Transcript: Creating Deliberative Democracies
Interview with Susan Clark & Tom Prugh, available to everyone
Transcripts were previously only available to paid subscribers. To keep this feature free please upgrade to support Planet: Critical
Transcript of episode with Susan Clark & Tom Prugh.
[00:03:15] Rachel Donald: Thank you both for making the time and for joining me on planet critical. if you could both introduce yourselves to the audience. So we have a little bit about your background individually. Tom, would you like to begin.
[00:03:28] Tom Prugh: Uh, sure. Um, I'm retired. I used to work at Worldwatch Institute, which was an environmental think tank uh, that ran from 1974 to 2017. And I wasn't there that long, but, uh, during my work there, about 15 years of my work there, among the things I was interested in was governance, and like a lot of people, uh, I was inspired by a famous book by Benjamin Barber called strong democracy.
And I started reading up on that. And at various times in my work at Worldwatch, I was able to work in some of that content and themes into the things I was doing. And then when I retired, I started working on a book about it, and in reading background material, I came across a book called slow democracy by Susan Clark. And I reached out to Susan because I realized that pretty much everything I thought I was going to say she and Woden had already said. Um, and I, I asked her if she was interested in doing an update or a different version of it, and eventually we sort of decided, maybe I did, I don't remember, Susan, I'm not going to implicate you in this. I thought a series of blog posts might reach a different audience. Uh, one that I had in mind in particular at resilience.org. Um, I don't know if Rachel you're familiar with that website.
[00:05:01] Rachel Donald: The the majority my guests write for that website.
[00:05:04] Tom Prugh: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I, well then, you know the story there, it's Post Carbon Institute and it's, uh, a lot of people interested in, who believe that there's a great deal of probably social and political and ecological turmoil coming up in the next 10 to 20 to 30 years, uh, and are interested in trying to reduce the harm done by that or cope with it or mitigate it or adapt to it.
And I started thinking that maybe since I believe that deliberative democracy is a system of governance that is well suited to the likely turmoil ahead then we ought to do a series of blog posts on that. So I'm curating the series. Susan has contributed, uh, three key posts to that series and I'm going to hit her up for one or two more, in the next several months I hope. And so that's where it sits right now.
[00:06:02] Rachel Donald: Right. Okay, excellent. Before we jump into define what a deliberate democracy is then Susan, could you also give, uh, your background.
[00:06:09] Susan Clark: Sure. Yeah, Susan Clark, I live in Vermont and the Northeastern U.S. Um, and I'm a facilitator, um, and an educator and a writer. As Tom mentioned, I, um, wrote a book called slow democracy, um, which is, um, you know, about that idea of, of, uh, it kind of takes inspiration from the slow food movement, which I'm sure you're a lot of your listeners are familiar with the idea of, uh, you know, understanding where our food comes from and recognizing our connection to agriculture creates, uh, a better, uh, system.
And, you know, the idea of slow democracy is similarly, can we really understand where decisions come from? Can we have ownership of those and play a role in democracy? So, um, done, uh, an awful lot of facilitating, uh, and then gone ahead and done a bunch of research for the book that really convinced me that we need to reconnect with our, with our decision making and particularly with our, with our place, our doing geographic place. Um, and we will make better informed and more sustainable, uh decisions.
[00:07:15] Rachel Donald: Right. Okay. So would we then define the democratic systems that we currently exist in is as fast democracies, in comparison?
[00:07:23] Susan Clark: Yeah. Like fast food, right? I mean, it's, quick, you know, in and out, you know, and, uh, and what you wind up with is something that's not very nourishing, not very sustainable, um, and really not connected, uh, oftentimes to the, to the, to the meaning that, that, that should be, uh, you know, in in, uh, you know, in we, the people.
[00:07:45] Rachel Donald: Right. Okay. Uh, I find that a very interesting thing to a meaning in we, the people. This is, this is a question that's come up quite a bit on this podcast. One, of my favorite discussions was with David Orr on this, on like, what is citizenship?
[00:07:58] Susan Clark: Yeah, that was great one.
[00:08:00] Rachel Donald: Oh, did you listen to it?
[00:08:02] Tom Prugh: Yeah.
[00:08:03] Rachel Donald: Oh, fantastic. I loved it. I mean, how do we, how do we enable people to participate more actively in democracy? How do we redefine citizenship so that it becomes active? Um, so let's, let's talk about that. I mean, what are some of the, um, grounding principles of a deliberate democracy, uh, as opposed to a fast one.
[00:08:28] Susan Clark: Sure.
[00:08:29] Tom Prugh: I have an escalator speech about that.
[00:08:31] Rachel Donald: Excellent.
[00:08:32] Tom Prugh: It's a bit longer than an elevator speech. There's a stairwell speech too, that's even longer, but maybe that we'll get to that. Susan and I think we agree on this because we've, we hashed out what we mean by deliberative democracy in the course of, uh, some negotiations about one of the blog posts.
But what we mean is a vision of governance that, first, is mainly locally focused. I point out though that it can be, and is being, scaled to work at different levels of governance as well. Um, second it invites citizens into structured and moderated gatherings in person or online, and it supports ongoing, respectful, public dialogue exchange and mutual education. It engages ordinary people and strives to be broadly inclusive of all community members. It's based on balanced information and transparent processes. And it tries to address wicked issues. You know what we mean by wicked in this context, I guess.
[00:09:45] Rachel Donald: Can you explain it for the listeners?
[00:09:47] Tom Prugh: Well, wicked problems that, uh, there are a lot, they're complicated. There are lots of stakeholders, lots of points of view, people frame the issue differently and put the solutions depend on how you frame it. Uh, they have unforeseen consequences. They're not stable problems. Uh, they, they evolve over time. So they're really hard to get a grip on. Um, and the super wicked problem is one is like climate change when it's all those things, but time is running out and the proposed responses, uh, don't take much account of the future that's built into our economic system. So it's a real mess.
But this kind of governance, uh, which involves multiple stakeholders and allows people to confront, question and probe the trade-offs involved in any particular solution to a problem is really best suited to dealing with these kinds of problems.
[00:10:48] Rachel Donald: My first, um, I mean, I've a couple of questions on some of the specific things that you said there, but I mean, my first sort of gut reaction given, given the timeframe that we're on to confront the climate crisis is, I mean, how pragmatic is this? Like, sounds fantastic in theory, how do you actually start to implement this at scale or locally? Because I mean, the other problem is like, you know, we do- local governance is such a great idea and I do genuinely believe that it is sort of any necessary future of a stable planet. Yet, because we have until 2030 to kind of combat, you know, planetary boundaries and overshoot and all this sort of stuff we need international treaties.
So how do we balance that need for international consensus and then, um, localized governance in order to engage an apathetic population?
[00:11:38] Susan Clark: Absolutely. And I, and I would definitely go with both and Rachel, I wouldn't, I wouldn't say, oh, let's only focus on this, but at the same time, um, we are dealing with deeply flawed species: humans. Um, and, uh, and one of the things we know about them, is that one of the things we know about us, especially since brain scan imagery has taught us so much about how our brains work, is that we're when we're confronted with information that, um, uh, is in contrast with our existing worldview, um, our, our prefrontal cortexes is don't even fire.
It's a terrible fact that we've learned about humans, the more we learn about our brains. What happens is that in these, in these wicked problems, situations, we go straight to emotion. It's like a reptilian response. So what can we, what can we do to engage a, you were saying apathetic, but I feel like, um, there's some other word that has to do with pathos.
We're too emotionally invested and not able to engage with our, with our prefrontal cortex. And so what are some systems that we can use to, Um, depolarize some of these conversations. When we named her our books, low democracy, you know, my husband was like, oh, that's a great name. And maybe, you know, you can get the domain name and see if you can get painful dentistry at the same time, because it sounds so great, you know. But, but the reality is that it's um, uh, slow often faster, it's often faster because we skip the polarization. We skip the yadda yadda yadda, and, um, we, we create a setting where we can be our best selves, um, and, uh, we are going to, um, elect better leaders into those national and international, um, domains when we ourselves had experienced, um, that deliberative processing.
I've learned so much from the environmental education movement in SMU. David Sobel, the wonderful environmental educator professor, uh, told us, uh, years ago, you know it, and it's been quoted many times, I can't remember the exact wording, but it's basically, um, no, uh, tragedies before sixth grade, I think it is.
Basically humans need to love a thing before we want to save it. We have to engage. We have a lot of people who don't love democracy because they don't see it working. But when you can be involved in a local process and you can see that a democratic process really can work, you can sit down with the person you disagree with, and you can find a way forward, maybe not on everything, but will find some common places where you can move forward. Even when it, even if it's, I want the bike path because I believe that a bike path is going to create less, you know, it will have fewer fossil fuels, uh, and, you want the bike path because you think it'll be good for economic development in your downtown. We might have very different reasons for wanting that bike path, get the bike path. And that's where we can, we can move forward with people that we might fundamentally disagree with on, on other issues. That that's, what's exciting about a slow democracy process.
[00:15:14] Rachel Donald: If I, if I may jump in here though, this seems to be, um, a slight, uh, tension in, in what you're saying, because you're saying we can move past depolarization, yet you're also saying when people, um, are confronted with information that, um, fundamentally disagree with on a sort of ideological level then their prefrontal cortex, i.e. rational decision-making part of their brain, doesn't kick in. So I mean, how can those things then be true at the same time? How can we engage in slow democracies and move past polarization, if we do live in such a polarized world, that it does seem actually fundamentally and apparently neurologically impossible to sit people down across from one another at a table and engage with one another in order to achieve a consensus rather than to, I don't know, um, debate a matter just to fulfill their own world view? Because I think that's part of the problem with politics, is that people have such little of autonomy over the direction of their own lives, that their ideology is all they have left. And that's why they cling to it.
[00:16:15] Susan Clark: Yes. Yeah. And I'm not, I would not suggest the process where people let go of their identities. I think it's all about the framing, Rachel, it's all about, if you sit people down and say bike path or no bike paths! Then you've, you've set up a polarized situation. But if you invite people into a discussion where we say, how can we have a vibrant local economy and also support our natural resources? If you frame the question in a way that brings in both sides and, and facilitated in a way where we really are expressing that your, your idea that there should be a vibrant downtown isn't one that I necessarily agree with, it's not my top priority, but, but it's not hateful and likewise, um, you know, uh, most people on this earth agree that ecological balance is important.
So how can we take the best of both of those views and not put them in a debate in a debate? It's, it's inclusion, it's deliberation and it's, and it's empowerment in those decisions that will bring people together.
[00:17:16] Rachel Donald: Right. Understood. I do like that, um, framing of, of rather than doing either or you just make it 'and'. This and that as well. Um, and certainly it seems, I mean, again, in theory, but I mean, just looking at, you know, COP26 and the inability to a) confront the reality situation, and b) reach consensus on very, very basic things of which we have details, like we know there are certain things that we need to do. The pragmatist in me says, well, if those who are trained in like diplomacy, negotiation, can't do it, um, at a level of which we desperately need to in order to save our democracies as they currently stand, flawed as they are, we expect people on the ground who live very precariously- and I use the term apathy and perhaps that wasn't fair of me- but like precarity, people living precarious lives that maybe don't have the time to think about all this sort of thing.
How can we expect them to do what our leaders are incapable of?
[00:18:18] Tom Prugh: Well, I have something. It's not a silver bullet. Um, I don't think there are any silver bullets and it may be that climate change and the other threads of the converging poly crisis we're facing are just showing what the limits of homosapiens are as a, as a species on the planet, but I'd like to believe that one of the reasons that the COP26, the COP meetings have been, you know, underwhelming in terms of results is that there's a disconnect between the people, the earnest people who see the need for action and who attend those meetings and negotiate on behalf of their governments, governments, and the people who live in those countries.
There's just sort of a severance of political connection between those, those levels. Nations negotiating around, uh, at the COP meetings make pledges, but without necessarily having like a buy-in for those pledges back home. And one of the things that deliberative democratic culture would do, would be to enable and encourage and support ordinary people in, I hate to use the word interrogate, but because it sounds so, you know, 'where were you on the night of the 25th', but kind of like that. It says well, you climate change is not a big deal, but I think it is. I live in tornado alley and incidence tornadoes is going up every year and my town got wiped out last year. Yeah, I think it is a big deal.
You bring people together in certain settings that them to hear each other, deal, confront the facts as they can be known and the consequences and the trade-offs involved. And if they are able to reach some kind of consensus, then you create that political buy-in and you create the support for policy at the level at which maybe the COP meetings are being negotiated. And again, um, it's not fast, but it's faster than trying to get, trying to negotiate agreements without any political buy-in because people will just de-elect folks who support that kind thing as representatives.
[00:20:48] Susan Clark: Yeah, I agree with what Tom said and I would add, um, um, he uses the conditional, you know, w here's what a deliberative democracy process would do. And I use the present tense here is what deliberative democracy process does do because I've seen it happen again and again. It's super inspiring, Rachel, and just, just step away from stupid international conference that are dis-inspiring and take some time to look at, uh, just for your heart, for your soul, uh, I would, I would encourage all of our listeners to look at the successes that are happening, at the local level and at the regional level.
I actually think that, at those international and national levels, um, uh, they are working under the worst of circumstances, um, because you've got, um, what Amanda Ripley calls, 'conflict entrepreneurs', people who literally make it their work to polarize, and, uh, you know, to agitate the base, agitate the countries' priorities, um, in a way that is, it's about, uh, you know, trying to convince others or it's about winning rather than being about trying to create new solutions.
And when, but when you bring people together and say, we need a new solution, and, and there, isn't this sort of loaded conflict entrepreneurship on, on either side, you know, we see again and again, that, that humans can, can figure this out. But they, you know, they often aren't 100% perfect solutions, but they are, they, um, create, um, forward movement and they create, um, uh, commitment to the process so that we can continue to move forward.
[00:22:32] Rachel Donald: Th the thing that I really like about the image is the idea as well, that if people felt that they were more engaged, they would then also be far more likely to engage in calling out bad behavior. I think we've gotten to the stage now where people just expect politics and politicians to be so performative, so self-serving that like, certainly in the UK, I mean, you know, we're kind of going through party gate still. Um. You know, Bo-Jo, he just paid his fine, um, and it's like, it's, it's just mad that he's not resigned. 10 years ago, you would have had to resign and he's still not resigned. And people are just like, yeah, whatever, that, that's what we would expect from that guy.
Whereas I feel that if people felt that, um, they were more involved in their own democracies and that it would kind of turn on uh everybody's, and I think everybody has it, that kind of like journalism gene. I was like, well, no, you work for me actually. So I am going to call you out, because I do have a voice, power to effect change. And I think that's really is so exciting. Can you give some examples? You said, mentioned locally and regionally. Can you give some examples of deliberative democracies that are functioning around the world?
[00:23:42] Tom Prugh: There's one in Susan's town.
[00:23:45] Rachel Donald: Ooh. Tell us about that.
[00:23:47] Susan Clark: The new England town meeting, I think, is, is a great example that Tom mentions. Um, and that's a separate book that I wrote called All Those In Favor, a little book about town meetings. But these are, um, not, not that sort of, um, town hall meeting model that, that we see where people, you know, yell at each other. Um, it's, it's an actual part of, of local governance in New England where each town has a, an executive body that's the, you know, the select board. And then basically the legislative branch is everyone in the town, um, and on town meeting day, um, everyone in the town, all the voters come and make binding decisions on key issues of finance and governance.
So this is where we decide our budget. This is where, um, uh, you know, we decide on, on, uh, you know, governance tools. So the floor, uh, debate, uh, the floor discussion, uh, includes amendment, and, and here's Rachel where I think that it, it, it, it, it goes to your, um, your hope or your assertion that human beings, you know, actually do have that, you know, kind of journalist gene.
[00:24:55] Rachel Donald: Accountability gene.
[00:24:56] Susan Clark: Yes. When you actually are, are in charge of something, even if it's as small as your own town government, when, when you stand up, you know that you can impact your neighbors' vote, what we see is that we tend to be more civil. We tend to be, um, more responsible in our deliberations, not so extreme. It's very different from online. It's very different from the flaming and whatnot that happens.
These places in New England that have town meetings, um, do rank really high, uh, on national measurements of social capital: that, that the whole idea of trust and mutual assistance and tolerance. So that, that means, I think town meetings are a good example. Um, another example that I would give: there's a city called Portsmouth, New Hampshire along the Maine-New Hampshire border, that uh, uses a tool called, it's from a group called everyday democracy and it's a tool called study circles. And it, it began doing that, um, several decades ago, actually around a very controversial school issue. There's a, there's a, um, some community organizing that happens at the beginning where you make sure that you get a broad, um, diverse cross section of the population involved. Everyone's invited. Then you break up into small groups and you have, um, I think it's a series of five or six meetings where you really dive into the information because good, basic is really critical to a good deliberation. You listen and hear each other. Uh. The issues are framed, uh, as we talked about, not as, you know, A versus B, but let's co-create C, let's figure question. In their first case, it was about, there were some schools that were, uh, enrolled and one school that was over-enrolled and they needed to figure out, it's really hard to move kids around in a city, it's super, super, uh, controversial, very emotional. But they, um, were able to visit the schools, get good information, ultimately make a recommendation to the school board.
It was a big bond issue that passed because there were hundreds of people involved in the research and in identifying the solution. So they've gone on to create what's called Portsmith Listens, which is a standing group in their city that isn't devoted to any particular, you know, they're not pro-economy this, or the anti-environmental that. What they are is pro-democracy. And the entire focus of the group is let's have good facilitated processes where we can really make sure that we engage folks.
And they've gone on to deal with issues of race, gone on to deal with issues of sustainability, environmental sustainability, and created some, some lasting policies through those. They've done two town plan, uh, updates, you know, involving thousands of people.
They're, they're not alone by any means, although they're great example, of communities that are using these engaging processes to, to make, again, more sustainable, more buy-in, more lasting decisions.
[00:27:58] Tom Prugh: We've all heard about New England town meetings, but they're obviously not just, uh, a quaint hold over from a bygone era. In fact, the amazing thing is the more I looked into this, the more I realized that deliberative democracy in its varieties of expressions is happening not only all over this country, probably in the UK too, but all over the world. In fact there's a lot, probably more happening in the global south in this respect than in the developed world because in the developed world, well, I don't know why, I'm happy to speculate. I think it has a lot to do with our richness, our wealth, the fact that we're distracted by other kinds of things.
But down where, uh, things aren't so lavish in terms of lifestyle, people want to know what's happening to their money. They want a voice in the governance of their communities. I just ran across a report the other day, it's called '30 years of democratic innovation in Latin America'. And it talks about, uh, since the nineties in Latin America, in the 18 countries of Latin America, there have been over 3,700 instances of things like deliberative events, deliberative councils, citizens' assemblies, participatory budgeting, various forms of digital engagement. This is a thriving culture that's almost entirely below the radar, as mainstream media are concerned. I think so much is going on that people don't even know is happening.
It's really kind of a tragedy. So obviously the, one of the things we're trying to do in a small way with this blog series, is to get the word out because it it's a vibrant, thriving, uh, enterprise, and it could make a bigger difference than it is now if more people knew about it.
[00:30:04] Susan Clark: It's pretty hard to cover in the media. I I've seen reporters try to sit through an hour and a half, you know, small group, large group deliberative, breakout, and trying to find sound bites. And it takes, it, takes a lot more work. So it's harder to, to, to get coverage in the media.
[00:30:22] Rachel Donald: Yeah.
[00:30:23] Tom Prugh: It's not an indictment of deliberative democracy, but an indictment of what the media are like. It seems to me.
[00:30:30] Rachel Donald: What do you mean?
[00:30:32] Tom Prugh: Well, I mean the media, if it bleeds, it leads, you know, news is what's new, you know? Sure, you send some cub reporter to a city council meeting and he comes back or she comes back with not much to say, unless somebody thought the mic was turned off and said something outrageous.
[00:30:51] Susan Clark: Right. You don't see a lot of headlines, like “TEAM FINDS CONSENSUS!”
[00:30:54] Tom Prugh: Yeah.
[00:30:55] Rachel Donald: I mean, listen, uh, as, as ever, I feel compelled to defend my industry. I think, uh, what is often misunderstood about, uh, the media is that journalists are not opinion writers and they're not essayists. They're reporters and there needs to be a larger, I would argue, ecosystem of essayists and opinion writers and, um, you know, people that crossover between journalism and academia more, but it is sort of inherently unprofessional to report on something um, unless there is new or news. And certainly, for most reporters, I mean, you're just simply not allowed to allow your politics to enter into you into your reporting, which is why you wouldn't find like, you know, 'deliberative democracy team finds consensus in town hall meeting', you know, that needs to be an essay in the New Yorker.
[00:31:49] Tom Prugh: Exactly. There are lots of people in that community would like to read about that.
[00:31:54] Rachel Donald: Well, then they should start their own press as well.
[00:31:57] Tom Prugh: What's happening to local media, that's another rabbit hole.
[00:32:02] Rachel Donald: Surprisingly on topic, I had lunch with a friend, um, a few days ago who manages a whole bunch of regional papers in the UK, and he was saying, you know, people do not understand how important local media is to local democracy.
[00:32:14] Susan Clark: Oh, yes. Such an important, oh my gosh. Yes.
[00:32:18] Rachel Donald: He said, everybody's just buying their national paper that they ideologically ascribe to, and that's where they're getting their news and they have no idea what's happening on the ground level. It's a huge reason as to why communities are disintegrating around the United Kingdom.
[00:32:29] Susan Clark: No, and it's, it's in U.S as well. Now there's some really important research on that, I totally agree. When we're lacking in local coverage and things that we know about, I mean, I know about my town, my sidewalks, but I don't have that, and the only lens I have is that national and, as you said, sort of ideologically, uh.. If I'm only seeing through that lens and I bring that to my, to my home town, that's toxic to my own town's social capital.
[00:32:55] Rachel Donald: Let's get into that, actually. Yeah. Let's talk then about how a national understanding of politics or how a national understanding of or even international, what's ,what's quote unquote, going on the world, how that can actually distract from the processes that can be used to constructively create new democratic processes locally? That was a big sentence.
[00:33:21] Susan Clark: Well, I, you know, I think one of the things that we, um, that I also am fascinated by with this question of a small deliberation, is what it does to us individually, what it does to our brains. And we actually have now more and more data on what happens when you take a complex issue, something like climate change, and, you know, if it's offered with, with that us/them framing, which it often is, I was just looking study from the University of Arizona, or, you know, it was Arizona state. They did, uh, surveys of, of, uh, four study groups, four groups of people, and asked them what they thought about climate change. And then they, um, were involved in a deliberation where they bounced information, scientific information from both sides. They sat, they chewed on it. They talked about their own experiences. They were, you know, asked some, some pressing questions about how to move forward. And then asked to fill out the same survey again.
And what saw, and you see this again and again in deliberative processes, is that people who identified with one side, um, at the beginning changed through the deliberative process: how to change your mind. And it wasn't an advocacy process. It wasn't a, I'm trying to convince you process. It was a, what do you think? Here's a bunch of, are a bunch of studies. Here's a bunch of information. Talk about it with your neighbors, uh, and come back. Again, not about changing lines or convincing people, but about creating new solutions.
The outcome of the process is, is people actually do know how to take in new information when we aren't in a, um, in an adversarial situation. And I guess that's answer to question of, of, um, what happens when everything's framed adverserially like at the national level, we aren't able to think as productively.
[00:35:18] Rachel Donald: This is interesting that let's, and I probably should have asked this at the beginning then. Let's get into the etymology perhaps, or the definition then of deliberative. What is it? What is a deliberation and how is that different to the democratic processes that we're currently seeing? Tom, do you think you could comment on them?
[00:35:34] Tom Prugh: This is just my opinion, I won't speak for Susan, but it seems to me our current system is adversarial. Somebody said, if you wanted to design a system to ensure a gridlock, you would have set up a system with two parties in which they, you know, struggle with each other.
One was out and one was in and then the next one next time around the other was out. And the first one was in kind of thing. That's, that's a system almost designed for gridlock. It's not designed to bring people together in a collaborative way. Everybody's posturing or performing as you put it earlier. There's so much performative work going on in this kind of system to, to hang on to power and the perks that go with it, as opposed to get things done and solve the problems that people are trying to address in their daily lives.
So the point is to how can we tweak the system so that it's more toward the latter than toward the former. And, you know, there's a quote from the biologist, Wilson, Ed Wilson. He said, uh, the real problem with humanity is that we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and God-like technology. I just want to point out that what's standing in between the paleolithic emotions and the God-like technology is institutions. That's the buffer, that's the mediating structure. And we right now have systems governing systems that don't do that very well. So I think what we're advocating for is a, is a sea in the kinds of governance and institutions that help shape what we do and how we respond to the world and the problems we encounter at it.
[00:37:20] Rachel Donald: Just to play devil's advocate, uh, to be adversarial. The thing that's coming to mind is, uh, an interview that I did with Sally Goerner and she said that in studying how systems change, research is showing that change always comes from the level below the current executive team, essentially. Um, so as much as there is a push for grassroots change and community change and all this stuff, and she says that is really, really important, of course it's important, if you actually want to effect change quickly, you need to go for the people just below the decision makers right now. Um, and she said, you know, arguably with the climate crisis, that needs to be the, the, the strategy. Because medieval institutions that are in place do serve those decision-makers ultimately and do serve a certain class globally.
[00:38:11] Tom Prugh: Yeah, well, I'll argue with that. How's it working out for us so far?
[00:38:16] Rachel Donald: Well, it's working out pretty well for them.
[00:38:18] Tom Prugh: What fast movements have been doing for decades now? I mean, you're old enough, I think to remember, maybe you're not, to remember the Rio conference in 1992, you've read about it for sure.
That's, that's what put the environmental, the modern environmental movement globally on the map and activist organizations and activists, and, certain strains in, in political organisations in various countries have been working those levers ever since. We are where we're at right now as a result of that work. And it hasn't gotten us to where we need to be. So I just think it's both and, as, as Susan said earlier, we have to keep working at that level too. But unless you build a political movement from the grassroots that supports the kinds of actions that the people just below the decision-making level need to push on their betters, their, their leaders, I don't think we're going to make any more progress.
[00:39:30] Rachel Donald: Democratically, sure. Yeah, I agree with that because you would need, you know, you need voters to get these people in, uh, when they appear on the stage with a certain manifesto. Still, I would like to continue pushing back because yes, okay, the environmental movement has been on the map and there was Limits To Growth published in the seventies and, you know, there's been a lot of talk, and certainly there is a lot of activism around the world, and I absolutely applaud the work that is done by these people, especially in countries where they are putting themselves at mortal danger to tell the truth.
Nonetheless, it's not just that we're not where we need to be. We are very, very, very far from where we need to be. There has not been systemic change. There has been an increase in dialogue in the general public, uh, both locally, nationally, and internationally, but we are very, very far from making systemic change. So is there.. I mean, how wise is it to keep pushing that community-based dialogue when, when we've been doing that for 50 years and we're going to overshoot 1.5 in the next eight years? That's just, that's just fact.
[00:40:37] Susan Clark: I would say we haven't been always doing community dialogue very well. I first, uh, started, you know, thinking about th th th the idea of, you know, slow democracy in the, in the nineties, there was a, I was like, oh, I want to go back to school, I want to get a master's in this. I couldn't, I, I I mean, I did, but what my masters was in was natural resource planning, because nobody was teaching about deliberation. And that has changed dramatically in the last 15, 20 years. There are dozens of, of, that are now studying and, and these are scholar practitioners. These are folks like John Gastil at Penn state.
In Oregon, he created the citizens initiative review. How can we make the initiative voting system more deliberative. And he actually created change so that Oregon now actually does have a deliberative process to to look at the, um, initiatives and referenda that they do. There are a bunch of others as well.
So I think that the, the field has changed a lot. There's, you know, the national coalition for dialogue and deliberation, and then there's the international association of public participation. Um, and these folks are coming up with standards that help local groups and local governments, you know, do democracy in a better way. Uh, I, I do think that we have to, you know, come back to the fact that human beings are just kind of dumb.
And how do we talk with people that we love? How do I talk with my kids? How do I talk with my neighbors? We need to do it in a way that that has some patience, even though, yes, we're in a big rush, again, I think slow can be faster. And allowing a process that, that is non-adversarial and that does bring together people who are different, but who can find some commonalities, actually, it's fun. It's actually fun.
And we measure this again and again, how was that deliberative process for you? We do surveys at, at, you know, before and after and people say I liked it. I would do it again. Which is not the way I feel about a lot of my social change work. A lot of the adversarial work that I do, I do it cause I know I should, but it's, it's really hard. And so many of us have stepped back because it's so tiring. Whereas this local work is invigorating. We are social animals.
[00:43:07] Rachel Donald: I think what I find particularly interesting in the arguments that you're both making is it harks back to this Maxim in, well, actually in physics and in marketing, funnily enough. Uh. In physics, it's the paradox I can't remember the name of, and in marketing, or business structure, it's this idea of like, don't go for efficiency, go for effectiveness because efficiency can only take you so far, whereas effectiveness will take you all of the way.
And sometimes that means it will be maybe a little bit slower, bit faster, but it will always be exactly what you need it to be, whatever that process is. Yeah. Right. And in, in physics, it's, it's not going to come to me, but essentially the paradox is, it's the myth of efficiency, no matter how efficient you make a process, you will always end up using more and more energy because an efficient process becomes utilized more and more by the resource users around it.
[00:43:58] Tom Prugh: Jevons paradox.
[00:44:00] Rachel Donald: Did I explain it correctly?
[00:44:02] Tom Prugh: Pretty much. I think he started with it, named for an Englishman named Jevons, who noted that when, uh, they started using steam power equipment to mine coal that the coal went down and people used more of it.
[00:44:18] Rachel Donald: Exactly.
[00:44:19] Tom Prugh: Let me just add a gloss to what you've been, both of you have been saying. had David Orr on a few months back, he said something else too that stuck with me. He said that our environmental and political troubles are linked and they're intimate and reciprocal. And you can't really fix the climate until you fix how we make decisions as a society. And I think that's what we've been talking sort of talking around for the last 40 minutes or so, is that the way we make decisions as a society, doesn't plug us into those problems. It severs the connection between our awareness of the problems and our ability to make a difference in terms of how we, as a collective, as a society, respond to them. So that's what deliberative democracy would try restore that connection.
[00:45:09] Rachel Donald: I completely agree with you. I think we live in a very funny age now, whereby you know, despite sort of the lavishness and the privilege that we have, the vast majority of, let's say Westerners also work, you know, bullshit jobs to, to use David Graeber's term.
[00:45:24] Susan Clark: I didn't know we could use that term. I would have used that earlier.
[00:45:28] Rachel Donald: Of course, you can say whatever want on this podcast. Um, yeah. So bullshit jobs for anybody listening doesn't know, it's essentially this idea that you are so completely separated from the fruits of your labor, you're earning money to do a very meaningless thing that could either be replaced by a machine or, you know, um. And I think that essentially having like, especially the educated, um, oh don't want to use the word class, but I can't think of anything else, like the educated class and pushing them into these bullshit jobs where they are so removed from their labor and, um, on a Marxist perspective. I mean, are we not living in this kind of very strange period of like, eternal adolescence where we have almost, no, not just autonomy, but no responsibility for the world that we live in, because nothing that we do essentially ever impacts change or can impact change? And I think that it fundamentally severs I'm really, you've both been using this term and I really like it, like severs human nature from the best of itself. Like I think we are such responsible, collaborative beings. That's the essence of our progress. And to disallow, to block specially you know, the educated class from being able to take that responsibility, not just for their own lives, but for the shape of the world.
I think it's a huge reason as to why we're in the mess that we're in and why we have this crisis of imagination that means that people cannot seem to figure out where to go and how to envision.. It's again, that phrase, it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
[00:47:10] Tom Prugh: I totally agree with what you're saying there, Rachel. One of the posts I put up is called, um, nine short arguments for deliberative democracy. Number nine argument is it's governance for grownups, because I think it is a way, and I think actually people often crave this.
We want to take responsibility, but they're not empowered to do it. And this kind of system, this culture of deliberation and deliberative democracy would actually empower them to be responsible and to take responsibility for how their communities are run and what they look like.
[00:47:51] Rachel Donald: Absolutely.
[00:47:52] Susan Clark: I think there's this assumption that what we want government to be is a vending machine. We want to put our taxes in one side and get the services out the other side. And if it doesn't work, you kick it like the machine.
[00:48:07] Rachel Donald: Yeah.
[00:48:08] Susan Clark: And I think sometimes we hire public servants who think it is their job to be that vending machine, middlemen bureaucrats who, you know, they're doing their best. We've asked them to do this thing. Leaders, I think sometimes think, oh, that's the machine that people want. They're apathetic. They don't have time for meetings. Whereas in fact, if they flip that on their head and say, They would love to be asked meaningful questions. They don't want to come to meetings where they're just rubber stamping what we decided already.
But if we can, uh, ask, ask meaningful questions and have a meaningful process, what we find is that people do come, they come again and again, and we oxygenate that democratic process, instead of making into a machine
[00:48:49] Rachel Donald: And I think connect as well, across the demographics because I recognize as well, you know, I just spoke about, you know, the educated class, the educated demographic, but one of the great travesties of the modern era is that it is the people that live in the most precarious situations, whether, whether they are geographically on the frontline of climate change or whether they are the working class in developed nations, where there is more than enough access to wealth and to housing and to food and yet, despite that they are, still squeezed beyond belief to just fight for their own survival. I mean, these people sort of bear the great burden and responsibility for keeping the wheels turning, whether it's, you know, indigenous people that are forced to sell off their land in Malaysia for timber so that they can feed their families or whether it's bin men on the, you know, in, in our own nations.
There is a sense of like the burden of responsibility is put on those who have no access, um, to power or to, um, places where decisions are made. People that would have access are given no responsibility and so are therefore disempowered and perhaps apathetic or whatever. And so kind of what you're saying is what I'm hearing is like, there's that bridge, sharing the burden of responsibility and then sharing also the capacity for um, yeah, autonomy, empowerment, decision-making. Perhaps finally bridging that gap between the classes, which is so important, if you want a democracy to accurately, you know, function and look after the majority.
[00:50:16] Susan Clark: So agree with you, Rachel. And I think that class, that, that, that class divide is oftentimes I'll hear people say poor people don't have time for quote unquote, slow democracy, or, um, what about people who don't like to give speeches? And that's where you get into the super rich discussion of, uh, how can we create make these processes more inclusive?
Because the reality is we have time to love. We have time to be with our neighbors. We desperately need, as human beings, that time together. And so, um, rather than trying to add, add on democracy, add, added onto your job, blah, blah, blah. You're actually incorporating in to your community, incorporating it into your family time.
So this means this means field trips. This means, um, uh, you know, community, um, gatherings where they really are social, as well as, uh, you know, decision-making, it means, uh, storytelling, um, uh, as a really, really important part of a deliberative process is people just getting together in small groups and telling they're about their lived experience.
You don't have to be a speech maker, and you don't have to be one of the elite educated class, classes in order to bring wisdom. And in fact, you're probably very likely to bring a little more wisdom if you're not of those people who comes in with, you know, polished up speech.
[00:51:39] Rachel Donald: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:51:40] Tom Prugh: To add to that, is that the, the data or the experience with these, these deliberative events all over the planet are when you invite people in from all backgrounds, they do come. I mean, the, the poster child for a participatory budgeting for instance, is Porto Alegre, which is, uh, a city in Brazil, uh, with, with, so many of our cities have a large segment of basically favela slum dwellers. And they are among the most vigorous and dedicated participants in these participatory budgeting exercises. They know what a difference it makes when their voices are heard. And they, have a way of, uh, some input into where the money goes and how it's spent, for example, at the local level.
[00:52:29] Susan Clark: And that's also true in New York and Chicago, um, where participatory budgeting has been incorporated is that you see a great rise in participation by young people, by people of color, by previously marginalized groups, because they can see, um, uh, they can see the impact of their, of their democratic participation. So, and then that, of course that grows the civic infrastructure, the, uh, empowerment, um, of those communities.
[00:52:52] Tom Prugh: And the result is you wind up with social capital. You strengthen the ties in the community. You have links that weren't there before, you have people shifting their extreme positions or softening them sometimes, which makes even more things possible in the future. It builds on itself.
It's a win-win kind of, kind of process.
[00:53:13] Rachel Donald: I fantastic. Is there a step-by-step plan? I mean, this is supposed to be like my penultimate question, like, is that in one of the books? You know, if somebody is listening to this and goes right, okay, I really want to help set this up in my community. What are the first steps?
[00:53:25] Tom Prugh: Well, I'm glad you asked that. Well you could buy a copy of Susan's book, 'Slow Democracy', excellent guide to doing it. If you want to a quicker and dirtier, uh, entree into it, I would suggest this, this blog post series that I'm curating for resilience.org, and it's called democracy rising. And if you search on that in their search field, we're up to about 16 posts, now, I think there'll be about 25 by the time we're all done, but there are probably seven or eight key posts, um, that will give you the nuts and bolts of how to do this. Uh, I'm not saying it amounts to a primer, but it'll give you the, the, the bare bones of how it's done and how to get it going and steer you to a ton of other resources that you can tap if you want to start something in your own community.
[00:54:25] Susan Clark: And I would just add that the joy of something, like, I mean, harking back to the slow food movement. Um, what slow food looks like in Italy very different from what slow food looks, you know, uh, in coastal California, you know, what, what flavor does the soil gives the food?
And that is definitely true about slow democracy. Using some of these ideas, but making them fit in, in your community, in your area where people are going to have, you know, different priorities, different bullshit meters about what's really gonna work where they are, and making it your own.
[00:55:04] Rachel Donald: Excellent. I love to hear that, to hear any solution that appreciates that any, any one part of it is a part of a larger ecosystem of, you know, different interacting things. Wonderful.
My final question then for you both would be, who would you like to platform?
[00:55:21] Tom Prugh: Well, I think I mentioned earlier, um, you should get in touch with Tom Murphy. He's the astrophysicist and not necessarily connected, uh, very directly to the topic of topics we've been discussing, but he's really, really good on the big picture, uh, of the dilemma humanity faces right now. Susan and I talked about this, there's a fellow out at university of Northern Colorado, Martine Carcassone, who is a, uh, a long time scholar and practitioner of, of deliberative democracy. Um, Susan, I think you wanted to stress his work on wicked problems, but he's good about a lot of this stuff. He knows this stuff really well.
[00:56:10] Susan Clark: He founded the center for public education there. And so he is one of those, uh, scholar practitioners, you know, folks who, um, who really know the literature inside and out, but is absolutely out there in the fields, working with small rural communities in how, how can you frame these.
mentioned John Gastil earlier. He's a professor of communication at Penn state. Brilliant theorist, but also one who, um, does a lot of practical work. And he's also really, really playful; he's, he's serious about games, about making things fun.
I would also mention Matt Leininger, who is with the national conference on citizenship. Another guy, very playful, lots of fun to talk to, uh, and works with communities all the time, um, in how to make these practices work, uh, on the ground.
[00:57:01] Tom Prugh: I have one final thought about that, it's kind of out of left field, but if you, I don't believe you've talked to him yet. There's a, a writer named Kim Stanley Robinson whose most recent book and probably his last book is a 600 page plausible and somewhat hopeful portrait of the converging crises and possible responses to them that might help us avoid the worst of things. It's called the 'ministry for the future'.
It's a great read. And it's really rich with ideas and scenarios. He, he researches the Dickens out of his, uh, topics when he's writing a book around a particular idea. And this thing is just really rich in terms of potential options and ways we might, you know, bail ourselves out of the mess we're in.
[00:57:56] Rachel Donald: Wonderful. Thank you both so much for your time. This was truly enlightening.
[00:58:00] Tom Prugh: Thank you, Rachel, this has been really, really good.
[00:58:03] Susan Clark: Rachel, thanks so much for your work and thanks so much to your listeners as well. I, I, I think that, um, we all need the inspiration that you're bringing us, and hope that we can do it with a little joyfulness as well.
[00:58:12] Rachel Donald: I'm touched. Thank you so much.