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Habermas in Environmental Thought

Anthropocentric Kantian or Forefather of Ecological Democracy?


  • Ryan Gunderson

    Corresponding author
    1. Michigan State University
    • Please direct correspondence to Ryan Gunderson, Department of Sociology, Michigan State University, 316 Berkey Hall, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA; e-mail:

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  • I thank Profs. Thomas Dietz, Linda Kalof, Diana Stuart, and Kyle Whyte as well as the two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and criticisms and Profs. Aaron McCright and Ortwin Renn for permission to review a draft of their book, The Risk Society Revisited: Social Theory and Governance.


A number of environmental scholars have argued Jürgen Habermas' communicative theories contain important insights for developing discourse-based models for making decisions about environmental risks and problems. Others have criticized Habermas for his anthropocentrism and split with the first-generation Frankfurt School's social ecology. By repositioning these assessments into Habermas' theories and their development, I argue the dissimilar interpretations and applications of Habermasian theory in the environmental social sciences and humanities can be explained by the theme of Habermas' work highlighted by both groups. Environmental critics of Habermas tend to emphasize his substantive claims about human-nature relations, whereas his environmental supporters tend to emphasize how his procedural theories of fair and inclusive discourse provide democratic alternatives to technocratic environmental decision-making. Environmental scholars and sociologists can continue this fruitful “greening” of Habermasian theory by (1) merging the social ecology of the first-generation Frankfurt School with Habermas' communicative theories and (2) continuing the development of discourse-based environmental decision-making models while attending to the concerns raised by Habermas' environmental critics.