Beyond the Social Contract of Consumption: Democratic Governance in the Post-Carbon Era

Critical Policy Studies, Vol. 4, No. 3, October 2010

12 Pages Posted: 6 Jul 2012

See all articles by Bruce Jennings

Bruce Jennings

Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society; Center for Humans and Nature; The Hastings Center; Yale School of Public Health

Date Written: July 7, 2010


Democratic legitimacy in the carbon fuel era has been based on popular acceptance of elitist democracy in return for economic growth and rising material standards of living. This social contract of consumption is coming to an end with climate change adaptation and ecological limits to growth. This paper argues that a new era characterized by a social covenant of ecological trusteeship is necessary. Will the politics and governance of this new covenant necessarily be elitist and authoritarian, or can it be democratic in new ways? The paper discusses the nature and prospects for a future democratic governance that remains liberal in its respect for human rights and the rule of law, but is more deliberative and civic in its orientation than interest group liberalism has been. Key concepts of ecological literacy and ecological democratic citizenship are discussed. Literacy is understood as function of both information and empowerment. A model of citizenship as trusteeship is defended against the notion of citizenship as rational-choice consumerism. Deliberation as distinct from bargaining, and dialogic judgment rather than monologic assessment of interests, are defended as the appropriate forms of policy making and policy analysis.

Keywords: ecology, social contract, literacy, citizenship, representative democracy, deliberative democracy, interest group democracy, liberalism, governance, sustainability, limits to growth

Suggested Citation

Jennings, Bruce, Beyond the Social Contract of Consumption: Democratic Governance in the Post-Carbon Era (July 7, 2010). Critical Policy Studies, Vol. 4, No. 3, October 2010, Available at SSRN:

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