Democratising sustainability transformations: Assessing the transformative potential of democratic practices in environmental governance

Jonathan Pickering, Thomas Hickmann, Karin Bäckstrand, Agni Kalfagianni, Michael J Bloomfield, Ayşem Mert, Hedda Ransan-Cooper, Alex Lo

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Many democracies find it difficult to act swiftly on problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss. This is reflected in long-standing debates in research and policy about whether democratic practices are capable of fostering timely, large-scale transformations towards sustainability. Drawing on an integrative review of scholarly literature from 2011 to early 2021 on sustainability transformations and the democracy-environment nexus, this article synthesises existing research on prospects and pitfalls for democratising sustainability transformations. We advance a new typology for understanding various combinations of democratic/authoritarian practices and of transformations towards/away from sustainability. We then explore the role of democratic practices in accelerating or obstructing five key dimensions of sustainability transformations: institutional, social, economic, technological, and epistemic. Across all dimensions we find substantial evidence that democratic practices can foster transformations towards sustainability, and we conclude by outlining a set of associated policy recommendations.
Original languageEnglish
Article number100131
JournalEarth System Governance
Early online date17 Jan 2022
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jan 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We presented earlier versions of this article at the Earth System Governance conference and the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance in 2019. We also explored the dimensions of sustainability transformations outlined in the article at the 2019 and 2020 meetings of the Earth System Governance Project’s Working Group on Democracy and Earth System Governance. We are very grateful to all participants in these events for insights and feedback. Moreover, we thank two anonymous reviewers for valuable and constructive comments and suggestions for strengthening the main contribution of the article. This research was supported under the Australian Research Council's Laureate Fellowship funding scheme (project number FL140100154 ).


  • Earth system governance
  • Ecological democracy
  • Environmental democracy
  • Environmental governance
  • Sustainability transformations
  • Transformative governance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law
  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Political Science and International Relations
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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