Deliberation is the long and careful consideration of a subject. – In this house nothing is there by chance: it is always the result of great deliberation (Collins Dictionary).
Have you heard of the ‘deliberative wave‘ sweeping around the globe? This describes the increased interest and practice in forms of deliberative democracy to tackle politically difficult issues, such as abortion and the climate and ecological crisis.
Scotland’s Climate Citizen Assembly has just concluded and I’ve been observing the assembly sessions, where over a hundred members of the public have been meeting to hear evidence, deliberate, and make recommendations in response to the question of ‘how should Scotland change to tackle the climate emergency in an effective and fair way?’. This blog is about why I believe we need more deliberative forums at every level in society because the traditional ways of making decisions on a local, national or global scale are no longer fit for purpose.
“Today, we use about 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that”. Greta Thunberg.
The grave risks of burning fossil fuels and biodiversity collapse have been known about for generations, but emissions continue to rise, and forests and indigenous lands continue to be destroyed to largely feed a westernised consumption habit. ‘It’s the system!’, I hear people say. But how do we change the system? We could start by reflecting on the way political decisions are made that lead to the clearance of forests or support the continued exploration of fossil fuels, even though it’s clearly evident that any new fossil fuel resource cannot continue to be burnt if we are to have a habitable planet.
I believe group deliberation offers the basis for such a reflection and enables better decisions to be made throughout our society. My perspective partly comes from my experience of how I and many others have experienced deliberative spaces in autonomous social movements. But my interest in deliberation was sparked during a dark January night in 2015, by an unlikely encounter with a group of club anglers near Edinburgh.
Back then, I was studying for a master’s degree, looking at the ways in which people and society value nature. I was working with fellow students on a group assignment to choose a local ecosystem for a ’socio-ecological assessment’. The aim was to understand how and why members of a local angling club visit the River Almond which flows out into the Forth. It seems logical to assume that it’s all about catching fish. Interestingly, deliberation revealed a richer picture.
Six anglers attended our focus group one night in the club house. They were all white men, aged early 30’s to late 60’s, who regularly spent time along the river. We began with an individual exercise by inviting them to each choose their top 3 reasons why they value the river. Unsurprisingly, the most popular among the group was to catch fish, the next was for the nature and wildlife, and the 3rd most common reason was for the peace and quiet and the sense of escape this gave them from daily life. Following the meeting we carried out a survey among the wider membership and got similar results.
After the individual exercise, we asked them to deliberate through group discussion, and choose collectively the top 3 reasons why they value the river. This is when I first witnessed the potency of group deliberation, and how it (as Jasper Kenter, a guest lecturer in our MSc) writes, ‘enables a more sophisticated view of ecological-cultural linkages and greater recognition of deeper held values’. What followed was a rich and revelatory discussion on why they regularly go to the river Almond. Maybe it was the first time they were ever involved in a discussion of this kind. I don’t know that for sure, but what I witnessed was a group of men, who appeared to have had preconceived opinions of why they valued the river (and by extension nature), gain a richer insight and come to some other understanding about themselves and how they relate to the world.
Comments filled the clubhouse, “yeah you’re right, I’ve never really thought of it like that, but you’re right”, while laughing.
The deliberation ended and they had agreed a list of the top 3 reasons why they value the river. These were:
1. Peace and quiet and the sense of escape.
2. Wildlife and nature.
3. To catch fish.
This was summed up perfectly with one of them laughing – “Aye, if it was just all about catching fish, then I would just go angling in my bathtub”.
At the start of the meeting, I sensed the men were slightly suspicious of us and our questions, but by the end they were full of gratitude. One of them explained he had “never experienced anything like that before, and it felt good, really good”.
With the passage of time, I’ve come to appreciate a deeper lesson that I learned through this convivial experience amongst a group of fishermen. It highlights in a small but compelling way how deliberative processes can enable a deeper and relational understanding of one’s place in the world, a process which could lead to better decisions being made about the world people inhabit. This is not just an abstract notion; this has real world consequences. For example, at the time of the meeting, the anglers were concerned about plans for a new housing estate further upstream.
The actual details are a matter of public record, but to illustrate my point let’s assume the housing developer wanted to show the council they had consulted the local community and designed the development to allay local concerns, especially with those who visit and use the river. One of the most common (or default) forms of consultation is to carry out surveys/questionnaires with individual people. So, in this case, one of the most obvious questions to ask would be ‘why do you value the river?’.
Going by our responses of asking that question to individual anglers, the developer may have focused the design to not adversely affect the river’s fish population. If they were really conscientious, they may have offered to increase the fish population to compensate river users, instead of focusing their design to minimise disruption to the river’s aesthetics and acoustics. This is all hypothetical, but it does show that a developer, or indeed a planning committee with the best intentions, can be blinkered to the deeper and fundamental needs of people by the methods and processes that are used to consult and make decisions. Eliciting values at an individual level can still be useful, but I would argue values or decisions gained through group deliberation carry additional wisdom, especially for societal issues, such as how do we use land in response to the climate and ecological crisis.
I recently read a conversation between the philosopher Bruno Latour and the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, who both implied the preferencing of the ‘individual autonomous agent’ in society emerges out of our political, legal and economic institutions, that are orientated around enlightenment ideas, such as those of John Locke, which are at the heart of western philosophy. Following this reasoning I would argue humans are terrestrial beings, connected and existing in relation to other human and non-human beings as well as the ‘inanimate’. If this is the case, as branches of scholarly thought seem to suggest (see Relational or Actor Network Theory), then I struggle to reason how surveys and questionnaires aimed at individuals can bring this into consideration. I would argue surveys are limited in taking relations into account because they can abstract and separate out a participant’s discernment from this wider, messier reality.
Thus, deliberating with a group provides a means to recognise that who we are and how we value the world around us, is cultivated by our constantly shifting relation to other people and other things. So, it makes sense to include other people and other things in our own sense making.
We are not islands, or – if we are – we can be as connected by the water between us as we are separated by it, provided that we’re in a space that encourages us to pay attention.
I explore why we need more deliberative spaces in this podcast I produced for an organisation called Grassroots2Global. This is one of a growing number of international projects that is attempting to establish a network of deliberative spaces in the form of People and Citizen Assemblies, in an attempt reinvigorate democracy in Scotland and around the world.