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Community engagement for a sustainable Australia

The lack of progress on climate change is certainly not due to a lack of discussion or high-level policy making. But Chris Riedy says there needs to be more community engagement on the subject before there can be community acceptance.

Participants in a climate change workshop in North East Victoria

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.

This entry was posted in: Articles


I am an Associate Professor at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, where I work to create change towards sustainable futures. I live in Thirroul, Australia with my wife Danielle and kids Euan and Nina.


  1. Strong parallels exist between the carbon price engagement and the Murray Darling approach – participatory processes would have enabled sustainable community driven change- instead we’ve huge division.


    • Yes, I completely agree Gareth. There’s so many innovative ways of engaging the community available, where there is genuine listening and real influence over decisions, but most politicians seem too afraid to use them.


  2. Gerard Dean says

    Dear Professor,

    Just thought I would bring you up to speed with Dean’s Law. I explained in the comments at the end of your article on The Conversation. You are welcome to quote Dean’s Law, naturally attributing it to the creator, me.

    Read on:

    I am afraid that we will not embrace sustainable living. Firstly, because it is hard, and secondly because it breaks Dean’s Law.

    I lived sustainably when growing up on a farm in the Wimmera. I started work at 4 years old getting the wood and progressed from there. Milking cows, cutting and stacking hay, cutting and splitting wood, dragging hay and feed around the farm on a tractor, turning the milk separator to get cream, then watching Mum take hours to make a pound of butter, killing sheep and burying their guts in the back paddock. Then I turned 10 years old and the real work began. Wimmera farm boys knew that when the school bus slammed shut behind them, their second shift began.

    A common misconception is that if we embrace fuel efficient cars and homes, we are on our way toward sustainability. This won’t happen because we all love our fully heated homes with 50″ TV’s, Turbo Diesel 4WD’s in the garage and annual holidays in Italy. Another reason it won’t happen is that it will break Deans Law which states:

    “The more efficient a device is made, the more devices will be made and used resulting in a greater use of the resources to make and use the device than if it had remained inefficient in the first place.”

    Example: In 1960 the Boeing 707 introduced modern jet travel. The 707 used about 3 times the fuel to fly a passenger across the Atlantic than a modern, fuel efficient Boeing. That’s good except for one small detail. The amount of jet fuel used in 2010 is approximately 100 times the amount used in 1960. (The law applies to virtually every product; plastic, car components, electricity etc)

    Deans Second Law says: “We will go sustainable when we have sucked every last hydro carbon out of old mother earth”

    Gerard Dean
    Glen Iris


    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Gerard.

      Dean’s Law sounds remarkably like Jevon’s Paradox – the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.

      To be clear, I don’t think efficiency is the answer. As I try to make clear in the article on The Conversation, efficiency will get us nowhere in the long run if we don’t stop growth. And that means finding other ways to feel happy and prosperous besides buying more and more stuff.

      Like you, I am afraid that we will not embrace sustainable living, but I remain optimistic enough about human potential to keep trying.


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