“The making of lives that we feel are worth living”

bell hooks the Black feminist scholar has died. I’ve not read her directly, only through others, but I know her work is very important and has shaped the thinking of thinkers I admire. Someone on twitter noted that she also wrote radical, environmental works. One passage from the book Belonging certainly resonates with my study:

“Can we embrace an ethos of sustainability that is not solely about the appropriate care of the world’s resources, but is also about the creation of meaning — the making of lives that we feel are worth living” (hooks, 2019, p. 1).

This is why people need to be involved early in shaping the direction of transition, because they have an opportunity then, more than they ever will, to being a part of creating a life worth living.

Carol Pateman in 1973 said this about participation (edited for gender):

“The individual’s actual, as well as their sense of, freedom is increased through participation in decision making because it gives them a very real degree of control over the course of their life and the structure of their environment” (p. 26).

Relating this to expertise, Petts and Brooks (2006) have talked about how people “actively create forms of understanding and knowledge as they negotiate the conditions of everyday life,” recognising that things like pollution are socially embedded, and “not defined, described, and understood in a discrete way: rather, it is intermingled with, indeed often embedded within, other important social issues (housing quality, employment, health, family well-being, crime, etc)”. This, they note, is different to the practice of scientific experts who often separate knowledge from context. Petts and Brooks very much emphasise that the nature of local expertise is the embedding of the social into decisions that otherwise may ignore it.

Frank Fischer, too, reminds us that “policies are first and foremost social and political constructions. As a uniquely normative entity, a policy decision — like social decisions generally — is constructed around sets of normative understandings and the ways of life of which they are part. Although policies are rules introduced to alter, fix, or guide social and political problems, these problems arise in the course of our continual struggle to live together harmoniously” (2000, p. 43). Policy decisions should not be left entirely to the technical experts because these decisions are about how we want to live.

Daniel Fiorino’s (1997, p. 207) thinking here is also apt: in that he says that it is in agenda setting where the public can have the most impact. Yet, because there are fewer tangible or concrete issues on the table so early on, this phase may be the least satisfying and therefore hardest to get people enthused about taking part in.

The idea of ‘problem posing’ that comes from Paolo Freire (1972) has been established by Fischer (2003) as the antithesis of technocratic problem solving because it can “help people codify into symbols an integrated picture or story of reality that, in the course of its development, can generate a critical consciousness capable of empowering them to alter their relations to both the physical and social worlds”. Technocratic problem solving, on the other hand, is when “the expert establishes some distance from reality, analyses it into component parts, devises means for resolving difficulties in the most efficient way, and then dictates the strategy or policy. Such problem-solving distorts the totality of human experience by reducing it to those dimensions that are amenable to treatment as mere difficulties to be solved” (Fischer, 2003, p. 216).

I wonder if framing participation in transitions as “the making of lives we feel are worth living” would be something that might attract more of the public to take part? Would this gain more enthusiasm that setting the objectives from a technical or policy making aspect. Rather than asking the community to comment on the individual ideas, what if we ask them how they feel the transition initiatives will function when embedded in their lives? What will be the impact of any of the transition ideas on housing quality, employment, health, family well-being, crime, as Petts and Brooks question? These are the bigger, system-wide impacts of decisions that can’t be made in isolation.

REFERENCES

hooks, bell. (2009). Belonging. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203888018

Fiorino, D. J. (1997). Environmental Policy and the Participation Gap. In W. M. Lafferty & J. Meadowcroft (Eds.), Democracy and the Environment: Problems and Prospects (pp. 194–212). Edward Elgar.

Fischer, F. (2000). Citizens, Experts, and the Environment: The Politics of Local Knowledge. Duke University Press.

Fischer, F. (2003). Citizens and Experts: Democratizing Policy Deliberation. In Reframing Public Policy: Discursive Politics and Deliberative Practices (pp. 205–220).

Pateman, C. (1973). Participation and democratic theory (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Petts, J., & Brooks, C. (2006). Expert conceptualisations of the role of lay knowledge in environmental decision making: challenges for deliberative democracy. Environment and Planning, 38, 1045–1059.

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Kimberley Crofts

Strategic designer and researcher on a quest for sustainable futures through a PhD in participatory methods.