The consequences of wanting more

In my first few years at university, I had the idea that the most fundamental elements of sustainability might have something to do with selective logging in the Amazon rain forest . . . or maybe it had something to do with a more efficient solar photo-voltaic cell.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” — Brundtland Commission Report (1987)

In my first few years at university, I had the idea that the most fundamental elements of sustainability might have something to do with selective logging in the Amazon rain forest . . . or maybe it had something to do with a more efficient solar photo-voltaic cell. After all, those are certainly valid pieces of the sustainability puzzle.

However, when I started a more in-depth study of the subject in grad school, I came to the conclusion that the ultimate cause of the degradation of our planet had more to do with social and political factors than with technological and ecological factors. And I’m still convinced that even if we had a magic bullet that gave us all the energy and infrastructure we wanted with no polluting side effects, we’d still find some way to foul up our nest or wage war on each other.

Part of the reason is that some part of the human psyche will always be convinced that true happiness comes from having more things, instead of having more significant family and community ties.

Another part of our malaise has to do with the way that we collectively make decisions that affect our lives. The process usually goes something like this: a pollster asks a lot of people a lot of questions about a fairly important subject. The subject might be nuclear power or grizzly bear habitat or just about any other topic you might name.

More often than not, we give what public opinion researcher Daniel Yankelovich calls “raw opinion.” We may not know much about the subject at hand, but we will still give an opinion. And then all the opinions are tallied up and given to the appropriate government minister so that he or she can formulate policy on the matter.

Make no mistake about it: our opinions are vitally important. The elites in our society do not have a monopoly on values. A bus driver’s thoughts on the trade-offs between the economy and the environment should have just as much validity as a cabinet minister’s.

However, there is a vast difference between raw opinion and what Yankelovich calls “public judgement.” Perhaps the best illustration is given by “deliberative polling.” In this exercise, a random sampling of people is polled normally (as described above), and the results are tabulated.

Then, the same group of people is assembled at a central location to discuss the same issue in depth for perhaps a week or more.

They have access to balanced briefing materials and are allowed to question competing experts. Then, another normal poll is taken. And (surprise, surprise) the results usually change significantly.

This is due not only to the fact that people are learning about the issue at hand (as opposed to solidifying some ideological fortress in their own mind); they are also talking about the issue in small groups with other people who have widely varying backgrounds.

There are numerous advantages to this system: more transparency, more legitimacy, and better final outcomes, since there are no lobbyists or party whips involved to distort the decision making process.

Deliberative polling has been around for many years now (a Google search will garner over 20,000 hits). Most recently, it has taken the form of randomly chosen “citizen assemblies” in B.C. and Ontario. This was when those provinces wanted to take a closer look at changing the first-past-the-post voting system.

I personally would welcome many more of these kinds of exercises.

As it is now, I place very little confidence in a government cabinet making decisions behind closed doors on our children’s and grandchildren’s behalf.

Perhaps it is time to place our trust in a random sampling of our fellow citizens. Perhaps it is time to take seriously what Aristotle noted more than 2,300 years ago:

“If liberty and equality are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.”

Evan Bedford is a local environmentalist. Direct comments, questions and suggestions to wyddfa23@telus.net. Visit the Energy and Ecology website at www.evanbedford.com