To Think What We are Doing

Hannah Arendt

The environmental problems are political concerns that cannot be left to the rule of experts. Hannah Arendt's political ideas provide insight into why participatory democracy is the form of government that best will enable us to collectively address the ecological crisis.

This text is an excerpt from the essay with the title "Participatory Democracy Allows Us to Think What We are Doing", published in Social Ecology and Social Change. The book can be ordered on Amazon.

As the lack of political action to tackle global warming continues, calls for authoritarian solutions have become more common. It is argued that the crisis is too serious and too urgent to be left to citizens and that “democracy must be put on hold for a while" or suspended altogether and replaced by various forms of authoritarian expert rule.

An argument often put forward by eco-authoritarians is that environmental problems are too technical and complex for ordinary people to make informed judgement and sound decisions: they lack the necessary knowledge. Experts on the other hand, it is claimed, are better equipped to rule in these matters, because they supposedly possess objective and universal knowledge and their technical expertise makes them neutral and disinterested. This argument is based on the premise that the ecological problems can be reduced to purely scientific or technical questions with answers that are objectively and demonstrably true. However, even though most environmental problems have technical aspects, they are also, I contend, highly political and social.

More than fifty years ago, Hannah Arendt warned against leaving political questions to scientists and technical experts. According to Arendt, matters that are political cannot be solved through scientific means, but must be subjected to public debate and collective decision-making. She distinguishes between political concerns and matters of scientific truth or technical administration. Political concerns are those about which there is disagreement and different opinions, while scientific and technical problems have answers and solutions that can be demonstrated to be true or false through mathematical formulas or technical evidence.

Scientific statements that are demonstrably true cannot be refuted and disagreed with: We cannot disagree with the statement “2+2=4” or with the theory of gravity. Truth claims therefore have a coercive and despotic character; they preclude debate and demand only recognition and obedience. Political opinions, on the other hand, have many possible answers and alternative choices of action. They are connected to a specific location and time and can be changed and enlarged through debate and persuasion. Unlike the compelling validity of scientific statements, the validity of political opinions is intersubjective and rests on the free agreement and consent between the many. (1)

That global warming is happening and that it is caused by human activity is a fact that can be demonstrated through scientific means. We cannot change this fact; it is a factual truth that has to inform political debate. However, the question about what we are going to do—how to respond to and act on climate change, is a political one. It is a question about which there is disagreement and many different opinions. Should we prioritize big cuts to carbon emissions above economic growth? Should fossil fuels be replaced with renewable energy sources or with nuclear power? Should we opt for large-scale, centralized technologies or more decentralized, intermediate ones? Should we go for market mechanisms or commons to conserve and protect natural resources? How should the responsibility for reducing emissions be shared among and within countries and communities? These are all political and “pre-scientific” questions and they inescapably touch upon principles of justice, solidarity, freedom, and equality—principles about which there are no absolute standards, no answers that can be demonstrated to be true by scientific means.

When scientists and experts discuss principles like these, they leave their roles as scientists and become citizens with diverging opinions and perspectives. The answers to the many political and normative questions inherent to the ecological challenges can therefore be valid only if they are agreed on by the political community of citizens—an agreement arrived at through debate and deliberation taking into consideration as many perspectives as possible.

When we participate in public debate, we express how the world appears to us from our perspective. Our opinions, in turn, are challenged by the opinions of others with very different perspectives and experiences from our own. In the process our own opinions are tested, modified and refined. We learn to appreciate the perspectives of others and to take them into consideration when we are forming our own opinions. By taking into consideration the opinions and perspectives of others, we imagine ourselves in their position and see the world from their perspective.

In this way we can develop political judgement, what Arendt terms an “enlarged mentality.” Only in this way are we able to transcend our own subjective circumstances and private interests, and see the problem or the issue being discussed from many different perspectives. Political judgment then, starting from our own personal and narrow perspective, extends through public debate — through “the inexhaustible richness of human discourse” (2) — to incorporate evermore perspectives, so that we gain a multi-perspective understanding of the problem and the situation. Through participating in plural public deliberation, citizens are able to transcend self-interest and narrow thinking and to make considered and disinterested judgement.

This kind of political speech has an important meaning-giving function according to Arendt. It is by talking together that humans are able to make sense to each other, to comprehend and find meaning in what we experience, know, and do. Arendt fears that if we renounce our capacity for speech, then would end up as thoughtless creatures, merely calculating, not thinking. We would become helpless slaves to our know-how, “thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.” (3)

Modern science consists of a ”language” of mathematical symbols that cannot be expressed in normal thought and speech. Science, Arendt contends, has thus emancipated itself from humanistic concerns. When the scientist enters the laboratory, he begins to communicate in mathematical symbols and he is forced to leave his role as a citizen and his power of human understanding. This is why Arendt warns us against trusting the political judgement of scientists qua scientists:

“The simple fact that physicists split the atom without any hesitations the very moment they knew how to do it, although they realized full well the enormous destructive potentialities of their operation, demonstrates that the scientist qua scientist does not even care about the survival of the human race on earth or, for that matter, about the survival of the planet itself.”

This does not, of course, mean that scientists are immoral and lack concern for humanity and the earth. However, it implies that when scientists do care about political and normative concerns like the environmental issues, they act as citizens, not as scientists. In political matters, scientists are themselves laypersons.

That scientists act as citizens and not scientists when engaging in political matters is illustrated in the process of “counter-expertise” so common in environmental politics, in which scientists from industry and the environmental movement are pitted against each other. As Frank Fischer accentuates, in environmental disputes, scientists have, “under the guise of scientific neutrality,” (4) often made social and political choices and taken sides.

The ecological crisis concerns us all, it raises a broad range of complex and contingent political, social, cultural, and ethical questions that cannot be answered through the language of mathematical calculation. Recent attempts to do so, such as in technocratic approaches like risk-benefit decision-making, trade in carbon credits, and “payment for ecosystem services” schemes such as REDD, are bound to fail. While science and technology certainly have a role—not only in identifying and measuring environmental problems, but also in searching for various solutions and in developing alternative ecological technologies—it is important to remember that questions concerning the very goals of scientific research, how the knowledge might be used, and what kind of technologies that should be developed, are all political questions that must be answered “in terms of common sense and in everyday language," through the political processes of public deliberation and collective decision by citizens.

Development of political judgment needs a public realm containing a diversity of perspectives. This requires a politically organized community consisting of concrete public spaces open to all citizens—“spaces of appearance” where opinions and views are made public and are challenged and enlarged through debate and deliberation.

The public realm as Arendt conceives of it, is a sphere of equals, “constituted by one’s peers.” (5) Free and spontaneous collective action is only possible among equals. Where there is a distinction between rulers and the ruled, where there is command and obedience, there cannot be free debate and free agreement. Like the ancient Greek polis, the public realm is an isonomy where no one rules over others and decisions are not decreed from above by an external government, but where policies are proposed, deliberated, and decided upon by “citizen co-rulers” acting together. (6)

Because the ecological challenges we face are political issues about which there are disagreement and different opinions, they must be subject to public debate and to collective agreement and consent among citizens. A participatory form of democracy in which the plurality of citizens participate directly in political affairs, is therefore the form of government that will best enable us to jointly as a community “think what we are doing” when addressing the ecological crisis. 


1. Hannah Arendt and Jerome Kohn (2006): Between Past and Future. Eight Exercises in Political Thought. London: Penguin Group, p. 243

2. Ibid. p. 229.

3. Hannah Arendt (1998): The Human Condition. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, p. 3

4 Frank Fischer (2000): Citizens, Experts, and the Environment: The Politics of Local Knowledge. Durham: Duke University Press,, p. 104

5 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 49.

6 Arendt borrows the term from the Czech author Pavel Kohout who defined a "free citizen" as a "Citizen-Co-ruler." See Hannah Arendt, (1972): Crises of the Republic, Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt p. 180.