Democracy Rising is a series of blog posts on deliberative democracy: what it is, why it’s powerful, why the time is right for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. The series originates in the United States but will discuss principles and draw upon examples from around the world. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributors only.

Deliberation and Ecological Resilience

Just as the meeting was about to start, a pair of feet extending from a wheelchair appeared at the door. I invited the 102-year-old occupant to join us. She apologized for being late by saying she was recovering from a fall just a few days before. Contusions were still visible about her face. But she beamed around the room, exclaiming, “Nothing was going to keep me from coming today!”

That experience came at about the half-way point in my 35 years as a student and practitioner of various forms of democratic deliberation. During that time, the evidence that deliberation works, that it positively impacts both individuals and communities, has continued to mount, to the point that is a settled question—a nearly unprecedented achievement in both the social sciences and democratic practice. Not surprisingly, over the same time span we’ve also learned a great deal about how democratic deliberation works.  There are excellent reasons why both political theorists and the thousands of practitioners they have inspired since about 1980 are so high on deliberation. Here are a few of those reasons, based on decades of careful research[1]:

Deliberation is realistic. That is, it works. Deliberative processes have been deployed by public, private, and civil-society institutions to explore issues, clarify community values, promote reform, and foster debate. These processes can and do inform decision-making and shape policies.

Deliberation is essential for democratic legitimacy. Deliberation is a way to ensure that nominally democratic processes, such as voting, are not corrupted by gamesmanship: manipulating rules and agendas to ensure particular outcomes. Deliberation helps clarify the values and will of a group.

It’s more than discussion. Deliberation, one hopes, is usually rational, but it’s more than a purely rationalistic exercise. Deliberation is also meant to acknowledge and harness the emotional and value-related dimensions of an issue and the people grappling with it.

Deliberation is responsive to different forms of communication. In a properly deliberative setting, the champion debater can score points via the rational power of her arguments—but so can others whose thoughts and concerns are expressed through humor, testimony, and story-telling. Deliberation creates a space in which citizens from varied cultural backgrounds can participate as equals.

Deliberation is inclusive by design and intent. Critics of deliberation have said that it is inherently elitist, open only to privileged and educated citizens. But long experience in settings from around the world has shown that deliberation can mitigate elite domination and empower marginalized groups.

Deliberation is not naïve about power. It understands that power can be wielded in deliberative forums to intimidate or pressure, and designs in measures to limit this. On the other hand, deliberation acknowledges the need to link deliberative outcomes to power so that they are effective in shaping policy. To do otherwise is to betray the trust and commitment of the deliberating public.

Deliberative transformation can’t be rushed. Participants in deliberative events need time to speak, listen, reflect, probe other positions, and take in what they are hearing—especially when sharp differences in point of view are present.

Deliberation is an answer to polarization, and can work in divided societies. Deliberative events seek to assemble people of varying views in structured and modulated settings that are conducive to civil exchange. The sheer variety of opinions helps prevent polarization, while the structured interactions, guided by facilitators, tend to moderate the more extreme views and help promote mutual respect and understanding. These effects have been demonstrated in deliberative efforts in many places known for division, including South Africa, Turkey, Bosnia, and Northern Ireland.

The benefits of democratic deliberation are clearly multiple and profound. Deliberation provides an opportunity to understand each other—and ourselves. Without it, we can be a crowd but not a collectivity, free but not autonomous. Neither crowds nor unthinking individuals act; they merely behave. Deliberation is also the preeminent means at our disposal for collective inquiry into topics that either affect us all or have no clear technical answers—which is to say, most of the big questions we face as a society. Carefully constructed, egalitarian discussion processes are also what’s needed to distill “wisdom” from “’the crowd.” Finally, by revealing new possibilities, deliberation tends to encourage consensus or, failing that, compromise. In our work at the Interactivity Foundation, in particular, we have seen that as few as three hours of exploratory small group discussion lead to enhanced discussion skills, willingness to consider alternative perspectives, and civic habits among the great majority of participants.[2] Not everyone can match the enthusiasm of my 102-year-old for democratic discussion. But outsized rewards await any citizen or community willing to try.

So what does all this have to do with the pressing and converging ecological challenges we face? To those of an ecological bent, engaging in democratic discussion may seem like little more than fiddling while the planet is burning. But that view, while tempting, is mistaken. Indeed, compelling evidence from fields ranging from history to political economy to psychology all point to the opposite conclusion: the more a society relies on democratic discussion, the greener it will be.

Consider, first, the historical record. As readers of this site will no doubt be aware, entire branches of libraries are given over to analyzing the ecological collapse. These analyses differ in innumerable respects, but almost always invoke either maladaptive social structures or failure of foresight, most frequently linking these two factors in some way. Meanwhile, available evidence suggests that sustainable pre-modern societies were based not only on participatory structures, but deliberative ones, at that.[3] And there is simply no doubt about the ecological superiority of modern democracies over their hierarchical counterparts.

Elementary political economy explains these linkages. Hierarchies can be ecologically benevolent, as they were in Tokugawa Japan, but have no internal ecological “governor” to keep them that way. In the meantime, they are constantly subject to the urge to expand or preserve their own short-term power, at whatever ecological cost. Unrestrained markets, the big social innovation of the 19th century, positively invite ecological “externalities” and “discounting” the value of future resources, all the while simultaneously and systematically undervaluing “public goods” like clean air, wildlife habitat, and parklands. Put markets and hierarchy together, and you get the current regime of the People’s Republic of China.

So, among the grand social design principles, those with deep ecological commitments must turn to democracy. Fortunately, psychology gives us good reason to believe that deliberation can help make democracies both more democratic and greener than they already are. Educational psychologists are increasingly singing the praises of the “flipped classroom,” which in the humanities and social sciences involves large dollops of deliberation. Political psychologists have shown that deliberation predictably leads to learning, deepening participants’ understanding of themselves, others, and policy in general—all the while minimizing political division through a search for collective solutions. We also know that these sorts of learning apply to ecological issues in particular, yielding not only factual and conceptual gains but heightened ecological awareness as well.[4] Since at least Socrates’ time, those committed to learning—whether in the classroom or in the agora—have been aware that deliberation’s key contribution is active engagement, which heightens motivation and promotes creativity, cognitive processing, retention and, ultimately, collaboration.

The world is heating up; parts are it are already ablaze. But democratic deliberation isn’t futile fiddling—it’s a precondition of dousing the flames.


[1] Nicole Curato, John S. Dryzek, et al., “Twelve Key Findings in Deliberative Democracy Research,” Daedalus 146 (3), Summer 2017, pp. 28–38.

[2] Adolf G. Gundersen and Suzanne Goodney Lea, Let’s Talk Politics: Restoring Civility Through Exploratory Discussion

[3] Adolf G. Gundersen, “Religion, Politics, and the Native American Land Ethic,” Democracy & Nature vol. 4 (2,3), pp. 181–203.

[4] Adolf G. Gundersen, The Environmental Promise of Democratic Deliberation (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).


Teaser photo credit: