Ecological economics arose as a normative transdiscipline aiming to generate knowledge and tools to help transition the economy toward a scale which is sustainable within the bounds of the earth system. Yet it remains unclear in practice how to legitimize its explicitly normative agenda. One potential means for legitimation can be found in deliberative social and political theory. We review how deliberative theory has informed ecological economics, pointing to three uses: first, to support valuation of non-market goods and services; second, to inform environmental decision-making more broadly; third, to ground alternative theories of development and wellbeing. We argue that deliberation has been used as problem-solving theory, but that its more radical implications have rarely been embraced. Embracing a deliberative foundation for ecological economics raises questions about the compatibility of deeply democratic practice and the normative discourses arguing for a sustainability transition. We highlight three potential mechanisms by which deliberation may contribute to a sustainability transition: preference formation; normative evaluation; and legitimation. We explore each in turn, demonstrating the theoretical possibility that deliberation may be conducive in and of itself to a sustainability transition. We point to a series of challenges facing the “scaling up” of deliberative systems that demand further empirical and theoretical work. These challenges constitute a research agenda for a deeply democratic sustainability transition and can inform the future development of ecological economics and other normative, critical transdisciplines.

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Deliberative democracy; sustainability transitions; ecological economics; normative science; modernity; social-ecological transformations