This paper investigates the discursive construction of the substantive purposes of environmental assessment (EA). It addresses these purposes by exploring the complex and often multifaceted linkages between political factors and plural views of democracy, public participation, and the role of science that are embedded in environmental and sustainability discourses. The interaction between policy-making and public actors leads to the formulation of divergent and potentially competing rationales for public participation, and for social appraisal more generally. Participatory approaches have also given impetus to the development of several interpretations on the role of science in assessment procedures. Science is important in mediating public participation and the two are therefore reciprocally linked. This leads to discourses that become manifest in the construction of substantive purposes. Discourse analysis in EA is a relevant method for examining trends and patterns in sustainable development. It is argued that public participation is an important, if not decisive, variable in the articulation and civil legitimacy of certain purposes. A general proposition that results from this paper is that EA, although typically presented as an objective scientific tool, is an intrinsically normative process. Enhanced knowledge on the construction, and reconstruction over time, of substantive purposes is required if environmental and sustainability discourses are to be used and understood as meaningful analytical instruments to assess the socio-political implications of EA.