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  • Necessary Preconditions for Deliberative Environmental Democracy?Challenging the Modernity Bias of Current Theory
  • Manjusha Gupte (bio) and Robert V. Bartlett (bio)

Democratic theorists have often seemed unconcerned about the practical applications of deliberative democracy and have restricted their concerns to normative and procedural values, leaving the practical realm out of their focus of inquiry. But environmental and natural resources policy scholars have begun to pay increasing attention to deliberative democratic theories and deliberative practices in recent years.1 Meadowcroft, for example, argues that "a vigorous extension of deliberative democratic practice with the environmental and natural resources (ENR) policy domain can enhance significantly society's capacity to manage environment-related problems in the coming decades."2 Yet nearly all of the rapidly growing literature on applied deliberative democracy is focused on experiences and circumstances as they exist in the wealthy liberal democracies of the world.3 At the same time, most deliberative democratic theorists accept assumptions that seem to limit the applicability of their theories to societies that are relatively wealthy, well-educated, and culturally Western.4 Thus the literature on deliberative environmental democratic processes is, perhaps inadvertently, largely consistent with prevailing presuppositions in the theoretical literature, namely, that democratic deliberation is suited only to conditions of advanced modernity. The question that arises is: are deliberative democracy and deliberative environmental politics ideals to which only modernity can aspire?

This article examines the potential for deliberative environmental democracy [End Page 94] in a traditional, unquestionably non-modern, context by investigating a community conservation experiment in a relatively isolated, traditional village in rural India. We explore the feasibility of deliberative democracy in a small, poor, semi-literate community that, uninformed by deliberative theory, has been attempting to actualize the norms of deliberative democracy. We ask whether such conditions of modernity as Western social and cultural norms, wealth, literacy, and institutional fragmentation are indeed prerequisites for deliberative democracy to function effectively.

Deliberative Democracy: Constraints and Parameters

Deliberative democracy emphasizes rational dialogue and consensus formation among individuals, as opposed to liberal democracy's stress on representation, rights, and elections. According to Dryzek,

the essence of democracy itself is now widely taken to be deliberation, as opposed to voting, interest aggregation, constitutional rights, or even self-government. The deliberative turn represents a renewed concern with the authenticity of democracy: the degree to which democratic control is substantive rather than symbolic, and engaged by competent citizens.5

Deliberative democracy is by definition more demanding than aggregative democracy alone.6 Many of these demands are institutional, requiring rules, procedures, norms, and resources that support, require, and demand nearly-universal discussion and reflection and greatly constrain whether and how aggregation occurs (limiting, for example, the option for a majority to "call the question" and thus force a majoritarian decision on an unconvinced and unwilling minority). Exit from the democratic process needs to be an unattractive or impossible option. Institutions may help to balance configurations of economic and political power. Deliberative democracy demands a degree of social and political equality—such that discussion and reasoning, rather than domination, manipulation, or the exercise of raw political power—will be determinant in the procedures leading to outcomes. If everyone is to be ensured a democratic voice, rather than merely an equal vote, then deliberative democracy necessarily imposes significant demands on participants themselves, who must be able to communicate effectively and offer reasons for their positions; be open to the reasoning of others; be capable of investing time in both discussion and reflection; and be committed to deliberative resolution rather than extra-democratic or even majoritarian social choice.

The demanding requirements of deliberation have long been noted by theorists, perhaps first by Aristotle, for whom sameness and equality were necessary conditions. Moreover, Aristotle thought deliberation ought to be restricted [End Page 95] to those who are virtuous, wise, and well off.7 Rousseau too mentioned relative social and economic equality and cultural homogeneity as prerequisites for self rule.

A comprehensive survey of specified or implied prerequisites for deliberation is not possible here nor is it necessary, except to note that various such preconditions are alluded to by a broad range of contemporary deliberative democracy theorists who do not otherwise speak with one voice...


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pp. 94-106
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