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Abstract

Dietz, Thomas, Richard York and Eugene A. Rosa. 2001. "Ecological Democracy and Sustainable Development." 2001 Open Meeting of the International Human Dimensions of Global Change Community. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

We begin by conceptualizing sustainability as the ratio of human welfare or quality of life to overall environmental impact. We propose an indicator of sustainability that uses infant survival—a key component of the Physical Quality of Life Index (PQLI)-- as a measure of welfare. We combine two measures, the Ecological Footprint (EFP) and the Environmental Systems Indicator (ESI) into an overall measure of environmental impact. The ratio of the welfare measure to the impact measure (welfare per unit impact) is then a measure of sustainability. Recent work in the tradition of ecological modernization theory (EMT), the environmental Kuznets curve (EKC) and reflexive modernization theory (RMT) suggests that nations may make a transition towards environmental sustainability. We offer a theory of ecological democracy that hypothesizes the conditions under which nations might move towards sustainability. In particular, we suggest that three conditions are necessary. First, institutional arrangements and culture must promote altruism. Second, information on the analysis of environmental problems must be available. Third, the state must not be captured by capital, the military, religious groups or other special interests who will have little interest in sustainability. In contrast, EMT and EKC posit the institutions of traditional liberal democracy as sufficient to promote sustainability. In a preliminary empirical assessment using data on nations, measures of liberal democracy have a significant positive relationship to sustainability in the form predicted by theory. But the indicators of our three conditions for ecological democracy also behave as predicted by theory and are more strongly related to sustainability. This work is quite preliminary, ignoring, for example, ideas emerging from World Systems Theory (WST) but indicates that further analysis of measures of sustainability and of the conditions that favor sustainable development are warranted.

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