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The ecological movement and the regeneration of public spaces and democratic dialogue

September 26, 2012

Just enjoying Nick Stevenson’s discussion of citizenship as he applies it to ecological politics… (relevant in different ways to several texts, but perhaps worth keeping in mind when thinking about Des Hunt’s writing?):

Living in the contemporary world means learning to live with the possibility of large-scale hazards that throw into question attempts at bureaucratic normalization, the imperatives of the economic system and the assurances of scientific experts. Not only are we learning to live in a post-traditional society, we are constantly haunted by the possibility of large-scale hazards like Chernobyl. Despite the end of the Cold War we are currently living within the shadow of our own annihilation. No one really knows what the long-term consequences of ecological destruction will be or the level of risk that is environmentally sustainable. Politics and economics in such a society can no longer be conceptualized as a struggle over resources, and environmental degradation is not easily dismissed as a partial side-effect. The international production of harmful substances, the pollution of the seas and the dangers of nuclear power all call into question the mechanisms of national governance, and our relations of trust with society’s central institutions.” (p.79)

“Whereas struggles for citizenship have historically been organized in material settings like the workplace, sub-politics is much more likely to be symbolically shaped through the domains of consumption, television media and repoliticization of science. In this new political arena it is cultural symbols that determine who are the winners and losers in the world of risk politics. Beck argues that disputes over risk involve consumers in a form of direct political participation. As the public attend to daily reports about the risks and dangers of eating beef, using mobile phones or living near electric pylons, products are boycotted and positions quickly adopted and discarded in what Beck calls ‘the world fairground of symbolic politics’. In this, the ecological movement has sought to develop a ‘cultural Red Cross consciousness’. Organizations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have fostered a sense of public trust in their own declarations, taking a moral stance that is seemingly above the daily scraps of political parties. In this world of ‘judo politics’ yesterday’s winners soon become tomorrow’s losers as unpredictable spirals of information are circulated on a 24-hour basis. The speed at which different viewpoints and perspectives are literally turned over means that the cultural definition of risk plays a central part within these disputes.

If the ecological movement asks us to attend to the obligations we have to the Earth, it also raises the question of the regeneration of public spaces and democratic dialogue. This is particularly pressing given some of Beck’s remarks regarding the fast moving world of media definitions of risk. [Ulrich] Beck (1995) exhibits an awareness of these dimensions through a discussion of the possible emergence of an ‘authoritarian technocracy’. Here he argues that industrial society … responded to the problem of ecological risk through the formal development of certain laws, and belief in ‘cleaner’ technology and more informed experts. The deep uncertainty that is fostered by media spirals of information could mean that states seek to close down areas of debate and discussion, and give their citizens false feelings of certitude. That is, states may decide to protect the public from contestation and debate. For Beck what is required is a repoliticization of these domains. Citizenship – we should remember – is cancelled if politics is subservient to the market, becomes defined by the state or presents the world as a confrontation between fixed interests. In this view, citizenship becomes possible through the development of republican institutions and civic forms of engagement. Beck’s case is that democratic dialogue needs to introduce into its repertoire the principles of doubt and uncertainty.” (p.80)

Ref: Nick Stevenson (2003) Cultural Citizenship: Cosmopolitan Questions. Open University Press: Maidenhead

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