Polarisation crudifies our democratic instincts. Citizens assemblies remind us what it feels like to be a "good citizen"

Amy Sherald’s A Single Man In Possession of a Good Fortune

Amy Sherald’s A Single Man In Possession of a Good Fortune

Delighted to receive note of this short essay from CUSP’s (the Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity’s) Lucy Stone. It’s on a subject we are fully alive to on A/UK - the dangers of polarisation (see our archive).

Lucy interestingly suggests that climate change is being dragged into polarisation by means of the “culture war” method - eg, this Fox News’ depiction of climate change “as a hoax perpetrated by the elites to take away pick-up trucks and burgers that define the culture of rural and small town America”.

Should climate campaigners then just pick up the same weapons, and enter the same battlefield - using derision, satire, taboo-busting, post-truth?

No, they shouldn’t, suggests Stone:

Rejecting the formulation of war is a more productive way forward than to hope that memes, opinion pieces, disinformation campaigns and rapid rebuttals will convince and rouse to action the masses we need to carry off the solutions for the environmental, social and political crises we all face.

The war mentality suits those who would divide us. War is a zero-sum game where one side wins and the other loses. We could try to win the culture war by positioning fossil fuel promoters as the elite rather than climate scientists and environmental campaigners. But who really wins if we’ve simply created more polarisation?

Another reason not to engage in the war is that climate already has cross-cultural support, with 85% of people expressing concern over the climate—the highest levels ever. The push to drag it into a battlefield in the culture war is an attempt to undo this, and if we suit up to do battle in this theatre, we risk splintering this point of commonality. This is what those that oppose climate action want.

Those who would turn climate change into a skirmish in the culture war are hoping that the tribal allegiances that manifest in other issues will fracture these high levels of alignment. In other cultural battlefields, the spoils have been new recruits. With 85% expressing concern, there is a large pool to capture.

There is much good campaigning advice here. Is it good to react in a purist way to humorous attacks from opponents? And does pointing out their hypocrisy, from that position of purity, really help you engage with your opponents’ supporters?

So what’s the best mode whereby you engage the public on climate change? Lucy’s suggestion that it should be more deliberative forms - like a citizens’ assembly - isn’t new. But what is new is her sensitivity to how the CA process creates characters that are much less likely to react to polarisation - what she calls the “good citizen”.

They “build on commonality” - that 85% - much in the same way as historians have realised that the WW1 “Christmas Truce” wasn’t a one-off event but a culture of mutual meetings, knowledge of which had to be suppressed. It seems that common ground is contagious, generative.

Citizens Assemblies can generate these conditions, according to Stone. For one thing, the atmosphere in them is perceive as non-threatening - and human beings just make better decisions in calmer, more convivial circumstances (something that we find confirmed in our collaboratories and friendlies.) Is this mood more productive than imagining we’re in a climate war, she suggests, which much environmental campaigning deploys as a metaphor?

She also cites research from Alex Evans’ Collective Psychology project, whose three transitions needed to improve our response to crisis - from fight or flight response to self-awareness, from powerlessness to agency - map over well to the processes of a Citizens’ Assembly:

‘Fight or flight’ response to self-awareness: “Faced with members of different communities with different views, participants in Citizens Assemblies are guided out of their entrenched positions and instead given an opportunity to reflect, assess and develop an awareness of their position in context

From powerlessness to agency: “By involving participants and the public in the conversation they stop being acted upon and become actors with agency in the policy—even when the outcome is not exactly as they would have hoped.”

From disconnection to belonging: “Being a part of the discussion creates a belonging as fellow citizens”.

We very much recommend that you read the full article, but we did enjoy in particular her closing paragraphs:

There is no quick fix for climate change. The parliamentary citizen assembly cannot remain a one-off niche parliamentary experiment behind closed doors.  A wide programme of engagement, and an assembly which stands for at least five years, the people’s house, would acknowledge the ongoing and evolving nature of meeting the challenge of climate change. 

The challenge is complicated, but ordinary people can be invited in and it will take time. The outcome is not inevitable, but adaptive. First, we need to start by opening up a national conversation on climate change from village halls to Westminster.

Perhaps this way climate change might even become the peace envoy that heals a divided Brexit Britain.

More here.