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Participation, For And Against

Zaid Hassan at Worldchanging manages to sum up much of where I think environmentalism needs to go:

Those of us working for social change should have one key idea flash-burned into our consciousness. If the communities we wish to benefit have not participated or been involved in decision making processes then there will be a lack of ownership and the initiative will most likely fail (if not sooner then certainly later). This key idea is forgotten again and again and the results are sadly predictable. Dialogue is a key tool in ensuring that this particular trap is avoided. Given the frequency with which this particular trap appears on the landscape of social change and development projects, a map to the terrain is no bad thing to be carrying.

Click through to the comments for a strong opposing viewpoint from Lorenzo (as well as some interesting subsequent dialogue), who throws some cold water on the naive participationist viewpoint that people are eager to get involved if only the technocratic boot would be taken off their necks. (Both Lorenzo and his critics cite anthropological evidence -- which should come as no surprise to fans of Alan Fiske.) Indeed, the early results of my dissertation (which I'll link in a few days once I finish it) suggest a mild version of Lorenzo's point -- most of the views of people in both New Jersey and New South Wales were that fire safety is the job of the Forest Fire Service or Rural Fire Service, and ordinary residents' role is to support their work.

The way to steer between these two opposing tendencies is twofold, I think. On the one hand, participation must be made available -- we can neither foreclose opportunities on the assumption that everyone will follow a basically Authority Ranking model, nor demand participation in a way that disrespects people's choice to be Authority Ranked. Second, we need greater attention to which situations tend more toward one model than the other. In particular, I would say that greater focus on participation would be justified when 1) the issue is more controversial (e.g. siting a nuclear reactor, versus ordinary controlled burning), and 2) when the decision is a key juncture that will shape the basis and assumptions of further routine policy. Risk perception research, including Grid-Group Cultural Theory, can be useful in identifying cases of the first type, while theories like the Adaptive Cycle offer some promise in the second case.


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