TALK | Deliberative change

Posted on 15/01/2012


In my work in community engagement and consultation, I am interested in the ways in which communities or groups can address and talk about climate change – or any kind of positive change. A thread in this project has been about conversation and negotiation. Not that I have done any substantive work in this area – not much beyond communicating the greenness of new developments and writing the odd article – but I’ve completed training and build on my communications experience (social marketing, learning circles etc). This year I am participating in a program about deliberation and decision making, processes that are essential to cultivating positive change.

In a recent article on the failures of climate change communication, Sunny Hundal offers the following advice – “focus on the economic case, drop the activist-speak, talk about solutions rather than doom – and don’t rely on politicians.” Poll indicates that attitudes to climate change have not just remained static but actually worsened. Public opinion is not evolving. In an annual survey, British Social Attitudes, public support for tackling climate change is dropping, especially if behaviour change costs money, time or effort. This hardening of attitudes is worrisome. As Hundal points out, “This failure to connect with the public is already having a dire effect on political will to deal with the problem.” It also highlights the problems of communication as it relies on rationalist and positivist approaches. Hundal points out that there is an issue of identification, a recoiling from crisis and doom, and a need to rethink strategy. There is a powerful agenda for change, but a dissipation of energies to address it.

Saskia Sassen examines how the ‘open city’ is under attack at the same time it is gaining acceptance. She says “both the urbanising of war and the direct threats to cities from climate change provide us with powerful agendas for change … Cities face challenges that are indeed larger than our differences. If we are going to act on these threats, we will have to work together, all of us. Could it be that here lies the basis for a new kind of open city, one not so much predicated on the civic as on a new shared urgency?” Urgency is different to panic and fear, though it can have that effect. Fear is crippling. Urgency is about need and timing, about the possibility of futuring, about a possible future. For Sassen these kinds of problems are larger than our differences.

Climate change and sustainability needs to be embedded in all our communications, in everything we design, in everything we built, in everything we do. Can we talk about place – at any scale – or planning without talking about climate change? I would think not, yet there are many who refuse to engage or adopt a sceptical outlook. As if scepticism or denial makes it go away. Yet these are the decisions made by our neighbours, our colleagues, our family members and our friends. Deliberation and decision making are hard work. So there are new languages and practices to develop in the face of this mounting disavowal, such as the Debunking Handbook. Conversations and campaigns are riddled with a kind of irrationality or cognitive bias, so communicative rationality or positivism is not necessarily the counter. Words like resilience and adaptation probably mean nothing to most people, but liveability and price do. Increasingly this discussion seems to run like Zeno’s Paradoxes. Changing minds, if that’s really the point, takes time and urgency is an idea which means time is running out.

A recent article in Public Agenda identified seven stages of public opinion, stressing that public opinion is not static and that our position on complex issues takes time to develop. A colleague notes the seeming impassability of stages 3 and 4 and the effort it takes to get beyond wishful thinking. Sassen argued for the collaborative and collective approach, and that could possibly support the formation of public opinion through governance and deliberative decision making. Stephen Healy argues that such deliberation might be better pitched at preferred ‘forms of life’ rather than ‘preferences’. Healy explains that “‘Forms of life’, a term borrowed by STS scholars from Wittgenstein, correspond to the complex interdependencies between culture, the specificities of everyday life, and the technoscientific achievements and factual claims constituting these things.” In recognising the way citizens act, he cites the example of the Transition Town movement, where ‘forms of life’ are evaluated and where citizens can get to the heart of matters.

Given this, there is potential to develop the kind of deliberative design approaches that would might mean a more integrative approach to, say, my local area’s ‘streetscaping’. Or to planning more broadly. Or to the kinds of opposition that arises in suburban communities opposed to change. This can be a kind of changescaping. The idea of ‘forms of life’ is a resource for a whole of community approach (see also Janette Hartz-Karp) represents a shift from an entrenched notion of a way of life.