Authoritarian Environmentalism, Democracy, and Political Legitimacy

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By: Mayson Glenne Obrien, University of Texas

Our planet is warming at an alarming rate, due largely to human actions, such as burning fossil fuels and repurposing large areas of land for agricultural use, which contribute to environmental degradation. Scientists confirm that over the next century we will see many changes to our world that will pose distinct threats to our societies and way of life. Melting ice caps will cause ocean levels to rise, flooding coastal areas which house a huge proportion of the world’s population. Some islands will be completely submerged, leaving their inhabitants without land. This will cause a mass dislocation on a global scale (Williams 2008). These expansive consequences ensure that the ramifications of climate change are not simply environmental, but political as well.

Some argue that due to the severe threats presented by climate change, we must make radical changes to our political systems in order to ensure that our efforts to mitigate these threats are effective (Beeson 2010). Authoritarian environmentalism offers a radical alternative policy framework. .. Authoritarian environmentalism (henceforth AE) is a form of environmental policy which requires that governments retain control over all environmental policy decisions and that the implementation of these policies is top-down and non-participatory. Some argue that more democratic governments, not solely authoritarian governments, can utilize AE policies (Han 2015). This claim merits analysis. Authoritarianism and democracy have long been considered fundamentally at odds with each other. This idea dates back to Churchill’s campaign against fascism in Europe. This long held perception makes it difficult to think of authoritarian policy as being compatible  with democratic governance. This paper will question the philosophical compatibility of an authoritarian policy framework with democracy as a regime type. If those who believe we need a new, much stronger policy framework to mitigate the effects of climate change are correct, assessing the viability of AE in a democracy  serves as the first step to confronting the climate crisis.

This paper critically assesses the AE policy framework in practice as well as in the philosophies of political legitimacy which justify both authoritarian and democratic authority. After clarifying the argument for authoritarian environmentalism as a policy framework (section I), I analyze the argument that AE can be implemented in democracies (section II). I then reject the notion that AE can be successful in a democracy on the grounds that successful implementation requires authoritarianism proper (section III). Additionally, I call upon political philosophy literature to raise a theoretical contrast between the justification of authoritarian and democratic authority (section IV). These considerations show that AE cannot be successfully implemented in a democracy.

Section I: Argument for authoritarian environmentalism

Proponents of environmental authoritarianism argue that properly responding to the overwhelming magnitude and intensity of the current climate crisis  will require a similarly overwhelming policy response.. If our response is not strong enough, we will not be able to mitigate environmental threats to our well-being and survival which may result in the onset of a global dislocation of people (Williams 2008). Environmental authoritarianism offers centralized government control over policy decisions, allowing the government to streamline policy implementation. This system envisions a centralized government with a small group of decision-makers  who create non-participatory policies (Gilley 2012).  The severe consequences which await us if our response to environmental degradation proves too weak, has led many AE scholars to argue that  governments must employ compulsory environmental policies (Gilley 2012, Beeson 2010).

A major benefit of a centralized and non-participatory approach to environmental policy is that tensions between individual liberties and environmental concerns can be eased through government mandates, which limit some rights. Liberties granted to individuals in a democracy can, at times, be at odds with environmental concerns.. Consider an individual who chooses to use fertilizer on their own land: this action is protected under the individual’s rights in democratic states.  However, the contamination of groundwater caused by nitrates from agricultural fertilizers is of serious environmental concern. When the concentration of nitrates in ground water passes a certain threshold, it can be harmful to human health. (Sebilio et al 2013). In this situation the right for an individual to utilize their land however they see fit is at odds with environmental concerns. AE might  limit this right by banning certain environmentally adverse actions even when they occur on private property, thereby easing this tension.

Proponents argue that “good authoritarianism”, which takes away some liberties and restricts unsustainable behavior, is the most effective way to prevent environmental degradation (Beeson 2010, 289). Authoritarian environmentalism supposedly removes the tension between individual interests and environmental concerns by requiring participation in all environmental policy. There is no need to worry that, in practice, individual interests will conflict with environmental concerns and therefore one does not need to worry about transforming the interests or values of individuals (Han 2016, 4).  Transforming values requires the upending of cultural perspectives, a take that takes decades if not centuries. . Proponents of environmental authoritarianism argue that we cannot afford to spend time transforming values in light of the consequences of delayed action.

Section II: Authoritarian environmentalism and democracy

Heejin Han, an AE scholar, proposes that South Korea provides an example of a democracy implementing AE policies. President Lee of South Korea was elected in 2008 on a narrative of pragmatic, economic progress. After taking office, Lee implemented a project called the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project (FMRRP). This project involved building dams and weirs, small river dams, on four rivers as well as constructing parks and bike paths along the river banks. It was undertaken under Lee’s environmental agenda, the Green New Deal Program, and classified as an environmental policy by Han. Despite some pushback from environmental NGOs and citizens, the project was completed in two years, sidestepping some laws and regulations. Han argues that the implementation of the FMRRP was an example of AE policy because the administration maintained concentrated control over the policy making process by excluding NGOs and restricting civil liberties (Han 2015). From this example, Han concludes that AE policies do not require authoritarianism proper, and that there is no “predisposed relationship” between environmental policy type and regime type (Han 2015, 824).

While some features of the FMRRP might resemble AE policy, this single example does not yield the conclusion that South Korea’s environmental policy was authoritarian. It is significant that the FMRRP is the only example Han points to in order to draw his conclusion that AE policy was at work in South Korea. Han fails to provide any other examples in which South Korea, or any other democracy has implemented top-down, non-participatory environmental policies. This greatly weakens his argument. It is likely that Han misrepresents the FMRRP as an environmental policy when it may have been something else. Han fails to address the potential criticism that FMRRP is not part of an environmental policy, but rather a government economic endeavor that does not require non-participatory implementation.

Han argues that more than a hundred households lost their farmland in order that FMRRP could be implemented. However, Song and Lynch argue that the project was in the best economic interests of the locals who voted him into office (Song and Lynch 2018). Han does not explicitly argue how yielding farmland to the project was a restriction of the civil liberties of local people. Neither does he describe how this transaction of land occurred. If the land was paid rather than forcibly taken, the policy may not have infringed upon locals’ rights. Without a clear restriction of civil liberties, it is difficult to interpret the FMRRP as an AE policy rather than simply a government initiative that did not require public participation. In order to classify something as AE policy, it must meet the criteria of being non-participatory and taking away personal liberties, such as land rights, to restrict unsustainable behavior. It is necessary to further question the argument that democracies can implement AE policies and analyze the theoretical compatibility of democracy and authoritarian policies.

Section III: Authoritarian environmentalism requires authoritarianism proper

In practice, AE requires a level of “structures of state dominion” which create strong deference to the state (Gilley 2012, 293). These structures create deference to the state by disincentivizing individuals from defecting from regime policies and making it difficult to do so. Deference to the state causes individuals in a country to look to the government to solve issues rather than depending on an external force such as non-governmental organizations or companies. Strong deference to the state also signals that individuals are accustomed to non-participatory policy. Therefore, even if the public disagrees with certain policies, there are strong incentives to comply and strong disincentives to dissent. The lack of dissent contributes to the quick implementation of AE policies

The most important structure of state dominion is the presence of non-competitive elections or no elections at all (Diamond 2002). When individuals do not participate in choosing a leader, they will likely have low expectations of participating in every area of government. Censoring information available to the public, and cutting off coordination goods, public goods that enable political opposition, are also structures of state dominion which hinder individuals and groups from mobilizing to challenge the regime (De Mesquita and Downs 2005). Both the lack of competitive elections and cutting off of coordination goods ensures the survival of a regime without consent or participation of the people being governed. These mechanisms create strong deference to the state by discouraging public participation and normalizing government control over all aspects of public life. These structures of state dominion are typical of authoritarian regimes and generally regarded as hallmarks of authoritarianism (Gilley 2012).

Where structures of state dominion and deference to the state are weak, AE will not work as a policy framework. Non-authoritarian regimes are distinguished by more competitive elections and by the ability of individuals to access information and speak out against the government (Diamond 2002). Because of this, individuals in non-authoritarian regimes have weak deference to the state. Individuals look not only to the state to solve issues, but non-governmental organizations, companies, and other individuals. This makes it less likely that individuals will accept non-participatory policies. Because the acceptance and implementation of non-participatory policy is essential to AE, this policy framework is a non-viable option in a non-authoritarian regime. 

One might argue that as environmental issues continue to loom larger in the minds of the public, even individuals in societies with weak structures of state dominion might begin to look to the state to solve environmental problems, making non-participatory policies more likely. However, non-authoritarian regimes often have strong democratic institutions which prevent authoritarianism. These institutions include elections, check and balance systems, and a standing military (De Mesquita and Downs 2005, Schmitter and Karl 1991). Institutions like these directly prevent the rise of structures of state dominion which are essential to AE. It is therefore unlikely that states with democratic institutions will be able to implement authoritarian environmentalism policies because the democratic institutions will prevent non-participatory policies from taking hold.

Furthermore, environmental policy’s aim to preserve the world around us has negative effects on society. These effects are not always equally distributed throughout society. Many scholars have noted that environmental issues often have the largest adverse effects on individuals of low socioeconomic class and minorities (Martinez-Alier 2014). This has given rise to terms such as environmentalism of the poor and environmental racism. Thus, environmental issues are also issues of distribution; meaning, environmental issues are also social justice issues. Therefore, any policy that aims to mitigate environmental issues also affects social justice issues and the distribution of resources. If AE policies are then implemented, the authoritarian mechanisms necessary for these policies will have an influence over social justice issues as well as environmental ones. This widening of authoritarian policy into spheres beyond merely environmental issues shows that any AE policy necessitates authoritarianism proper. Authoritarian influence cannot be contained to environmental policy only.

Others might argue that environmental issues are not all necessarily social justice issues. A polluted river in an uninhabited town, for example, is absolutely an environmental issue. However, no one lives in the town and it is not affecting anyone. Therefore it cannot be an issue of distribution or a social justice issue. My reply to this is that if the environmental issue of the river is going to be addressed, someone must bear the cost of restoring the river to a clean state. The question of who is responsible for paying to clean the river is an issue of distribution. So, even if an environmental issue is not directly impacting people, any environmental policy attempting to solve it will have to address social justice issues concerning the distribution of cost and responsibility.

Without mechanisms to create strong deference to the state, AE cannot be properly implemented, so AE in practice requires the mechanisms of authoritarianism proper. Additionally, because of the extension of environmental issues into the social sphere, the implementation of AE elicits a spread of authoritarianism beyond the environmental sphere. Due to the fact that authoritarianism cannot be contained to environmental policy only, and that these policies require structures of state dominion, AE requires authoritarianism proper.

Section IV: Philosophy of political legitimacy

Finally, we must consider how AE policies retain  legitimacy. This will impact which types of regimes might accept this policy framework as legitimate. Philosophers throughout history have written about political authority and what gives some ruling entity legitimacy. There are two ways of looking at authority: positively or normatively. Legitimate authority is a normative notion while de facto authority is a positive concept. A debate does exist as to whether there is truly a distinction between legitimate and de facto authority. This debate is at the heart of the justifications for democratic government and authoritarian government.

Hobbes does not see a distinction between de facto and legitimate political authority. He writes that the ability of any ruling entity to gain de facto authority, justifies the authority (Hobbes 1668). This is the foundation of the justification of authoritarian authority (including AE). Hobbes wrote that power should be centralized in one Sovereign. The job of the sovereign is to organize society and prevent it from disseminating into chaos. The method of attaining sovereignty was of no concern to Hobbes, merely that sovereignty was attained.

However, many philosophers have argued for a distinction between legitimate and de facto political authority. In contrast to Hobbes, many philosophers have posed the idea that an entity must satisfy “certain normatively important conditions” in order to be legitimate (Christiano 2013). Among those that have written on the normative notion of legitimate authority is John Locke. He posits that legitimate authority requires that a government or ruling entity attains and maintains consent of the people over which it claims its authority (Locke 1690). Some philosophers have challenged Locke’s thinking by proposing that it is not feasible for states to gain consent. They concede that maybe consent makes a political entity morally justifiable, but it shouldn’t be the standard for legitimacy (Christiano 2013).

Locke defends against this criticism, though, by positioning consent as a broad notion through his idea of tacit consent. This type of consent requires only that people are not actively unwilling to comply with a government’s rules (Christiano 2013). In this sense, consent is relatively easy to gain and non-consent can be seen readily through political dissent. Protests are a good example of political dissent. They express unwillingness of people to comply with their government. This does not mean that any state in which protests take place lacks legitimate authority, but rather the way a state responds to protests can highlight whether that state confers legitimacy through consent or through de facto authority.

Hong Kong provides an example of a place in which there is consistent unwillingness to consent with imposed authority. Protests have been ongoing in Hong Kong since 1997 when Beijing regained control over the territory formerly governed by British rule. Beijing has continually responded with crackdowns on protests, trying to suppress the demonstrations (Flowerdew and Jones 2016). In this case, Beijing maintains de facto authority over Hong Kong.. Beijing’s desire and ability to quash protests is the hallmark of its authoritarian government in that it restricts individuals’ right to speak out against the government.  

However, Locke’s notion of tacit consent implicitly assumes that political dissent is a feasible action for individuals who are actively unwilling to comply with a policy. This is not always the case. No policy will affect the public in an even manner. One group will inevitably disagree with a policy or adversely affected by it. Without coordination goods, however, public disagreement with a policy cannot develop into an organized protest. States with strong structures of state dominion that restrict these public goods rarely, if ever, face political dissent in the form of protests. When this is the case, these states prove authoritarian. Locke’s idea of tacit consent, without context, can make it seem as though a lack of protests in an authoritarian government signifies a general acceptance by the public. Rather, some individuals will have the desire to protest but lack the public goods to do so. Authoritarian governments do not gain tacit consent because there is no opportunity for dissent to be voiced.  

Because authoritarian governments cannot gain tacit consent while quashing the ability for political dissent, they must confer legitimacy for their policies through de facto means. AE policies, therefore, are justified by de facto legitimacy. Locke’s ideas of consent by those governed are central to democratic states. A policy justified not by consent, but by de facto legitimacy is not consistent with democratic ideals. Because elected officials make policies in a democracy, these policies must align with the state’s values or else policy-makers risk losing their positions. Therefore, AE policies cannot be successfully implemented in a democracy.


 I have analyzed authoritarian environmentalism (AE) as a policy framework and the argument that it can be implemented in a democratic state. The argument that AE can be implemented in a democracy is unconvincing. The claim that South Korea undertook AE policy under President Lee works under a narrow view which fails to take into account whether the South Korean government ever actually violated the rights of its citizens. In practice, the authoritarian mechanisms required for AE  build upon deeper notions of authoritarianism. Deference to the state must be strong in order for non-participatory policies to work. Environmental issues cannot be isolated from social justice issues because distribution is of great concern when proposing environmental reform. This requires that AE policies also influence social justice policies, leading to authoritarianism in all policy spheres.

The theoretical issue of how a government acquires legitimacy for its policies highlights major problems for the compatibility of democracy and AE policies. Because authoritarian regimes quash the ability to protest and dissent, it is impossible to measure or detect public disagreement. Without the ability for dissent to be heard, authoritarian policies cannot gain even a broad notion of consent. Therefore, AE policies rely on de facto rather than normative legitimacy. Policies without a normative legitimacy framework are not compatible with democratic states in which the public elects policy officials.

Due to both the theoretical and practical problems with AE being implemented in democracies, I have argued that it cannot be done successfully. Further, because of the necessary extension of authoritarianism into spheres beyond the environmental, AE requires authoritarianism proper. A state cannot be a democracy and exhibit authoritarianism proper simultaneously, so AE cannot be implemented in a democracy. Moving forward, if changes to policy truly must be made in the face of severe environmental threats, other environmental policy frameworks, which confer legitimacy through consent, should be considered if those policies are to be implemented in democracies.


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