Opinion: Watercare is NZ’s largest supplier of clean water, reaching almost 2 million people in Auckland and Waikato.

With an eye to the longterm, it undertook an unusual approach to planning for the provision of fresh water in an uncertain future: it used a citizens’ assembly to confront the challenge.

After four weekends of deliberation, the assembly recommended direct recycled water as the next source of water for Auckland, recognising that engaging the Auckland public in education on the safety and quality of the water would be necessary to facilitate acceptance.

A democratic tool for the climate emergency
People have lost trust in their governments; governments now don’t trust the people
* Citizen assemblies offer hope for democracy and climate change challenges

In doing so they not only developed a workable plan for future water needs, but also provided an example of how ordinary people can constructively contribute to complex political challenges given the opportunity.

“The Watercare example is a proof of concept,” says Dr Tatjana Buklijas, from the University of Auckland. “It shows us that deliberative democracy does have potential to reinvigorate democracy in New Zealand.”

Dr Buklijas presented a paper on the project, at the New Zealand symposium of the International Association for Public Participation, last week.

One of the most difficult and complex challenges New Zealand and the world face at the moment is how to deal with the climate and ecological crises that are threatening our future. Politicians are reluctant to do what scientists indicate is necessary because it would disrupt the economy.

Perhaps citizens’ assemblies are a means of involving people in a novel and constructive way that could lead to effective action.

Common obstacles to effective action

Existential crises are not fun. The recent storms enhanced by climate change have made life miserable for thousands of New Zealanders. And there are thousands more New Zealanders whose lives aren’t much fun because of poverty, food insecurity and social alienation.

And the dramatic warnings from scientists and the UN about our climate future indicate considerably more disruption to lives not yet affected. We may not all be in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm, and it’s projected to get worse.

We know what will make a significant difference to weathering the storm: the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels (think rationing), along with a major reduction of the ruminant herd. These will both go a long way to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to a safe level. 

“It is also true that citizens could come up with completely unexpected recommendations — and these could be something that politicians do not like and did not expect.”
– Dr Tatjana Buklijas, University of Auckland

But doing what is needed to avoid climate disaster will be very disruptive to the economy.

Focusing on everyone’s basic needs in terms of ensuring adequate housing, local food security, health and education services, and meaningful participation in community decision making, would help to create the kind of resilience we are going to need as things get worse. But focusing on these needs involves accepting a vision of the future consistent with scientists’ warning.

Collectively, we seem to prefer the delusion that things will not get too bad for us in particular. If we have our health, a decent education and perhaps some savings, we feel secure and protected. We assume we can avoid the worst that is to come. So we ignore the multiple warning signs and carry on carrying on. Such delusions will result in the biggest shocks when the proverbial faecal matter hits the spinning device.

None of us is immune from the coming storm of ecological collapse, social disruption and climate chaos. Pretending it away is unworthy, and unhelpful.

We like easy answers to such threats, such as green growth. We like to believe we can ramp up increasingly cheaper “renewable energy” technologies to replace fossil fuels, and rely on other technical wonders to reduce emissions and lead to the eradication of poverty and unhappiness. 

The biggest mistake we can make is ignoring the threats or required responses because they are scary. We have been doing that for too long, and persisting longer will only make things worse.

Such reassurances can temporarily alleviate the underlying anxieties we feel about the increasingly uncertain future. Problem solved. Leave it to the politicians and entrepreneurs to make the world great again.

The evidence is overwhelming that these mental tricks we play with ourselves and each other are running out of runway. We can no longer rely on economic growth and technology to come to our rescue at the last minute. As many people hit by the recent storms came to painfully realise, we are going to be relying on our local communities more and more as government resources are outpaced by the scale and frequencies of anticipated disasters.

Indeed, the evidence is growing that the dominance of economic growth and technology is what has got us into this mess. Yet we persist. Habits are hard to break, especially when they are reinforced daily by the media, multiple public narratives and political parties of every stripe.

The biggest mistake we can make is ignoring the threats or required responses because they are scary. We have been doing that for too long, and persisting longer will only make things worse. Let’s not forget that fear evolved because it has adaptive value. A fear reaction tells us there is a threat we have to deal with. Isn’t it about time for us to collectively face the threats and deal with them?

There are no easy answers as to how to deal with the existential threats we face. Disruption is inevitable. But a good place to start is to face the facts as we know them, puzzle through the mess with each other, have the courage to change our views when new evidence presents itself, and make the best of a bad situation. 

One thing we know for sure is that special interests are not going to do anything but serve special interests. Isn’t it time we found a way to put special interests aside and seek the common good? The only genuine security we can ever have is common security. So let’s all work together to ensure those basic needs are met. 

Many citizens’ assemblies are what we need to come together as a community and as a nation to deal with unpleasant threats we can no longer ignore, and certainly cannot avoid

Whether this means green growth as many politicians and business leaders now advocate, or whether planned degrowth is the best way forward, as an increasing number of scholars advocate, is a matter for a much needed national dialogue.

But corporate board rooms, party caucuses, or Parliament are not the only places for these dialogues to take place. They must occur in the public domain. “We” need to be involved and decide our own collective fate.

A novel approach: involve the people who will be affected

A process from the deliberative democracy movement, citizens’ assemblies have many of the features that could make such a public dialogue useful.

A citizens’ assembly is a process that brings people together to work toward consensus on a complex and difficult problem. How our economy should be structured to avoid the growing existential threats we face is perhaps the most critical issue that could be addressed by such a process.

Here are the features that make a citizens’ assembly a promising process to address our situation. 

First of all, citizens are randomly selected to participate, generally about 100 individuals. The random selection is to accomplish several goals: to ensure a broad cross section of the community is involved; to ensure vested interests do not dominate; and to ensure the outcomes are likely to have broader public support.

The second key feature of a citizens’ assembly is that all participants receive the same information about the issue at hand. They are presented with reliable information from a full spectrum of sources. 

This is important to ensure that all participants have the same information. If people are randomly selected, many will likely not have a great deal of factual knowledge about the issue being discussed. Having the same information to work with minimises confirmation bias that we are all susceptible to. 

To ensure that critical information is not missing from what is presented to participants, individual participants can request information from any source they feel is relevant. Such procedures make it likely that all participants will at least be exposed to all the critical information that is available.

A third critical feature of a citizens’ assembly is that the large group is separated into smaller groups, each of which is led by a skilled facilitator. The role of the facilitator is to ensure all voices are heard, that no one dominates, that no rhetorical tricks are played, and that critical thinking is emphasised as participants puzzle through a difficult problem.

This process provides opportunities for participants to reflect on the evidence presented, the various perspectives they are exposed to, and clarify their own priorities. Meetings are generally held over multiple weekends spread over several months.

The final key feature of a citizens’ assembly is that the group is tasked with reaching consensus. It is not about one position “winning” a debate. It is about ensuring everyone understands the issues and the implications of various options, and working together for the common good. We forget that many societies successfully functioned this way before political parties and corporations became dominant in our economic decision making.

The fact that consensus is possible with citizens’ assemblies is now well established. They have been used in a number of countries, including the UK and France, for climate issues, and in Ireland for climate and other controversial issues such as abortion and dealing with drug abuse. High levels of consensus have been reached in all cases.

One may think politicians committed to democratic processes would welcome the wisdom generated by citizens’ assemblies, and feel relieved to know that supporting the arrived consensus would gain them votes. But many politicians seem to feel that Citizens’ Assemblies take away the authority the electorate gives to them.

They don’t seem to realise that citizens’ assemblies can provide useful and constructive inputs to the democratic process; inputs considerably more sophisticated beyond what voting or even a referendum or polling can provide.

It’s also useful to appreciate how hamstrung our politicians are, reliant as they are on their constituents. Because we as a public gravitate to our little tribes, be they political or whatever, we are divided and fail to provide the politicians with the clear direction they need to help us avoid serious catastrophes. This dynamic increases social division and perpetuates the endless posturing which delays effective action.

Dr Buklijas says recommending innovative ideas that could be a hard sell for the public demonstrates how citizens’ assemblies can advocate actions that politicians might shy away from.

“Deliberative democracy processes could help politicians in the sense of ‘sharing the load’ of responsibility for solutions that may seem radical,” she concludes.

“It is also true that citizens could come up with completely unexpected recommendations — and these could be something that politicians do not like and did not expect.”

The power of consensus provided by a citizens’ assembly could be an important step to remedying that situation. Indeed, many citizens’ assemblies are what we need to come together as a community and as a nation to deal with unpleasant threats we can no longer ignore, and certainly cannot avoid.

Divided we fall. United we stand. 

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