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Ecological Citizenship (Michael Buser 19. 7.

The intent of this essay is to review some foundational concepts around
environmental and ecological citizenship. The review connects to recent debates
within the environmental citizenship literature and finishes with some questions
related to how we might apply the ‘ecological citizen’ concept to our work

As Alex Latta points out, ecological citizenship is a relatively new field of

research informed by the writing of Barry (1996; 1999), Curtin (1999) and
others during the 1990s as well as Andrew Dobson’s ongoing work (2003; 2007)
and scholarship from journals such as Environmental Politics, Citizenship
Studies and others. There is now substantial scholarship dedicated to studying
relationships between citizenship, democracy and the confluence of
environmental challenges and inequalities currently facing the world. Within this
literature terms such as environmental, ecological, green, and sustainable are
often used interchangeably. However, Dobson makes a distinction between
‘environmental citizenship’ and ‘ecological citizenship’. For Dobson,
environmental citizenship is encapsulated within the more traditional notion of
liberal citizenship, which recognises individual (environmental) rights, is
conducted in the public sphere and draws on the political configurations of the
nation-state (Dobson 2009, 259). In contrast, ecological citizenship, is non-
contractual, crosses public and private spheres and is not associated with
political membership (more on this below).

Ecological citizenship is a normative theory – it takes a stand on what people

should do and how they should act. It is designed to promote environmental
awareness and environmental responsibilities or obligations through an
accounting of uneven, unjust or unsustainable ecological footprints. Latta takes
issue with this ‘instrumentalist’ or functional approach to citizenship which, he
argues, plays down the ‘highly differentiated experiences of citizen duties and
agency (2007, 385 page?). This is a returning theme and criticism of ecological
citizenship and is further developed by post-colonial and feminist critiques (see
below). In the following sections, I review of few key themes related to
ecological citizenship (largely following Dobson) and set out some related

Ecological non-territoriality
Historically, citizenship has been connected to membership within a political
community. Members of this community are typically entitled to equal
participation with other citizens in decision-making. This was often associated
with democracy and the right to vote but has been opened up significantly in
recent decades (e.g. deliberative democracy, deep democracy and so on).

However, recognising the complex and global social and ecological relations
involved in environmental challenges and crises Dobson and others (Dobson and
Valencia Saiz 2005; many sources) argue that responses must similarly be global.
As such, the ecological citizen moves beyond the realm of the nation-state and its
associated political structures. For some, this means working beyond, around as
well as in and against the state (see Christoff 1996, 160; Dobson 2009, 260. See
also Isin Citizens Without Frontiers; Holston Insurgent Citizenship). Dobson

specifically rejects ‘conventional’ citizenship relations situated within state-
based political membership (e.g. liberal citizenship) as well as calls for a
universal or planetary citizenship based on a common human existence (as
called for by cosmopolitans). In this space, Dobson offers the ecological footprint
– ‘an account of the impact that individuals, organizations and communities
make on their environment’ (Dobson Ecological Citizenship Revisited). The
ecological footprint thereby becomes the new political space for environmental
politics. In Dobson’s words ‘we all have a right to the appropriate amount of
ecological space, and an obligation to ensure that any ecological footprint with
which we are associated…is not so unjustifiably large as to cause harm to other
people’ (Dobson, ECR). Several debates have followed from Dobson’s assertion
for a non-territorial environmental politics (e.g. Hayward 2006a, b; Dobson
2006) which challenges many of the basic understandings and assumptions of

Ecological citizenship as non-contractual and non-reciprocal

As mentioned above, unlike many forms of citizenship, Dobson’s ecological
citizenship is ‘non-contractual’ and ‘non-reciprocal’ and does not make appeals
to membership in a community be that a nation-state (per traditional liberal and
republican citizenship) or global community/common humanity (per
cosmopolitanism). Again, in liberal citizenship, individual citizens are the bearer
of equal rights. Within an environmental context this might equate to the right
to particular environmental features (e.g. air, water, etc).

However, by claiming that ecological citizenship is non-contractual and non-

reciprocal, Dobson breaks with the liberal tradition. Rather, he suggests that the
obligation for action falls directly upon those with unsustainable (i.e. large)
ecological footprints. It is an obligation to undo an (ecological) injustice to an
unknown Other without the expectation of some reciprocal action. Feminist and
post-colonial scholars and activists have critiqued this treatment of the ‘other’ as
a one-way programme which creates passive citizens amongst those suffering
from ecological injustices. As Latta notes, ‘those on the other side of unequal
material relations remain passive counterparts, objects of an imperative for
ecological redistribution instead of active citizens in the reconfiguration of global
futures’ (2007, 384. See also Hayward 2006a). Here, the primary responsibility
for ecological change and action falls on the already powerful. As a result, there
is a uniformity of focus on a particular (Western) notion of what it means to be a
good ecological citizen and less debate about how to more broadly politicalise
nature. As Isin (2002, 275) argues:
Citizenship is that particular point of view of the dominant, which
constitutes itself as a universal point of view – the point of view of those who
dominate the city and who have constituted their point of view as natural
by representing the city as a unity.

In addition, it is important to reflect on the actual social relations embedded

within both public and private aspects of ecological citizenship. As Wong and
Sharp (2011) point out, there has been significant critique of environmental
advocacy’s focus on individual responsibility (against more collective forms of
action) with emphasis placed on personal actions (e.g. ethical investment,

sustainable consumption). Further, as MacGregor notes, many ecological
proposals around sustainability, self-reliance and so on, place additional time
and labour burdens upon women and ‘threaten to intensify women’s already
unsustainable burden of responsibility for care‘ (MacGregor 2009, 293)

Ecological citizenship and (human) agency

I have already discussed some of the problematic aspects of ecological
citizenship with relation to (generally non-Western) those suffering from
ecological injustices (e.g. their passive status). However, there are also debates
about the prospects of enacting citizenship beyond human-human relations.
For example, reflecting on new ways of thinking about citizenship, Van
Steenbergen suggests that ‘ecological … has to do with the extension of
citizenship rights to non-human beings’ (1994, 146). However, Dobson argues
that ‘it is a mistake to try and extend the citizen community in this way’ (Dobson
1998: 166-183 – quotes from Reynolds et al 2009, 258). Rather, he sees human-
non-human relationships as humanitarian rather than any extension of
citizenship rights. Here, political agency is restricted to humans and citizenship
can only be enacted within a political space populated by people. Calling upon
recent materialist work (e.g. Whatmore, Bennett, etc) Alex Latta (2014) and
others argue against Dobson’s strongly anthropocentric frame and seek to
expand the collective aspects of citizenship beyond the human. For example,
Gabrielson and Parady turn to feminist materialism in putting forth a ‘corporeal’
citizenship which ‘emphasises the dynamic connectivity and co-constitutive
interactions between human bodies and the nonhuman natural world (2010,
383). Similarly, drawing on Serres’ concept of a natural contract, Latta draws out
the need for citizen insurgencies to build alliances with the matter of the non-

Some studies of ecological citizenship and how we might proceed.

While there have been studies examining the political processes, values and
beliefs which might identify or contribute to what makes up an ‘ecological
citizen’, these are sometimes contradictory (for empirical studies of ecological
citizens see Jaggers 2009; Wolf et al 2009; Martinsson & Lundqvist 2010). Part
of the difficulty here relates to the ways in which ecological citizenship
challenges traditional understandings of what it means to be a citizen. In hydro-
citizenship, we deploy the concept to explore conflicts between (broadly defined)
communities and individuals within water contexts. Our open understanding of
‘community’ and ‘individual’ to include the non-human is likely to further trouble
empirical study of (ecological) citizenship.

Some have argued that it is critical to join literatures and debates about
ecological citizenship with the wide-ranging work on environmental justice
(MacGregor?). It is also worthwhile to return to Dobson’s critique of traditional
green policy’s tendency to focus on individual behaviours and actions – often
calling upon individual self-interest (e.g. fiscal incentive/dis-incentive such as
fines, penalties) – Dobson argues that such approaches (e.g. congestion charge)
are only of limited benefit, if not flawed or wholly detrimental. The key problem

(as I see it) is, as Dobson notes, the ‘fiscal dis/incentive policy tool works with a
rather narrow range of human motivational options. It assumes that people are
principally motivated by self-interested considerations’ (Dobson ECR). However,
there is a range of evidence suggesting that people do not perform actions such
as ‘pro-environmental behaviour’ (or giving blood, etc.) for reasons of self-
interest. Taking this into account, ‘environmental citizenship requires both
policy-makers and citizens to engage with norms and values’ (Dobson, ECR).
Such an approach is more likely to produce lasting commitments to more
sustainable futures. In Hydrocitizenship, I suggest we must be purposeful about
how we are engaging and motivating pro-environmental behaviours and would
argue for a collective rather than individualist approach.

Concluding thoughts
The intent here was not to summarise or engage with the full extent of ecological
citizenship literature but rather to set out some basic concepts which might
contribute to the way we deploy ‘citizenship’ in our study. Quite clearly,
ecological or hydro-citizenship is not a simple transformation of what is
commonly known as political or democratic citizenship into an environmental or
watery context. Rather, our use of citizenship is a challenge to many of the
fundamental assumptions surrounding commonplace usage of the term.
Furthermore, there remains discord amongst ‘green’ scholars as to the very
nature of citizenship and how it might apply beyond conventional notions of the
state or the human (see various debates between Dobson and others). All of this
raises a number of questions (for me) going forward in the project:
a) Very simply, how do we deploy the concept of citizenship? And critically,
per Latta and Isin, if citizenship is constituted through the relationship of
identity and alterity, who/what is the ‘Other’ in our conception? (I am
simply suggesting we need to be aware of this relationship)
b) Per MacGregor and other feminist scholars, there is a need to be aware of
the implications of modifying personal (private) behaviour and how this
may result in further pressures on women’s care responsibilities. Further,
following Dobson, we need to be aware of the wider limitations of
dis/incentive motivational policies.
c) Regarding agency, Dobson locates agency within those who currently
living unsustainable lifestyles (those of us with large or unsustainable
ecological footprints). We are to reduce our footprints in order to rectify
an injustice. But where is the agency for those suffering from the injustice
(they are passive agents)? And what opportunities are there for
alternative conceptions of the ‘green citizen’? In other words, to what
extent are we promoting a particular western notion of sustainability (an
instrumentalist approach to solving a problem), without engaging wider
communities in democratic processes?
d) Dobson’s citizenship is exclusive to humans. Going forward, Latta’s work
seems more relevant for us in that he draws on new materialist thinkers
(Whatmore, Bennett, etc). That said, how do we widen this within the
realm of citizenship (or do we abandon the concept)?
e) How do we study these processes of citizenship? I’m very curious about
how we might account for transformations.

 Barry, J (1996) Sustainability, political judgement and citizenship, in
Doherty & de Geus (eds.) Democracy and Green Political Thought:
Sustainability, Rights and Citizenship, pp. 185-206, London: Routledge
 Barry, J (1999) Rethinking Green Politics. Nature, Virtue and Progress.
London: Sage.
 Curtin, D (1999) Chinnagounder’s Challenge: the Question of Ecological
Citizenship, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
 Dobson, A (2003) Citizenship and the Environment. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
 Dobson, A (2007) Green Political Thought, 4th edition. Abingdon:
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MA: MIT Press.
 Dobson, A & Valencia Saiz, A (2005) Introduction, Environmental Politics,
15(3): 447-451.
 Gabrielson, Teena. 2008. Green Citizenship: A Review and Critique.
Citizenship Studies 12 (4): 429-46 (need to get this)
 Gabrielson, T and Parady, K. (2010) Corporeal Citizenship: Rethinking
Green Citizenship through the Body, Environmental Politics, 19(3), pp -
 Hayward, T (2006a) Ecological citizenship: justice, rights and the virtue of
resourcefulness, Environmental Politics 15(3): 435-446.
 Hayward, T (2006b) Ecological citizenship: a rejoinder, Environmental
Politics 15(3) 452-453.
 Holston, J (2008) Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and
Modernity in Brazil. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
 Isin, E. F. (2002) Being Political: Genealogies of Citizenship. Minneapolis,
MN: University of Minnesota Press.
 Jagers, S. (2009) In Search of the Ecological Citizen. Environmental Politics
18 (1): 18-36
 Latta, A. (2007) Locating democratic politics in ecological citizenship,
Environmental Politics, 16(3): 377-293
 Latta, A (2014) Matter, politics and the sacred: insurgent ecologies of
citizenship. Cultural Geographies, 21(3), 323-341.
 MacGregor, S (2006) No sustainability without justice: a feminist critique
of environmental citizenship, pp 101-126, in Dobson & Bell (eds.),
Environmental Citizenship, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
 MacGregor, S (2009) The project of feminist ecological citizenship, pp
292-301, in Reynolds, M, Blackmore, C and Smith M (eds), The
Environmental Responsibility Reader, London: Zed Books.
 Martinsson, J. & Lundqvist, L. (2010) Ecological Citizenship: Coming Out
“Clean” without Turning “Green”? Environmental Politics 19 (4): 518-37
 Wolf, J., Brown, K. and Conway, D. (2009) Ecological Citizenship and
Climate Change: Perceptions and Practice. Environmental Politics 18 (4):