Sustainability is a slippery concept. As someone said to me yesterday, ‘if you ask a hundred people to define sustainability you’ll get a hundred different definitions’. For some people, this is cause for despair. They argue that the term has lost all meaning and should be abandoned.
I disagree. At heart, sustainability is a very simple concept. Human civilisation is sustainable if it can overcome threats from without and within to continue indefinitely into the future. The contestation comes about because we disagree on what human civilisation should look and feel like – what it is that should be sustained. Discussions about sustainability provide a space for us to debate the nature of human society and the good life. They are discussions about how we should live, now and in the future.
It is not the role of academics, politicians or bureaucrats to assume or guess what communities value. Instead, genuine community engagement, public participation and dialogue must be part of any transition towards a more sustainable society. From an ethical perspective, people should be involved in and have an opportunity to influence discussions that affect their future. From a practical perspective, a shift to more sustainable lifestyles is more likely if communities have ownership over the process of making that change. It is the collective behaviour of all of us, including our voting and purchasing practices, that determines the environmental impact of our civilisation.
I recently led a team from the Institute for Sustainable Futures that ran five community engagement workshops in North East Victoria on adapting to climate change. I approached the project with some trepidation. The public debate over whether climate change is happening, and how to respond, has become increasingly polarised. The Gillard Government’s carbon price has been a source of great community anger. Opinion polls indicate that what individuals believe about climate change is now more closely linked to who they intend to vote for than any consideration of what climate scientists have to say.
So, I fully expected to meet resistance in our workshops to the message that climate change is a real and present threat to Australian communities. I anticipated that it would be hard to motivate participants to take actions to adapt to climate change if they doubted its very existence.
What I found instead was community leaders that were very aware of the dangers posed by climate change and ready and willing to take action to respond. Many were already doing what they could to build the resilience of their communities to climate change. All participated in our discussions constructively and demonstrated great commitment to sustaining and improving their local communities.
Why was the experience in my conversations with these communities so different to what you might expect if you believe the opinion polls and the media debate? You could argue that our participants were not representative of the wider community and there is some merit in that argument. Our participants were community leaders who were voluntarily involved in local community groups. But many of these groups did not have a focus on sustainability or climate change. I think there is something more going on.
I’ve seen similar results in other community engagement initiatives. Back in 2009, I was involved in the World Wide Views on Global Warming project that brought ordinary citizens from 38 countries together to discuss what should be done internationally to respond to climate change. On that occasion too, after learning about climate change and deliberating with others, the participants called for far stronger action to respond to climate change than has so far been contemplated by any governments.
It seems to me that when we genuinely engage people about a sustainability issue and listen to their stories, they show an amazing capacity to grapple with complex issues and come up with responses that serve the public good. This is not what happens in opinion polling. With no time to consider, learn, or test their views in conversation with others, people’s responses reflect the polarised media debate, rather than a considered opinion.
Unfortunately, what the Gillard Government failed to do with its carbon price was to genuinely engage the community in the decision-making process. As a result, the community feels no ownership of the decision and it has become an imposition to be resisted. This is a huge lost opportunity because the threat posed by climate change, and the need for strong action, has not diminished in the slightest.
I hope that future governments will learn from the climate change policy disasters of recent years and rediscover the value of genuine community engagement. Perhaps then we will be able to move beyond partisan politics and unite behind a shared vision of a sustainable Australia.
This post originally appeared on Open Forum.