Community Responses to Environmental Issues

Meeting chaired by Geoffrey Catchpole

Dr Rosemary McKechnie

Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Bath Spa University College

16 May 2005.

Although the general public is now broadly aware of environmental degradation, there is doubt about their knowledge of science, its nature, strengths and weaknesses, which underlies environmental issues. Various authorities have commented on this and in 1985 a Royal Society report commented ‘Better overall understanding of science would, in our view, significantly improve the quality of public decision-making, not because the ‘right’ decisions would then be made, but because decisions made in the light of adequate understanding of the issues are likely to be better than decisions made in the absence of such understanding’. The speaker’s prime concern in this talk was to consider how ‘public decision-making’ might be affected by the presence or absence of local knowledge and experience.

She first examined evidence resulting from studies of a situation in Cumbria which arose after the Chernobyl disaster affected sheep-farming locally. Locals proved very suspicious of expert assurance that fallout of caesium would not affect flocks, partly because of earlier experiences resulting from Windscale fire problems and then because effects did occur as result of fallout. (Expert predictions were based on studies undertaken in Oxfordshire rather than in the different conditions of Cumbria.) Moreover, when the problems were conceded, compensation took much more time to obtain than locals thought desirable for their needs as farmers. Overall, they saw their needs and local expertise being ignored by authorities from elsewhere who had vested commercial and political interests, using scientists who remained uncommunicative with locals.

A second study in the same locality concerned people in the Isle of Man. They showed trust in local officials, but little in outsiders representing government, industrial or environmental interests. Local officials recognised their own inexpertise, but served as a trusted conduit to locals and developed an acceptable regulatory framework in discussion with local farmers, respecting their timetable of activities. As the speaker put it- ‘The political system was open to informal input-"grumbling" worked’. Referring then to the problem of managing depleted fish stocks in Canada she noted the difficulty of balancing a precautionary principle against one of social justice. ‘Where expertise is distrusted cooperation may be withheld- legitimacy is important’. Furthermore, ‘How representative public participation is will have an influence upon uptake’.

Turning to the global debate on GM foods, involving government requirements for public consultations, she analysed the differing positions taken by Monsanto who called for dialogue, but based that on their premise that everyone has to accept both pros and cons of GM technology, against the firm view of Greenpeace that the public rejected pro arguments because proclaimed ‘facts’ are disputable. Research shows that lay people often question the value of their participation in such discussions and dismiss them as exercises only in public relations. Arguably, experts should have a defining role and since localities differ, local views will often reflect conflicts of opinion. Global threats tend to promote two ‘arenas’- one reflecting international authorities- e.g. WTO, KYOTO, Rio, etc.- and one reflecting local activities- e.g. local regulations, consumer boycotts. Problems with local action include too narrow a focus on what requires global treatment, too little political power and external corporate ownership reflecting increasing market competition, etc. It is not clear what ‘global citizenship’ is or could be.

Nevertheless, the speaker believes that local level politics are useful, because they translate general issues into local practical consequences for people’s everyday lives. They provide a point for dissemination of scientific knowledge that can translate from abstract to popular and can establish where uncertainties lie. Resources can usefully be managed at intermediate rather than at national levels. They can clarify local lines of debate, balancing interests and values against costs, etc., albeit always imperfectly but helpfully ultimately. She concluded by stressing two points made by one commentator: since legislative need for simplicity often excludes complexity, complex and nuanced information can be ‘relatively well’ handled by local institutions; understanding of the social framework of environmental issues is as important as the science. ‘The politics of climate change are just as opaque as the science’ and it is important that people should be enabled to understand the political and commercial aspects of decision-making.

Speakers in the ensuing discussion showed some scepticism of the power of ‘local politics’ to effectively influence decision-making. One local parish councillor declared that ‘democracy is a sham’ and that his local authority worked only through formal channels, which ignored local views. Others argued that new public risks will prompt changes in practices. While air pollution, for example, will receive lip-service only through local government, eventually change will be forced upon it, since people seek personal security and politicians do fear the electorate. The speaker agreed and re-emphasised her view that if experts and locals had face-to-face discussions, each side would come to have an appreciation of the arguments involved. She declared that ‘science is not abstract’ and that scientists as well as locals have their views shaped by their particular social backgrounds. Knowledge bases vary and decision-making processes are not trusted, while political authorities find long-term considerations difficult to embrace. It was suggested that while election periods promote public interest in particular issues, there are lengthy periods between when interest is minimal. Moreover, it is possible that in democracies governments face too many inhibitions caused by structural checks and balances.

The effectiveness of ‘single-issue’ activities was discussed and Dr McKechnie observed that disaffected young people can undertake local and networked activities relating to a particular concern with some success, but while public response may be momentarily secured, there is concern that wider aspects and the framework for effective decision-making are not understood at local levels. She noted the spread of regional government in Europe and the degree of devolution now in Britain. One contributor to the discussion suggested that interest in and support for organic agriculture has developed, with government support and some enthusiasm in Europe, but the speaker commented that we cannot really know how effective a decision-making process is unless we understand its nature and structure, so that we can appreciate its strengths and weaknesses with respect to securing desirable outcomes.

Geoff Catchpol