Deliberating Intractability : Exploring Prospects of Deliberative Democracy in Intractable Natural Resource Management Conflicts

Abstract: The growing prevalence of intractable conflicts over natural resources, which challenge technocratic solutions, underscores an urgent need for states, resource managers, and practitioners to find democratic methods for managing them. In the debate over the optimal normative approach to address these conflicts, deliberative democracy has emerged as a leading theoretical framework, spurring a "deliberative turn" in both political theory and natural resource governance. While the normative value of deliberative democracy—where the public collaborates to shape collective decisions through reasoned discourse under conditions of equality and fairness—is widely acknowledged and embraced, its practical viability in effectively addressing intractable natural resource conflicts, particularly its capacity to productively transform actors’ perspectives, remains elusive. Utilizing Swedish mining governance and its associated intractable conflicts as an empirical case, this thesis explores prospects of deliberative democracy in intractable natural resource conflicts. Specifically, it explores the possibility of realizing deliberation and its associated transformative outcomes among disputing actors, examines the extent to which and how the ideal of deliberative democracy has materialized within the governance system that embeds the conflicts, and investigates the interplay between contextual factors, deliberation, and its transformative outcomes.The thesis concludes that attempts to deliberate intractable conflicts for the purpose of reaching mutual agreements or consensus will likely not yield fruitful results due to actors’ tendency to stand firm in their positions or polarize over time in spite of participating in ideal deliberation. Nevertheless, the thesis indicates that processes adhering strongly to the deliberative ideal, which cannot come without significant efforts and costs, can enable meta-consensus among disputing actors. Meta-consensus encompasses a structured, respectful form of disagreement, which facilitates efforts to reach compromises when feasible and more legitimate decisions when they are not. Moreover, meta-consensus not only maintained its stability but also developed even in the face of escalating polarization. However, the thesis highlights the importance of understanding deliberation and its outcomes as embedded and significantly influenced by institutional and other contextual factors. The quality of pre-conflict community relations was a crucial determinant for both ideal deliberation and meta-consensus. Moreover, actors' intra-group relationships were significant, influencing the alignment of perspectives within these groups. As actors became more deeply anchored within these relationships, they became more resistant to change. Additionally, despite the significant expansion of deliberative elements in the governance system, obstacles in its institutional design hindered ideal deliberation and meta-consensus from being realized, raising questions about the genuine entrenchment of deliberative democracy at the system level. In light of these findings, the thesis argues for the importance of sustained exploration of the interplay between governance systems, their institutional designs, and the deliberative qualities they encompass. By undertaking such efforts, systems can be more effectively tailored to align with deliberative norms, thereby encapsulating their normative value and bolstering the potential of realizing the instrumental benefits of deliberative democracy. Without these concerted efforts, deliberation in formal governance systems risks merely perpetuating the status quo, serving entrenched agendas, and failing to address the escalating intractable challenges society faces.

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