The Dream of the “Good Life”

Image: Inga Seliverstova


The ecological transition needs new social subjects and more democratic imagination

The city as a promise of the good life

The city is a promise of a better life. Men gather together to live in the city and remain there to “live the good life”, said Aristotle,[I] that understood the city as an association formed for good living.

In turn, Mumford states that the impact of the exercise of shared experiences that life in the cities provided, recomposed the village life of the peasants in a more complex and unstable pattern, which resulted from the contribution of the different types that came to live in the cities, such as the miner, woodcutter, fisherman, merchant, soldier, priest, engineer, etc. Each “carrying with him the tools, skills and habits of life formed under different circumstances”.[ii]

For him, it was this complexity that made possible an “enormous expansion of human capabilities in all directions” and mobilized human potential to the point of producing an “explosion of inventiveness”.

That is, more than any other factor, it is the unprecedented interaction between people with different life experiences, cultures, experiences and social classes that made the city a transformative novelty. A human experience so significant that it cannot be understood only in its economic and material dimension, as it produced unprecedented conditions for the “invention of rights and social innovations”[iii] that uplifted human desires and possibilities.

It is very important that we do not lose sight of these wonderful potentialities and achievements of life in cities so that we can face the immense current challenges, among which the growth of inequalities and global warming stand out. Both with regressive civilizing consequences already amply demonstrated.

These are situations so serious that they are distancing life in most cities from the dream of the “good life”, stimulating a feeling of impotence and fostering conformist social postures. An environment conducive to being captured by non-democratic and salvationist alternatives, which historically have never given good results.

This poses the challenge to the democratic and humanist field of finding ways to make the public space recover the creative vitality necessary to bring city life closer to the promise of a good life, which has always characterized it.

Among many things, this requires that the institutional structures of governments have a more permeable institutional configuration to receive the intelligence of citizens, incorporating them into the deliberation processes and giving greater political and social legitimacy to decisions.


A worrying mismatch

This permeability of government structures is necessary for us to be able to overcome the huge gap between the speed at which extreme weather events occur and the slow implementation of agreements made to mitigate the effects of global warming, as well as to face inequalities. Both global warming and the current obscene inequality were accelerated in this period of ultraliberalism and are challenges whose relevance transcends conjunctures and acquires a civilizational dimension. While there are many notable resistance initiatives under way, none have yet managed to reach the scale and pace needed to provide an effective counterpoint and prevent the predicted worst-case scenarios from happening.

International summit meetings, such as the United Nations Climate Conferences (COP) have been able to produce documents with excellent diagnoses, but the extraordinary difficulty in reaching agreements is only surpassed by the difficulty in complying with them. This generates growing distrust as to the effective commitment of governments to change the current course. This is because they do not lack legal instruments, nor knowledge about the causes of global warming and inequalities, nor social support for. All that is missing is political determination and commitment to change course.

The concern with the lack of action was expressed in the speech of the president of COP26, Alok Sharma, when he warned the authorities that, “not even during the pandemic did climate change take a vacation and all the lights on the climate panel are red”.


Cities are part of the problem and part of its solution

Even though national governments are still the main protagonists in global agreements and play an essential role in achieving their goals, cities have a recognizably relevant role in the production of alternatives and it is in them that we can find the best initiatives, both in combating to global warming, and inequalities.

In addition to consuming about 70% of available resources and most of the energy generated, they emit a large part of the gases responsible for the greenhouse effect and are increasingly stratified by inequalities, something that the United Nations 2030 Agenda itself recognizes when stating that “sustainable urban development and management are crucial for the quality of life of our people” and by emphasizing that environmental sustainability and social inequality are facets of the same challenge.

Well then. This slowness in the implementation of actions provided for in international agreements raises a fundamental question: which actors need to increase their protagonism in the decision-making process so that we can accelerate the transformation of the objectives and targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into programs and public policies towards the ecological transition?

This response, to a large extent, is being built in thousands of participatory democracy practices taking place around the world, notably in Participatory Budgeting practices.

This is what the recent study carried out by the OIDP indicates,[iv] which, after analyzing 4400 projects funded by Participatory Budgeting in ten cities, in different contexts, identified more than 900 projects with an impact on mitigation and/or adaptation to climate change, showing that “citizen participation can and should be a transformative tool in the fight against climate change”.

Something very interesting, as the Participatory Budget was conceived precisely to be an alternative to the deficit of participation in traditional democratic arrangements. This ability to renew and expand to the most different places in the world and its effectiveness in producing effective alternatives to combat climate change, challenges the repeated claims about citizens' lack of interest in participating in public life.

So much so that the different ongoing Participatory Budgeting practices already involve millions of people on all continents and large sums of financial resources,[v] reaching cities the size of Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Bologna, New York, Seoul, Chengdu and many others.

Another novelty is the fact that the Participatory Budget has ceased to be an exclusive management practice in cities and has reached the national scope, as in Portugal and Mozambique, as well as the interesting experience that occurred in Peru, based on a national law.

Another novelty developed in recent years is the Participatory Budgeting practices aimed at women, young people, the elderly, the environment and teaching and health institutions, etc. This gave the Participatory Budget a dimension and scale impossible to imagine when it first appeared and confirms its versatility and ability to adapt to different realities.

This interest in citizen participation, notably in relation to environmental issues, inequality and tackling the climate crisis is identified in all research on the subject.

For example, a survey commissioned by the Instituto de Tecnologia e Sociedade do Brasil, in partnership with the Climate Change Communication program at Yale University, carried out in 2021,[vi] pointed out that 77% of Brazilians think it is important to protect the environment, even if it means less economic growth; moreover, 92% think that global warming is happening and 72% believe that it can harm – and a lot – the current generation.

Another example is the research carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) at the request of WWF, which measured digital activism on environmental issues over four years (2016-2020) in 54 countries (80% of the world's population). In this period, there was a continuous growth in searches on the internet for sustainable products (71%), an increase in tweets related to the cause (82%) and the volume of news that address the theme and protests against the destruction of nature, grew ( 60%). This study calls attention to the growth registered in Asia, mainly in India (190%), Pakistan (88%) and Indonesia (53%).[vii].


The social pedagogy of Participatory budgeting

One aspect that cannot be neglected is the pedagogical character of the Participatory Budget. Learning to gather, discuss and organize an order of common priorities, due to insufficient resources to meet all demands at the same time, is an effective process of social and political pedagogy. When participating in these experiences, people need to carry out a sophisticated process of agreements, know how to establish criteria to rank priorities and project the sequence of investments over the next few years.

This learning is one of the greatest strengths of Participatory Budgeting, as all social sectors involved in the discussion and deliberation processes bring with them their accumulated knowledge and, above all, access the power to influence the application of the portion of resources put under discussion, something that is systematically denied them and feeds the conservative idea that there are issues that are too complex to be the object of deliberation by all. This is one of the pillars that support the ideology of social, cultural and economic segregation that produces and reproduces inequalities.

The acknowledgment of communities active in Participatory Budgeting as holders of valuable knowledge, which already existed, but was not recognized, makes the public space more reliable and attractive to participation and closer to people's concrete lives, showing the importance of the notion of ecology of knowledge,[viii] developed by Boaventura de Sousa Santos.


Participation needs more permeable institutions

The 17 Millennium Development Goals (SDGs) and their 169 goals – of which more than half are related to urban policies, serve as a true guide for our reflection and action. These objectives and goals lead us to a city model that reduces social, regional and economic inequalities, that values ​​our cultural diversity, incorporates citizens in decision-making processes and makes cities places to promote quality of life for all.

There are some criteria that experience has shown to be decisive in gaining people's trust in these processes: the existence of clear rules, previously defined resources, space for discussion and reception for different opinions, execution of the agreements reached and the governments' commitment to respect the decisions.

Another important indicator is the permeability of institutional structures to the participation of the population, as, to a large extent, this helps to define the rules that will influence the “configuration of participatory processes. Questions such as: (a) who participates (inclusivity), (b) under what conditions (equality), (c) what is the real power (effectiveness), (d) what topics are discussed (distributivism), (e) what level of of process control (accountability), are analyzed elements”.[ix]

Even if participatory budgets do not exhaust the concept of participatory democracy, there is a virtuous interaction between both. It is in the democratization of decision-making power over resources that participatory democracy innovates and gains the necessary conditions to change the concentration of income and power increasingly subtracted from the majorities.


Participatory budgeting and the socio-environmental transition

The institutional design alone, however, is not capable of putting us on the path of ecological transition, as this advance requires us to understand the city as a social, political, cultural and environmental composite, which means to say that urban management is a a social and environmental challenge at the same time, a socio-environmental challenge.

This requires the integration of public policies and knowledge of the natural and built flows that configure the city's territory and ensure the supply of essential goods for life, such as water, food, energy, air quality, as well as employment, health, education, housing, culture, mobility, etc.

In the reality of cities, natural and built assets intertwine in such a way that, even methodologically, it is difficult to distinguish them. This set of engineering systems that man superimposes on nature is what gives cities their territorial configuration, according to Milton Santos.[X]

These built networks become as basic to the urban citizen as the other “natural” elements, constituting a reality that links society and nature in an inseparable way. I believe that this understanding is the starting point for thinking about policies and actions committed to an ecological transition.

It is clear that Participatory Budgets are not a panacea. But the invaluable and already very robust work of collaboration, studies, incentives and financing of Participatory Budgeting practices that are being carried out by governments committed to the processes of democratization of decisions. The work of networks such as the International Observatory for Participatory Democracy (OIDP), United Cities and Local Governments (UCGL), the Forum of Local Authorities for Social Inclusion and Participatory Democracy (FAL), and the Mercocidades Network, show that the socio-environmental transition is taking concrete steps in each of these thousands of experiences.


There is no environmental diversity without social diversity

There are so many examples of good practices and effective responses produced from the democratic processes that incorporate new subjects in the discussion and deliberation processes, that we can say without fear that the alternatives for changing course are already underway.

The effort to increase integration and collaboration between these experiences is essential for democratic processes to gain the narrative scale of an effective alternative to overcome the gap in compliance with international agreements and their goals. The results of participatory democracy practices are very relevant, but have not yet gained the space they deserve in discussions that seek to affirm alternatives.

Diversity, both environmental and social, must be understood as organic to each other. Thus, we will be able to take to the letter the directive of the United Nations, of “leaving no one behind”. This must be our main guide in this journey towards the ecological transition, whenever we have doubts about which decision to take, as only that “set of practices, bearers of sustainability in the future”, can be considered sustainable.[xi] which reaffirms the inextricable relationship between the actions carried out in the present and the construction of the desired world.

It is enough to observe the dystopian path to which the authoritarian degeneration of ultraliberalism is leading humanity to realize that the desired world can only be built if the control of income and power that inequality produces is broken. And this will only be possible with the radicalization of democratic processes so that from this dynamic emerges the creative force of transformation that, according to Paulo Freire, every human being is endowed with.

*Gerson Almeida, master in sociology from UFRGS, was secretary of the environment of Porto Alegre and National Secretary of Social Participation in Lula's government.


[I] Aristotle. Politics. São Paulo, SP: Martin Claret, 2007.

[ii] Mumford, Lewis. The city in history: its origins, transformations and perspectives. SP: Martins Fontes, 1998.

[iii] Acselrad, Henry (org.). The duration of cities: sustainability and risk in urban policies. Rio de Janeiro: DP&A, 2001

[iv] Cabannes, Yves (org.), 2020: Contributions of Participatory Budgeting to climate change adaptation and mitigation: Current local practices around the world & lessons from the field. Available in:

[v] Cabannes, Yves: Another city is possible with participatory budgeting / Yves Cabannes (ed); foreword, Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris

[vi] Available in :

[vii] “An Eco-Awakening: Measuring Global Awareness, Engagement, and Action for Nature“, Available at:

[viii] Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. The grammar of time: towards a new political culture. São Paulo: Cortez, 2008.

[ix] Fedozzi, Luciano, Ramos, Marilia Patta and Gonçalves, Fernando Gonçalves de. Participatory Budgets: explanatory variables and new scenarios that challenge their implementation. Available at: file:///C:/Users/Gerson/Downloads/78505-309789-1-PB.pdf

[X] Santos, Milton. Brazilian urbanization. São Paulo: EDUSP, 2005

[xi] Acselrad, Henry (org.). The duration of cities: sustainability and risk in urban policies. Rio de Janeiro: DP&A, 2001.

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