Green State

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Book: The Green State: Rethinking Democracy and Sovereignty, by Robyn Eckersley. MIT Press, 2004


"Rethinking the state in light of the principles of ecological democracy ultimately casts it in a new role: that of an ecological steward and facilitator of transboundary democracy rather than a selfish actor jealously protecting its territory'"


From the publisher:

"What would constitute a definitively "green" state? In this important new book, Robyn Eckersley explores what it might take to create a green democratic state as an alternative to the classical liberal democratic state, the indiscriminate growth-dependent welfare state, and the neoliberal market-focused state—seeking, she writes, "to navigate between undisciplined political imagination and pessimistic resignation to the status quo." In recent years, most environmental scholars and environmentalists have characterized the sovereign state as ineffectual and have criticized nations for perpetuating ecological destruction. Going consciously against the grain of much current thinking, this book argues that the state is still the preeminent political institution for addressing environmental problems. States remain the gatekeepers of the global order, and greening the state is a necessary step, Eckersley argues, toward greening domestic and international policy and law.

The Green State seeks to connect the moral and practical concerns of the environmental movement with contemporary theories about the state, democracy, and justice. Eckersley's proposed "critical political ecology" expands the boundaries of the moral community to include the natural environment in which the human community is embedded. This is the first book to make the vision of a "good" green state explicit, to explore the obstacles to its achievement, and to suggest practical constitutional and multilateral arrangements that could help transform the liberal democratic state into a postliberal green democratic state. Rethinking the state in light of the principles of ecological democracy ultimately casts it in a new role: that of an ecological steward and facilitator of transboundary democracy rather than a selfish actor jealously protecting its territory."

From the author:

"This essay is therefore concerned to encourage a debate among green theorists and activists as to how we might rethink the nation-state and the state system from a critical green perspective (which I shall call “critical political ecology”). My general line of argument is to acknowledge the contradictory role of the nation-state in managing ecological problems, but to search for ways of amplifying and accentuating those developments that have seen it emerge as an environmental protector while exploring how its ecologically destructive potential might be increasingly dampened down over time. As we shall see, ultimately these complementary developments are pointing towards less exclusionary ideals of sovereignty, democracy and citizenship while still retaining the nation-state as a “container” of social processes (albeit with some potentially radical reworking of the meaning of “nation” and “national sovereignty”). I suggest that while in the long run such an approach provides a fundamental challenge to the link between territorially based structures of democratic rule and particular “peoples,” in the short to medium term it sees the state as a crucial facilitator in the transition towards more ecologically responsive governance." (chapter 8)


Billy Matheson [1]:

"For most of us "the state" is the main source of power and structure in our lives. The state creates and enforces laws, participates on our behalf in issues of global governance, and is subject to a measure of democratic accountability. While more and more people are also getting involved in local and regional governance, big decisions -- especially significant environmental decisions -- are usually made the state level. For this as well as other reasons the state is often the focus of conversations about green governance.

I want to look at the idea of the state through the lens of a book titled The Green State: Rethinking Democracy and Sovereignty, by Australian academic Robyn Eckersley (2004).

From an environmental perspective the nation-state seems to create a number of problems, as environmental crises do not respect national boundaries. This might be a simple as a polluted river flowing from one country to another, or as complex as global climate change. Because we divide ourselves into nation-states, we end up competing for resources in a process that seems to actively encourage ecological destruction. When the consequences of this present themselves we cannot respond to them effectively because we cannot decide who is responsible.

From a social justice perspective the nation-state also seems to create a number of problems. In many parts of the world national boundaries are legacies of European expansion and conquest during the colonial period. The kind of territorial authority embodied by these borders underpins many of the ethnic conflicts in recent history. Regional and local assertions of independence and self-rule are often suppressed by central state governments, and cultural minorities dispersed within or between nations often struggle to get adequate representation at the national level.

While Eckersley acknowledges both these perspectives, she also pragmatically argues that the state is still the primary political institution we have to address our environmental and social problems. She describes nation-states as key players in maintaining global order.

The Green State explores how we might create a green democratic state as an alternative to the present liberal democratic state." [2]


From the essay: Green Governance in the New Millennium: Towards the Green Democratic State, Ecopolitics: Thought and Action, 2002)

General Demands on a Green State

Robyn Eckersley :

"Here we can identify three basic, interrelated notions about the state implicit in the environmental demands for more/better/stricter environmental regulation and environmental justice.

The first plea is for a ‘good state’, in the sense of an ‘ethical’ and democratically responsible/responsive state that upholds public rather than private interests and values, and acts as a vehicle for justice rather than power, or ‘right’ rather than ‘might’. That the state should be ‘good’ arises from the assumption that the state is the most legitimate (and not just the most powerful) social institution to assume the role of ‘public ecological guardian’, reining in and disciplining investment, production and consumption in order to protect genuinely public goods such as life-support services, public amenity, public transport, biodiversity and so on.

The second plea is for a ‘strong’ or effective state that is able to deploy effective regulatory and fiscal steering mechanisms to ensure that the economy and society respect the integrity of the ecosystems in which they are embedded in order to minimise the consumption of energy and resources, reduce pollution and protect life-support services and biodiversity. The state should also have the capacity to redistribute resources and otherwise influence life opportunities to ensure that the move towards a more sustainable society is not a socially regressive one - a very real prospect if environmental goals are not properly integrated with social justice goals. In short, the appeal of the state is that it stands as the most overarching source of political and legal authority within modern, plural societies. It must be emphasises that this appeal to the ‘strong/effective’ state is not an entirely instrumental appeal - otherwise there would be no reason in principle for environmentalists not to hire private mercenaries to discipline society along more ecologically sustainable lines, assuming the necessary resources could be mustered.

The third plea is for a cosmopolitan state since there is an implicit expectation that a green democratic state would not only act as a ‘good ecological guardian’ over its own people and territory but also act as a good international citizen in the society of states, actively promoting collective action in defence of green values and goals while also taking responsibility (both unilaterally and multilaterally) to avoid the externalization of social and ecological costs beyond its own territory and into the future."

Specific Environmental Demands

Robyn Eckersley :

"What would it take for such a good/strong/cosmopolitan state to emerge? There is no doubt that the green movement must work on many fronts to bring such a state into being. Let me wind up by briefly singling out four such fronts that must be tackled more or less simultaneously if we are to move towards greener and more democratic states (and hence more effective non-state governance as well):

(i) Environmental capacity

Andrew Hurrell has argued that ‘many of the most serious obstacles to sustainability have to do with the domestic weaknesses of particular states and state structures’. This requires addressing the question of environmental capacity, which essentially refers to the ability or capacity of a particular state-society complex to identify and solve environmental problems (and note that we cannot study states in the abstract but only in relation to the particular societies they govern, on the one hand, and the international order of which states are part, on the other hand). As Janicke and Weidner have shown, environmental capacity is not just restricted to government policy. Rather, it refers to the structural preconditions for societal solutions to ecological problems, including ecological, technological and administrative knowledge, legal and material resources, policy institutions, political participation and the strength of environmental organisations relative to opposing economic interests. It also means reordering the hierarchy of ministerial portfolios and bureaucratic agencies, along with their modes of interaction, to reflect the priority of sustainability.

Now developing environmental capacity requires, among other things, considerable public investment in research and public administration. In these fiscally constrained times, perhaps the most challenging dimension of environmental capacity building is finding the public revenue for such investment without causing capital strike or flight, labour unrest or voter backlash in response to, say, more progressive income taxes and a rising regime of green taxes. While acknowledging the enormous challenges identified by the pressures of economic globalisation, we have seen that the picture is not as bleak as it might first appear. The good news for greens is that, as we have seen, it is possible for states to develop “green competitive strategies” in response to global economic pressures without necessarily prompting disinvestment or labour unrest. So, while emerging green states will remain fiscally parasitical on private capital accumulation for the foreseeable future, they can actively seek to make such accumulation more ecologically and socially responsible, thereby easing the long standing tensions between the state’s accumulation and legitimation imperatives. Of course, there are many areas of environmental capacity building that do not necessarily require new expenditure – just new ways of doing things.

(ii) Environmental constitutional design and due process

While constitutional design and due process are but one facet of environmental capacity building, they deserve special mention because they provide the more fundamental constitutional framing and democratic principles and procedural requirements that confer legitimacy on the green democratic state.

A green approach to constitutional design would need to build upon the liberal and republican legacies of constitutional democracy, the rule of law, the separation of powers, the accountability of the executive to parliament and the public. However, a green constitutional design should add a range of substantive and procedural environmental rights and decision rules that are designed to ensure more systematic consideration of a much wider environmental constituency than the citizens of the nation state.

At the broad level of constitutional purpose, we would expect an outward looking focus, perhaps reflected in a preamble that includes a commitment to human rights and a statement of responsibility to the national and global environment and all those who are dependent upon it.

In terms of substantive provisions we might expect a charter of citizens’ rights and responsibilities. Alongside the standard list of civil and political rights (such as the right to vote, to stand for office, for fair and democratic elections, freedom of speech, assembly, association; freedom from discrimination; inclusive political representation and participation) we would add the responsibility to protect human rights and the environment. The responsibility to the environment would need to be shored up by a cluster of more specific provisions to ensure that it is observed and enforced.

These provisions might include:

• A right to environmental information (backed up by mandatory state of the environment reporting, and community right-to-know legislation in relation to toxic sites, the release of pollutants and the like) • The constitutional entrenchment of the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle • Third party litigation rights • More provocatively, the conferral of temporary ‘citizenship’ rights on people living outside state territorial boundaries in those circumstances where they may be seriously affected by proposed developments taking place within the state. • Clear and unequivocal environmental powers to central governments in a federation to prevent buck passing and to facilitate the swift enactment of environmental treaties in ways that go ‘beyond compliance” • Even more provocatively, we could even use the constitution to democratise corporate governance by adapting the republican principle of a mixed and balanced constitution - balancing the interests of shareholders with those of local community, suppliers, employees, and the environment

Clearly, a green constitution would seek to redraw the boundaries between what is ‘public’ (the proper business of politics) and ‘private’ (not the business of politics) and maintain the contestability of public power – including investment power - via critical deliberation.

(iii) Environmental multilateralism and ecological security

The brute fact of growing economic and ecological interdependence makes it clear that there would be limits to what any green state might achieve while acting unilaterally – particularly in the realm of economic and ecological regulation. Yet successful environmental treaties are slow and painstaking and they require leader states as well as active environmental NGO prompting. We would thus expect green states to play this role (as states within the EU have played in negotiations over greenhouse gas emissions, for example). But we would also expect such states to seek to remake the global institutions governing trade, aid, technology transfer and debt to ensure the protection of labour and environmental standards and indigenous knowledge. Such institutional building would also be part of a redirection of focus away from traditional notions of national security and towards more holistic notions of human and ecological security, which seek to broaden the security reference point beyond the sovereign state to include citizens and ecosystems. The events of September 11 are a graphic reminder that the privileged citizens of the affluent west will continue to feel uneasy and insecure for so long as vast numbers of humans (particularly in the developing world) continue to suffer hunger, poverty, political marginality and the unjust structural legacies of economic and cultural imperialism.

Even more creative bilateral and multilateral initiatives might be entered into to shore up the reciprocal environmental citizenship rights granted in the green constitution, as has already been done by many Western European states in a range of new environmental treaties. Such treaties confer rights of political participation and legal standing on any person living outside the state territorial boundaries of a particular state in those circumstances where they may be seriously affected by proposed developments taking place within that state. The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has described the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (adopted June 1998) as ‘the most ambitious venture in the area of “environmental democracy” so far undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations’.

Perhaps the most subversive element of this move to extend citizenship beyond state territorial boundaries of the nation-state is that it attempts to remove the hyphen out of the nation-state equation to enable states to take on the new role of guardians of broader political and ecological communities (not just their own nations). The role could be fulfilled to the extent to which states are able to act as facilitators and vehicles for transboundary democracy serving multiple and shifting political communities. In this respect, the green democratic state would become a transnational state rather than just a nation-state or multicultural-state defending a territorially enclosed political community. The nation would not disappear but it would become less central to social and ecological citizenship and the formation of local and regional political identities. This would also mean that the internal and external dimensions of sovereignty would be redefined in less exclusive and territorially fixed terms. In a world or region made up predominantly of green democratic states of this kind, transboundary environmental harm would be minimised and the boundary line between insiders and outsiders would become blurred.

(iv) Environmental leadership

Lastly, all of the above requires environmental political leadership. However, this encompasses not only an elected government that actively seeks to pursue a green agenda but also other sites of power in the political, economic and educational spheres that are able to activate, or put to good use, the state’s and society’s developing environmental capacity. Leadership ought not to mean an overweening executive aggressively rushing through a program of reform and ignoring oppositional movements or community know-how and experience. In any event, the constitutional design of the green democratic state should protect citizens from such over zealous governments or officials (green or otherwise) while also facilitating discursive consensus formation and adaptive policy learning. This includes leaving room for community initiatives in civil society as well. Nonetheless, visionary political leadership at the centre of organised political power is essential for environmental capacity building, constitution building and environmental diplomacy.

There are, of course, familiar traps associated with the political project I have outlined. The history of labour and social democratic parties and the social democratic state provides a clear warning of the problems of political co-optation and capture, particularly by powerful social forces that are hostile to restrictions on market freedom. We have seen this already with the push for sustainable development debate, which has been converted into a message for ‘sustainable growth’ by many in industry and government. Moreover, detailed empirical studies of the fate of ‘meta-environmental policies’ such as the Ecologically Sustainable Development Strategy in Australia reveal how difficult it is for the environment movement to make inroads into mainstream fiscal, trade, industry, agricultural, energy and transport policy domains (Christoff 2002). And well meaning attempts to link civil society more formally into the processes of policy making, implementation and/or evaluation always carry the risk of disciplining citizens rather than the state (Young 2000, 195 and especially Dryzek 2000).

It is therefore vital that environmental activists and those involved in green party formations by mindful of these traps by maintaining a strategy of ‘double democratisation’ - working both within the state and within civil society to avoid the pitfalls of working exclusively in only one of these domains. As critical theorists such as Habermas (1996, 381) and neo-Habermasians such as John Dryzek (2000) and Iris Marion Young (2000) have argued, the communicative rationality embedded in ordinary, non-specialised communication in the lifeworld is more sensitive to detecting, identifying and thematising new social and political problems (including ecological problems) than systems of money and power, as the history of environmental, anti-nuclear, feminist and multicultural social movement NGO activity attests. It is precisely because civil society is plural, diverse, voluntary, unpredictable, creative, uncoopted and decentered that it is able to play this critical, oppositional role vis-à-vis systems of money and power (see Young 2000, 189). However, as Young goes on to note, it is precisely because civil society is unruly, uncoordinated and decentred that it is not ably to substitute for the critical functions performed by states or engage in systematic social steering. That so many citizens’ and NGO campaigns are directed towards (rather than away from) the state attests to the recognition of the important functions that are uniquely, or most effectively, performed by states in complex, late modern societies.

On this view, the state, the economy and civil society may be seen as both limiting and supporting each other (Young 2000, 156). Although there are tensions between the state and civil society they must be seen as ‘both necessary elements in a democratic process that aims to do justice’ (p. 190). Yet the state stands out as especially crucial in this dual process because of its unique capacity ‘for coordination, regulation, administration on a large scale that a well-functioning democracy cannot do without’ (Young 2000, 156). It is therefore not just a necessary evil (p. 173, 186). Rather, it has uniquely positive capacities to curtail the harmful effects of economic power and ‘potentially and sometimes actually they exhibit uniquely important virtues to support social justice in ways no other social processes do’ (p. 186)."


Proposal from Billy Matheson, see graph at and discussion at

More Information

  1. Inclusive Sovereignty