Nature matters: caring and accountability
Nature matters: caring and accountability

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2.3.1 Public participation and perspectives on sustainability

When it comes to issues around the environment, ‘experts’ – whether ecologists, economists or other types of social scientist – are clearly not infallible. Environmental crises have led to a questioning of traditional expert support as a guarantor of environmental planning. This has had two consequences. Firstly, there have been some interesting and useful explorations amongst environmentalists in seeking guarantors through the domain of spiritualism. In particular, traditional worldviews and Taoist and Buddhist teachings provide a source of wisdom and knowledge to inspire alternative, less anthropocentric approaches towards environmental planning. Secondly, and perhaps more pervasively, there has been an increasing shift towards seeking the involvement of wider sources of local ‘expertise’ in environmental planning, through public participation.

Activity 13 Accountability through citizen participation

Note down any examples you have come across where businesses or government agencies (local and national) have tried to improve public participation in their planning decisions. If you have time, use an online search engine to explore instances of ‘citizen juries’ near where you live or work.

Various forms of ‘deliberative planning’ techniques, such as citizen juries, consensus conferences, deliberative polls and focus groups, have become prominent in industrialised countries. The increasing use of ‘social auditing’ by corporate industries and local government agencies (in which they measure their impact or effects on society), as well as the introduction of concepts such as ‘social learning’ and ‘social capital’ in various business and government discourses (reports, speeches, etc.), implies a recognition of the need to regain the confidence of consumers and citizens.

In any society there is likely to be a whole range of different social perspectives on the environment. Table 3 provides a breakdown of different perspectives on sustainable development, ranging from very weak sustainability (an extreme technocentric and anthropocentric individualist utilitarianism) to very strong sustainability (an ecocentric preservationist perspective). The Gaia hypothesis referred to in the table is associated with the scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock (1979). It represents the idea of planet Earth as a living organism (strongly influenced by the first actual photos of the planet from space that arose from the Apollo space mission), and was given the name Gaia after the Greek supreme goddess of Earth.

Table 3 Perspectives on sustainable development: from weak to strong sustainability

Technocentric (overlapping categories)Ecocentric
‘Cornucopian’‘Accommodating’‘Communalist’‘Deep Ecology’
Resource exploitative, growth-orientated positionResource conservationist and ‘managerial’ positionResource preservation positionExtreme preservationist position
Anti-green economy, unfettered free marketsGreen economy, Green markets guided by economic incentive instruments (Els) (e.g. pollution charges, etc.)Deep green economy, steady-state economy regulated by macroenvironmental standards and supplemented by ElsVery deep green economy, heavily regulated to minimize ‘resource-take’
Primary economic policy objective, maximize economic growth (max Gross National Product [GNP])Modified economic growth (adjusted green accounting to measure GNP)Zero economic growth; zero population growthReduced scale of economy and population
Taken as axiomatic that unfettered free markets in conjunction with technical progress will ensure infinite substitution possibilities capable of mitigating all ‘scarcity/limits’ constraints (environmental sources and sinks)Decoupling important but infinite substitution rejected. Sustainability rules: constant capital rule. Therefore some scale changesDecoupling plus no increase in scale. ‘Systems’ perspective – ‘health’ of whole ecosystem very important; Gaia hypothesis and implicationsScale reduction imperative; at the extreme for some there is a literal interpretation of Gaia as a personalized agent to which moral obligations are owed
Support for traditional ethical reasoning: rights and interests of contemporary individual humans; instrumental value (i.e. of recognized value to humans) in natureExtension of ethical reasoning: ‘caring for others’ motive – intragenerational and intergenerational equity (i.e. contemporary poor and future people); instrumental value in natureFurther extension of ethical reasoning: interests of the collective take precedence over those of the individual; primary value of ecosystems and secondary value of component function and servicesAcceptance of bioethics (i.e. moral rights/interests conferred on all non-human species and even the abiotic parts of the environment); intrinsic value in nature (i.e. valuable in its own right regardless of human experience)
Source: Turner et al., 1994; based on Pearce, 1993.

Activity 14 Situating social perspectives

Using the classifications given in Table 3, where would you place Ulrich Beck, Clive Spash and David Pearce? Where would you place yourself?

As with any contrived classification system, it is difficult to precisely pigeonhole any one individual, as in reality someone may hold a variety of views belonging to different ‘types’ of viewpoint, depending on the situation. Nevertheless, the classification can be helpful in distinguishing different expressions of economic, social and ecological valuation. Whereas the views of many environmental economists might be described as belonging to weak sustainability, those of ecological economists – along with Beck and other sociologists in his tradition – are likely to belong more to the strong sustainability dimension, although they are unlikely to occupy what’s referred to as the very strong sustainability perspective.

The ‘strong’ perspective is shared by many social entrepreneurs and social innovators attempting to forge change in what is increasingly appreciated as an uncertain world. The title of one such publication in this tradition of social innovation, Getting to Maybe, illustrates the importance of living with uncertainty and the need to respect the dynamics of an interrelated world – one that is not far from the world of Gaia in which we are integral players. As the authors state in the foreword (Westley et al., 2006, pp. xiii– xiv):

Perhaps Getting to Maybe strikes you as an odd title for a book whose core message is a powerful statement of hope and profound possibility. Until you recognize that ‘maybe’ so accurately describes our fundamental relationship to the world. It is a relationship in which time is one of the critical dimensions – a relationship to what is ahead, a relationship that is constantly unfolding.

The world ahead is what calls to us, compels our judgments and commands our actions.

The world commands us. We do not command it. And yet – it yields. So ‘maybe’ becomes a potent word for the brave, the inventive, the adventurous. Maybe, just maybe, we can discover a way to save a species, prevent an epidemic of disease or violence, help to lift people out of poverty and indignity, break the grip of intolerance, lighten our footprint on the fragile earth.

‘Maybe’ is not a cautious word. It is a defiant claim of possibility in the face of a status quo we are unwilling to accept.

The ideas expressed in such publications about social innovation and social entrepreneurship arise from the recognised importance of climate change sciences during the late twentieth century. In line with Beck’s idea of a risk society, there is said to be a shift from industrial concern about making things to concern around social change. One of the key aspects of social innovation is the idea that values are in a constant state of flux and change. Early in the twenty-first century, the management of change has become a significant clarion call, as demonstrated for example by the language used during the US presidential elections in 2008. The shift from private and public choice models of policy intervention – based on preset entrenched values that shape the way decisions are made – towards public value models – in which citizens become part of a responsible community involved in actively developing values (see Bennington and Moore, 2008) – signals a similar trend. In a risk society, environmental responsibility requires guidance not only regarding what public values might be, but also on how values might be appropriately shaped to give respect for a changing Nature (including human and non-human nature).

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