Can Northern Ireland’s citizens’ assembly instigate change in how we value the environment?

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‘Man and nature — Can a citizens’ assembly play a part in realigning this relationship?’ (Lu, 2018)

After much anticipation, Northern Ireland introduced its first citizens’ assembly this Autumn. While much has been said regarding its ability to instigate genuine change to legislative processes, it has been promoted as a progressive means of giving members of the public the platform to voice their opinion on issues which have fallen on deaf ears at the executive level. Beginning with the topic of social care for the elderly, 77 citizens, over the course of two weekends, debated the role which the health service, communities and individuals need to play to improve current conditions. Philosophically underpinned by the concept of deliberative democracy, the carefully constructed model of the citizens’ assembly has picked up considerable attention in recent months.

One aspect of the movement which has received less acknowledgement, however, regards its propensity to educate and raise awareness amongst participants. As will be discussed, such behavioural transformation can prove to be just as practically impactful as policy change, depending on the context and discipline in question. Working on the premise that the citizens’ assembly could debate the topic of environmental conservation, this piece suggests that Northern Ireland’s new approach to citizen involvement carries the interesting potential of instigating a genuine change in how we value and manage our natural surroundings.

While the health of democracy in Northern Ireland appears to have been diminishing in recent years, hence the introduction of the citizens’ assembly, the condition of our environment can’t be said to be much better. As well as a lack of political interest or drive, a huge reason for this links to a disintegrating connection between nature and members of the public. This appears as something, should it be selected as a topic of debate, which the citizens’ assembly can play a part in reconfiguring.

A key aspect of the citizens’ assembly is that participants don’t simply consume ideas, but produce them. There is, therefore, a development of consciousness amongst participants, as they begin to question themselves and consider what change could look like. As well as hearing expert opinion, participants pull upon personal interpretations to help shape understandings of why change is necessary in the first place. The ultimate goal in this perspective is not only to communicate new voices or categories, but to practically outline measures which attempt to transform social reality and improve the lives of individuals. In regards to the citizens’ discussion of social care, recommendations centred around the implementation of a “comprehensive programme with public and user engagement at its heart, so as to design a system fit for purpose.”

However, it is not only the presentation of recommendations which is important, but the process of deliberation itself. Due to the nature of the citizens’ assembly, participants are invited to take critical approaches in their deliberation. If carefully constructed, the citizens’ assembly invites participants to critically self-investigate their conscience regarding the topic of debate, without imposing views upon them. The development of a critical conscience, as Paolo Freire discusses, involves the process of learning to understand how the seemingly natural restrictions of society are constructed by wider processes. Freire asserts how a critically conscious individual moves from being active in the sense of paying taxes and voting for representatives, to becoming a critical political agent. Relating to the citizens’ assembly, participants are provided with an ideal platform to realise this. From here, they may then decide to carry on the baton of the relevant discussion, as well expanding their general understanding of why it is necessary to do so.

“Generally, a critical mindset leads citizens to question their political surroundings and realise how they must personally intervene with reality in order to transform it” — Freire, 1974

In his 2007 book Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken described a growing movement to create a healthy, humane world — work that is happening not under the initiative of states or governments, but by millions of unaffiliated individuals and groups around the world. His work is now over a decade old and, since its publication, the social change arena has continued to grow rapidly. In particular, there has been a large increase in the desire to create ‘movements’, as opposed to ‘organisations’, in the fight against climate change. Generally, movements seek to realise wide-ranging and self-sustaining change, not simply settling for narrow, objective-led success, which organisations often follow. Linking to the critical thinking capacity of the citizens’ assembly, there are countless examples of how the transformation of consciousness has contributed to social mobilization — be they in the civil rights, women’s, sexual rights or other social liberation movements. All are strong illustrations of how awareness building can be used as the basis for empowerment and legitimate social change.

While a discussion of environmental management at the citizens’ assembly may centre on practically outlining measures on how to tackle environmental issues, its remit would go well beyond nature and resource concerns. As well as incorporating species protection or agricultural measures, the topic of environmental management also addresses the non-ecological dimensions of sustainability — inequality, injustice and lack of democratic accountability. As these issues affect all corners of society, it appears appropriate for the environment to be considered as a topic for future meetings of the citizens’ assembly. It is useful to mention, however, that any debate regarding environmental sustainability must consider it as a topic which deals with issues as diverse as securing human rights, lowering socio-economic disparities and, more generally, ensuring the demands of the human economy do not outstrip the regenerative capacities of the eco-systems upon which they depend.

Skepticism towards a citizens’ assembly in Northern Ireland is, in some regards, understandable. Chiefly, due to the polarising nature of our politics. Added to this, of course, where would Northern Ireland be without cynicism? It’s something we tend to excel in. We have a tendency to lambaste things before they even have a chance to get off the ground. In the case of the citizens’ assembly, this is overtly frustrating to see, as it is a genuine attempt to get members of the public more involved with the process of shaping their own society. Particularly in the midst of the political crisis which we are in, surely any attempt to get the public to reengage with politics should be welcomed.

As discussed, it is not only the output of the citizens’ assembly which is of significance, but the deliberative process it constitutes. Questioning the consciousness of participants while debating alternative approaches is sure to have a practical or behavioural impact upon those involved. As evidenced, personal action towards conserving our environment, in the face of limited governmental action, can make a significant change to its sustainability. Whether citizens take part in litter picks, switch to public transport, join activist campaigns, question their local representatives about climate measures or simply discuss the politics of environmental matters more regularly with their friends, we are sure to see a change in how our society values the environment. The general public should always be at the heart of the democratic decision-making and this is no more evident than when debating the management of our natural environment, upon which our prosperity relies.

Written by

Research assistant at Queen's University Belfast

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