Ecological citizenship: the basis of a sustainable society

In his book on ‘The politics of the environment’, Neil Carter argues that, among green theorists

there is a consensus over the need for active ecological citizenship because of the recognition that the transition to a sustainable society requires more than institutional restructuring; it also needs a transformation in the beliefs, attitudes and behaviour of individuals. (Carter, 2007, p.65)

In other words, ecological citizenship is an essential prerequisite of a sustainable society.

So let’s try to understand what ‘ecological citizenship’ might actually mean.

To begin with, it is helpful to distinguish between environmentalism and ecologism as Andrew Dobson (2007) does in his book ‘Green political thought’, as follows:

environmentalism argues for a managerial approach to environmental problems, secure in the belief that they can be solved without fundamental changes in present values or patterns of production and consumption. … ecologism holds that a sustainable and fulfilling existence presupposes radical changes in our relationship with the non-human natural world, and in our mode of social and political life. (pp.2-3)

In a conference paper from 2004, Dobson extends this distinction to ideas about citizenship. He argues that environmental citizenship can be understood in the context of the existing traditions of liberal citizenship (based on rights) and republican citizenship (based on duties and responsibilities). So, just as environmentalism cannot conceive of a departure from the socio-political status quo, neither can environmental citizenship.

However, ecological citizenship, like ecologism, moves in radically new directions.

Contemporary conceptions of citizenship (liberal and republican) are intimately connected with the territory of the nation state. As a means to address global unsustainability, Dobson suggests that citizenship must exist in an entirely different non-territorial political space, and the space in which a redefined citizenship can be located is our individual ecological footprint.

Other aspects of ecological citizenship follow naturally from this definition:

Duty and responsibility: “The principal ecological citizenship obligation is to ensure that ecological footprints make a sustainable, rather than an unsustainable, impact.”  Unlike the rights and responsibilities which exist under contemporary citizenship, this obligation is non-reciprocal and asymmetrical because “the ecological footprints of some members of some countries have a damaging impact on the life chances of some members of other countries” (Dobson, 2004, p.12).

Virtue: “The first virtue of ecological citizenship is justice … a just distribution of ecological space” (p.18).

Citizenship and the private realm: Contemporary citizenship is exclusively associated with the public sphere; ecological citizenship, however, “is all about everyday living” wherein we each create our ecological footprint. Therefore the activity we carry out in “the private realm is important … because it is a site of citizenship activity” (p.22).

This final element completes the logic of ecological citizenship because “the private realm generates the space – the ecological footprint – that gives rise to the obligations of ecological citizenship itself” (p.23).

As I say, this is a radically new understanding of citizenship. Undoubtedly, libertarians would react with horror at the idea that our behaviour in the private realm could be the focus of attention in the way just described. But as Dobson notes, “if ecological citizenship is to be related to the responsibilities incurred by the over-occupation of ecological space, then these responsibilities must at some point relate to individual citizens” (p.7).

Tim Hayward (2006) comes up with several other criticisms. In particular he takes issue with the idea of the ecological footprint as a space in which people have political relations. He does not deny that the inequitable distribution of ecological resources creates obligations from those with excess footprint (‘debtors’) to those with insufficient resources (‘creditors’); but he says these are “the moral obligations of ‘common humanity’ more generally” and not “the political obligations of citizenship” (p.438).

Now the idea that “the community created by the material relations of cause and effect in the guise of the ecological footprint is a political community” (Dobson, 2006, p.447) is certainly a little difficult. Not surprisingly, though, Dobson doesn’t accept Hayward’s criticism of it. His argument is that “we can have political relations pretty much anywhere” (p.448). It’s hard to disagree with that. As feminism taught us many years ago, politics does not come about only because of some social contract or “compact which brings into being a body politic … vested with power and authority by the people” as Hayward (p.437) would have us believe.

Thus Dobson’s ecological citizenship and the obligations it creates are undoubtedly political. But how can this citizenship be called into existence? Neil Carter has some thoughts on this score:

Ecological citizenship needs to be nurtured at the level of the (reformed) state through the deliberative processes engendered by democratisation, decentralisation and egalitarianism, but its effect would spill over from the political sphere into the realms of economic and social activity. (Carter, p.65)

Participatory democracy is certainly needed to counterbalance the potential for authoritarianism in a green society, particularly if we open up the private sphere to scrutiny. But Carter’s suggestion begs many questions. Not the least of these is in relation to the focus on the state when, as discussed above, ecological citizenship is looking to an entirely different political space.

In fact, the evidence is that state fails regularly where ecological matters are concerned, because it is concerned above all else with maintaining economic growth – the source of its legitimacy. So wherever a move towards sustainability might impact upon growth, sustainability loses out. Climate change policy is the number one example of this failure at the moment.

It seems clear, then, that ecological citizenship must be constructed and nurtured outside of state institutions, at a grassroots level by groups looking to live sustainably. What Dobson’s conception of citizenship indicates, however, is that it is not enough for us in the wealthy nations to ‘live lightly upon the earth’: there is a greater responsibility than that. We must join together to demand ecological justice for all.

(Note added 1/10/09: Here I’ve taken a look at some survey research which asks whether ecological citizens actually exist.)


Neil Carter (2007) The politics of the environment: Ideas, activism, policy (2nd ed). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Andrew Dobson (2004) Ecological citizenship. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association, Portland, Oregon, USA, March 11, 2004. (Available here.)

Andrew Dobson (2006) Ecological citizenship: A defence. Environmental Politics 15(3), 447-451.

Andrew Dobson (2007) Green political thought (4th ed). Routledge: Abingdon, UK. (online version here).

Tim Hayward (2007) Ecological citizenship: Justice, rights and the virtue of resourcefulness. Environmental Politics 15(3), 435-446.


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