must hence be limits to pure democratic involvement in a way that accommodates full citizen participation whilst ensuring that overzealous but ill-informed citizens cannot exert a disproportionate amount of influence on the deliberation process.

The Deliberative Opinion Poll pioneered by James Fishkin offers one way of striking such a balance. Simply, participants are randomly sampled to ensure population representativeness, and then invited to engage in moderated discussions as well as consultations with experts over one weekend to create a more informed public opinion. They are also given carefully balanced briefing materials to ensure that they are equipped to engage in meaningful deliberation.[16] Presumably, participants would then deliberate well because they believe that they are well-informed, and that their voice actually matters.

Environmental democracy will require two tweaks to this schema. First, for any given policy, random sampling should be conducted only within communities that could be directly affected. Second, after the weekend, participants should nominate representatives from amongst themselves to form a “commission” that would build upon their discussions and devise a final proposal over the next weekend. The outcome should then be executed wholesale without any further deliberation by politicians – if communities like Diamond want compensation from companies like Shell to relocate, they should obtain it, no questions asked.

This is arguably the optimal form of democratic participation. Multiple stages of deliberation would induce greater rationality and moderation in opinion, whilst citizens enjoy meaningful political participation by directly authoring policies on issues immediately relevant to their lives. Nor would competence be an issue: deliberators would be well-informed, having been heavily supported by impartial experts like environmental scientists, economists, and political consultants, as well as highly motivated to resolve the pressing environmental issues plaguing their communities.


VI. No Democracy Without Environmental Egalitarianism

These reforms are an attempt to approximate environmental democracy in order to reify environmental egalitarianism; insofar as they enable full public participation, they should be regarded as genuinely democratic. What remains is the aforementioned possibility of communities subordinating environmental rights to, say, economic interests. I believe that formal deliberation over multiple sittings, with experts supplying scientific facts and politico-economic advice, should help most citizens recognize that environmental egalitarianism is truly instrumental to long-term economic security; even the citizens of Diamond ultimately decided to relocate though many were employed by Shell. Still, if all else fails, we must prioritize environmental egalitarianism over democratic participation, for without the former, and accordingly a healthy and intact planet, there would be no platform for democratic rights. Environmental egalitarianism must hold as the normative standard for policy decisions because substantive justice should always supersede the ideal of democratic deliberation. That is not to say, however, that environmental egalitarianism should superordinate democracy; rather, justice may demand that undemocratic, but not anti-democratic, measures be undertaken to preserve environmental democracy.


Works Cited

“From The Straits Times Archives: All you need to know about the Cross Island Line.” The Straits Times. Last modified February 22, 2016.

“India ranks 24th in the first Environmental Democracy Index.” The Times of India. Last modified May 21, 2015.

“Indicators and Scoring.” Environmental Democracy Index. Accessed on 1 December, 2017.

“RELEASE: Major New Index Ranks Environmental Democracy in 70 Countries.” World Resources Institute. Last modified May 20, 2015.

Fishkin, James S. When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Nussbaum, Martha. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Pettit, Philip. “Depoliticizing democracy.” Ratio Juris 17, no. 1 (2004): 52-65.

Pettit, Philip. “Democracy, Electoral and Contestatory.” In Designing Democratic Institutions: Nomos XLII, edited by Ian Shapiro and Stephen Macedo, 105-144. New York, NY: NYU Press, 2000.

Pring, George and Catherine Pring. “Environmental Courts and Tribunals: A Guide for Policymakers.” United Nations Environment Program. Accessed on 1 December, 2017.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. United Kingdom: Routledge, 2013.

Worker, Jesse and Stephanie Ratté. “What Does Environmental Democracy Look Like?” World Resources Institute. Last modified July 29, 2014.

Young, Iris Marion. “State, civil society, and social justice.” In Democracy’s Value, edited by Ian Shapiro and Casiano Hacker-Cordón, 141-162. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1999.



[1] Martha Nussbaum, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 80.

[2] Jesse Worker and Stephanie Ratté, “What Does Environmental Democracy Look Like?” World Resources Institute, last modified July 29, 2014,

[3] United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (June 1992),

[4] “India ranks 24th in the first Environmental Democracy Index,” The Times of India, last modified May 21, 2015,

[5] “RELEASE: Major New Index Ranks Environmental Democracy in 70 Countries.” World Resources Institute. Last modified May 20, 2015.

[6] “Indicators and Scoring,” Environmental Democracy Index, accessed on 1 December, 2017,

[7] “RELEASE: Major New Index Ranks Environmental Democracy in 70 Countries.” World Resources Institute. Last modified May 20, 2015.

[8] United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (June 1998),

[9] “From The Straits Times Archives: All you need to know about the Cross Island Line,” The Straits Times, last modified February 22, 2016,

[10] Iris Marion Young, “State, civil society, and social justice,” in Democracy’s Value, ed. Ian Shapiro and Casiano Hacker-Cordón (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 142.

[11] Philip Pettit famously suggested that certain state functions should be transferred to statutorily appointed bodies when politicians may have interests inimical to the public good. See Philip Pettit, “Democracy, Electoral and Contestatory,” in Designing Democratic Institutions: Nomos XLII, ed. Ian Shapiro and Stephen Macedo (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2000), 129.

[12] ibid., 135.

[13] Philip Pettit, “Depoliticizing democracy,” Ratio Juris 17, no. 1 (2004): 52.

[14] Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (United Kingdom: Routledge, 2013), 260-263.

[15] ibid., 257.

[16] James S. Fishkin, When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2011), 26.

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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