Governance, Democracy and Sustainable Development
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Governance, Democracy and Sustainable Development

Moving Beyond the Impasse

Edited by James Meadowcroft, Oluf Langhelle and Audun Ruud

The contributors explore the difficulties developed countries are experiencing in coming to terms with environmental limits and the resultant challenges to the democratic polity. They engage with different dimensions of the governance challenge including norms, public attitudes, citizen engagement, political conflict, policy design, and implementation, and with a range of environmental problems such as climate change, biodiversity/nature protection, and water management. The book concludes with an essay by William Lafferty that explores the flawed character of the contemporary democratic polity and offers his reflections on possible pathways to reform.
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Chapter 13: Pushing the boundaries: governance for sustainable development and a politics of limits

James Meadowcroft


This chapter is concerned with ideas about limits and their centrality to sustainable development. It explores the possibility of constructing a ‘politics of limits’–a political orientation that sets environmental limits at the core of societal deliberation and action. The suggestion is that while sustainable development cannot be reduced to a politics of limits, the successful emergence of such a political orientation is necessary to break the impasse that currently bedevils efforts to achieve a more consequent engagement with sustainability. Yet even as a ‘politics of limits’ appears essential, it is also problematic. And this also requires consideration. The discussion is organized into five sections that examine: the place of limits in arguments over the environment and sustainable development; contemporary interest in environmental limits; limits and politics more generally; the construction of a new ‘politics of limits’; and, finally, some difficulties associated with this approach. Limits have always played a role in environmental argument. In the most obvious sense environmental pressures become apparent as specific thresholds are passed: with excess hunting, game becomes scarce; as more sewage is dumped into a river, the water becomes unsafe to drink; and as pollutants from fossil fuel combustion increase, so urban air quality declines. Moreover, solutions to environmental problems typically involve the collective enforcement of limits: restricting hunting; regulating the discharge of waste to water; curtailing smokestack emissions; and so on.

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