Sustainability transitions are long-term and transformative shifts to more sustainable modes of living. This includes a transformation of energy production and consumption away from coal and other fossil fuels. Coal is a major contributor to the state’s export industry and employs around 14,000 people in the Hunter Valley, contributing directly and indirectly to the livelihoods of around 40 per cent of the Hunter’s total population. With global demand for coal predicted to decline, such a heavy reliance on a single industry poses huge risks, because coal is so deeply embedded in Hunter Valley identities and economies.
A great number of ideas have been proposed for what a post-coal Hunter Valley might look like. Many of these come from outside the region, with experts in technical, scientific, and policy areas providing solutions. Whilst this outside interest is comforting, local people haven’t had much of a chance to have their say[i]. To counter this, in late-2021, Hunter Renewal and Hunter Jobs Alliance hosted a series of public workshops to gauge the community’s views on many of these ideas. This was a recognition of the contextual expertise that local knowledge could bring to sustainable transitions. This article looks briefly at the idea of local knowledge and how it has manifested in decision-making around transitions and other socio-technical policy areas. It is based on research I am undertaking as part of my PhD with the University of Technology in Sydney.[ii]
When starting my research, I felt that increasing numbers of the public involved in transition activities was a key measure of success. Following the workshops and further reading I have realised that increasing numbers is only part of the story. What is the point of increased numbers if the community’s voice is not listened to? As participatory democracy scholars Mark Warren and Jane Mansbridge have pointed out “if collectives lack the capacity to act, inclusions remain powerless” (2015, p. 144). My research focus has since shifted to pushing for the community to be heard.
What is local knowledge?
Local knowledge is described by Dvora Yanow, the political ethnographer, as “the very mundane, but still expert, understanding of and practical reasoning about local conditions derived from lived experience” (p. 236). This form of knowledge is often discounted in favour of technical, scientific or economic expertise because these fields are assumed to be objective and value-neutral. Yet decisions regarding the path of sustainable transitions are anything but neutral because they involve choices about how we want to live.
Yet where are the local communities in decision-making arenas? Opportunities for meaningful community engagement are few when it comes to the big decisions about transformations in our lives. For example, there might be an open call for written submissions, a process which gives preference to those who can afford the time to read 4,000-page Environmental Impact Statements within 30 days and craft a coherent response. Or a public meeting might be called which then extinguishes the public’s right to a merit review of that project (see EDO, 2016). In very few instances, there might be more significant engagement across time between project proponents and the local community, yet crucial information may be left out meaning the public is at a disadvantage. Yet more often the community are invited late in the process to choose from a set of predetermined ideas, meaning they are excluded from playing a role in imagining their own futures. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding and disrespect of the value of local knowledge and, therefore, when and why the community should be engaged.
Involving the public in more meaningful ways is at odds with the deficit approach of much public engagement in transitions, which excludes the public for what they don’t know rather than including them for what they do know. The public may not have the technical expertise to problem solve, but they do have the local knowledge with which to shape how they want to live and therefore the general direction that the transition should take.
Let me give you some examples of how this might be done, first from the United States (US) and then from the Hunter Valley.
Planning and social justice scholar Jason Corburn found in Brooklyn that local knowledge added important, life-saving evidence to the shaping of public health policy. Scientists had been unaware of place-specific social practices when assessing risks of exposure to hazards in the air, soil, water, and food sources. Local experts helped them to see that diets in Brooklyn were more diverse than the models used by public health officials to create policy (the “all-American” diet is not all America). Moreover, the scientists learned that many locals supplemented their diet with fish caught in the river. Without these conversations, the risks to the community from polluted fish would not have been known.
Though not an example from the transition arena, the Brooklyn case study suggests a need to rethink how local knowledge is characterised so that it is valued for the contextually relevant contributions it can bring to making change. This method promotes open and inclusive dialogue aimed at developing shared understanding. Corburn notes that this is not just “giving voice” to the community but promoting a discipline of making decisions based on holistic understanding of people and place and how decisions will impact lived experience. This is not about one type of knowledge winning over another, but about accepting the value of different knowledges, and in doing so, adopting a multidimensional and social constructivist epistemology. Shelia Jasanoff, a leading scholar in the field of Science and Technology Studies, suggests that such a plural account of “public understandings'' should be embraced to acknowledge that there are more ways of knowing than scientific understanding (p55).
Local knowledge in the Hunter Valley
Hunter Renewal and Hunter Jobs Alliance (henceforth ‘the organisers’) held a series of online workshops in late 2021 to gather community input into how the new Royalties for Rejuvenation Fund should be spent in the region. This Fund and associated Expert Panel will see $25 million dollars of mining royalties directed to coal communities across NSW each year to fund transition initiatives. The organisers were concerned that if decisions were made outside the Hunter people would become disenfranchised and feel they have no ability to have influence on their ongoing lives.
The workshops were scheduled by the organisers ahead of the draft bill debate on the Fund and Panel to bring forth the voice of the community to parliament. This was a strategic move that paid off as many of their suggested amendments were put forward by independent MPs during the parliamentary debate and accepted. I was asked by the organisers to assist with the design, planning, and reporting of these workshops, planned to be held in-person across five local government areas (LGAs) of Cessnock, Singleton, Muswellbrook, Maitland, and Lake Macquarie. These LGAs will be most affected by industrial restructuring as part of a move away from coal. When lockdown occurred, the workshops were moved online.
During the workshops, participants were asked to discuss transition ideas in small groups, each related to a different theme: planning and coordination, growing and diversifying the economy, supporting the community through change, and supporting workers through change (see Table 1 below). These 22 ideas were distilled from over 150 that had been sourced from around 30 reports from business, government, and other sources and represented a range of possible transition interventions.
Rather than simply seeking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to these ideas, local people were invited to contribute their local knowledge to “thicken the staging” for later decisions. For example, people accept the idea that new industries are necessary, but they should prioritise the involvement of businesses that are locally based. They support the idea of training for retrenched workers, but also think that everyone in the area should be given equal opportunity to raise their skills. They want to see local people retrained for new, sustainable industries, but pointed out that local TAFEs have been shuttered and those still open are often hard to get to[iii] (Hunter Renewal & Hunter Jobs Alliance).
Table 1: The ideas discussed during collaborative workshops
As can be seen with the Brooklyn and Hunter Valley examples, increased utility and relevance can be achieved through the incorporation of local knowledge and lived experience. People often possess more valuable knowledge than outsiders (including government) might give them credit for, and this may influence what activities the public is invited to take part in. Restrictions around participation are often based on this misunderstanding, meaning local people are only given the opportunity to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ rather than ‘what if?’.
Longer term relationships built on open communication and collaborative learning may lead to more fruitful engagements between the public and the government. This is especially relevant when facing the types of complex and adaptive problems related to sustainable transitions. Yet several constraints to meeting these aims. These include whether debate around these issues is open or closed, whether sufficient time is made available for understanding to occur, whether people are fairly compensated to attend and equally able to take part; if there is institutional capacity for community engagement, and whether the form of engagement invites or suppresses community attendance.
Addressing these constraints is an act of epistemic justice because it rejects favouritism of elite knowledges over local knowledges, and therefore redefines who is permitted to be a knower. Without wider involvement of the community, questions around who will benefit and who lose because of decisions are often left unanswered. Moreover, a preference for elite knowledge “gives rise to an unduly one-dimensional understanding” , as local actors are often uniquely aware of the contextually specific social, environmental, geographic, and economic factors which might support or challenge an idea (Fischer, 2003; Fung, 2006; Wagle, 2000). Therefore, wider and more meaningful participation is needed when making decisions that affect an entire community to ensure there is sufficient understanding of local conditions, governance frameworks, and technoscientific implications(Chilvers & Longhurst, 2016; Fischer, 2000; Hendriks, 2009; Lawhon & Murphy, 2012; Shove & Walker, 2007).
I am hopeful that the people of the Hunter will be invited to play more of a role in shaping their future, and that authorities will realise that in the complex and adaptive space of transitions, different types of knowledges and knowledge-making should be invited to the table.
To conclude, some collected wisdom from the Hunter community[iv]:
The people who experience the consequences of decisions made by elites
really don't generally have much opportunity to have input into
or control over those decisions.
The community is good at understanding the past of their experience,
and envisioning their future.
The experts are already here. We just need to tap into it.
- [i] One exception to this is Beyond Zero Emissions who conducted workshops in the Hunter to contribute to their Million Jobs Plan in 2020.
- [ii] I acknowledge here that I am not a local Hunter Valley resident and, as such, my interpretations of the knowledge from this area may be influenced by this outsider status. Moreover, I am a white, educated, professional designer who does not face the precarity of employment that many will suffer in the Hunter Valley during industrial transition. Working alongside community organisations in the Hunter and offering my services toward their goals somewhat alleviates the problems often associated with outsider influence.
- [iii] For more detailed information see the report.
- [iv] From interviews conducted as part of my PhD. Ethics approval ETH21-6741. This is a combination of three separate participant statements following a model used by Michelle Duffy and Sue Whyte in their research with the Latrobe Valley community (Duffy & Whyte, 2017).
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