Teale Lecture Series: Addressing the climate crisis through ‘place-making’ and public participation

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On Thursday evening, the University of Connecticut’s Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering hosted another segment of their Teale Lecture Series, titled “Public Participation and Policy-making in an Environment and Climate Emergency.” Patrick Devine-Wright, a professor of human geography at the University of Exeter and last night’s guest speaker, presented his ideas on how intersections between social science and policy-making, as well as further consideration for the communities and places these policies apply toward, are beneficial in addressing the current climate crisis. 

Devine-Wright began with a brief introduction of his academic focuses, describing his involvement in the UK and his attempts to utilize social science in conversations. 

“I’m also involved at the national level and at local levels, working with policy-makers, working in community initiatives to try and enable energy transitions and really just trying to make social science be useful and to inform practice,” Devine-Wright said. 

Since many are not willing to examine the research themselves — either due to a lack of time, a lack of understanding or a lack of both — he finds it imperative to educate others on this information. 

“It’s about getting out there and making sure that you can translate those ideas and hopefully enable people to continue to undertake the challenges of energy transitions in a way that’s informed by research evidence,” Devine-Wright said. 

He then moved on to explain the background of energy transitions, which he described in two words: climate change. As many are already aware, the climate crisis is a phenomenon that is universally known for creating public discourse and, according to Devine-Wright, it has established many implications for energy systems. 

These implications include: ‘net zero’ targets for emissions at various government levels, goals to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 and, as mentioned just recently during the past COP26 conference, diminishing the use of fossil fuels. Of course, when it comes to reaching ‘net zero’ targets, some emissions will inevitably be let out, but rather, the goal is to reach an overall net zero impact on the environment. Devine-Wright also brought up increasing methods of renewable power — such as solar panels — as a way to substitute fossil fuels, along with promoting the use of electricity for heat and transport. 

The professor continued with a slight interjection on defining “space and place” in the context of environmental research. The idea of “place” in particular was outlined as a useful notion. 

“What place means to me is focus on the specificity of particular locations in the world,” Devine-Wright said. “The kind of appreciation that, to some extent, they’re unique. And that people have strong connections with these places — the feeling of belonging, even a sense of identity and identification with that place, that environment and the people who live there.” 

Because places and physical surroundings are of such value to the people who inhabit them, concepts like NIMBYism must also be considered. However, as Devine-Wright pointed out, these relations to place tend to be harmful and inaccurate, which begs for new methods of approaching these issues. 

“We need to find other ways of thinking about objections, conflict, controversies associated with energy siting and energy projects,” Devine-Wright said. “And maybe other ways of thinking about people’s relations with place and how they play out in contexts of the siting of energy infrastructures. That’s been really one of my main academic goals and projects over the last 10 years, through the lens of a constant place attachment. How are attachments to place influenced by energy infrastructure change? How can they perhaps be used in order to enable change without necessarily disrupting or threatening people’s sense of place?” 

This focus on place led into Devine-Wright’s major point on developing a place-centered view of energy transitions. Based on other research, he found that “energy infrastructure are acts of place-making, which un-make and re-make places, not just in material/technological and economic terms, but also meanings, affects, lived experience and daily practices.” To go along with that, people should be viewed as denizens, which he defined as those who dwell in and feel a sense of connection and belonging to a place. Through this view, community members will not only find their local knowledge valued by project workers, but they will also feel appreciated and therefore more inclined to participate in energy matters. 

“A lot of the controversies around siting come down to predictions about what will happen in the future, whether they’re positive or negative or apocalyptic or so on,” Devine-Wright said. “And often in that context, you get expert knowledge being privileged over local knowledges. Yet, if you view people as key constitutive participants in energy transitions, and you view those people as denizens, then you can open up a sense of recognition and a sense of appreciation of the local knowledges that they bring with them.” 

Devine-Wright’s last point — before delving into three further case studies of energy transitions and answering questions during the event’s Q&A — acknowledged several negativities that exist beyond energy transitions, including the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the displacement of individuals; structural inequalities in providing for communities; and the overall eco-anxiety that has taken the majority by storm. He emphasized that because of these ideas, there is a clear necessity for positivity, which can easily be sought through public participation. 

“It’s because of all these reasons that we need positive narratives for change,” Devine-Wright said. “We need to have something more to say about energy transitions other than ‘Wind energy is good,’ or ‘We need to do something about climate change.’ And I think concepts like place, participation, community empowerment — they offer us potentially positive principles and narratives to orient our energy transitions in ways that aren’t just about preventing NIMBYism, but enabling emancipatory possibilities for belonging, for identity [and] for sustainability.” 

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