Marcus B Lane, Geographical and Environmental Studies, The University of Adelaide
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
A central tenet of civic regionalism is that regional boards increase the level of citizen participation, and that this inevitably allows the development of context-sensitive NRM strategies. This is based on two ideas, both of which relate to the relationship between local experience and centralised management:
- central governments tend to impose ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions that ignore local conditions
- greater citizen participation will improve NRM by using local knowledge.
These ideas need some discussion.
The potential for central government to develop a one-size-fits-all environmental policy is a failure commonly attributed to top-down planning—the need for policy to be customised to specific regions is a major rationale for decentralisation the world over. If the widespread failings of decentralisation don’t give cause for pause, then the fact that the drivers of environmental degradation are extra-regional and that many of the resources under question are publicly-owned, might. Much more importantly, there is no structural reason for state and federal governments being unable to think and act in a way that is sensitive to regional differences—ecological and social.
It is seductive to suggest that local, experiential knowledge can be combined with scientific knowledge to produce more effective plans. There is, however, almost no overseas evidence to support the claim that this can be better achieved by decentralisation (Kellert et al. 2000).
The issues are not simple. Little is known about how citizen groups use knowledge—of various kinds—in policy development and implementation. Fears that NRM could easily lose its scientific rigour to citizens’ views and experiences may have already been realised in the Natural Heritage Trust I (Lowe 2004).
The challenge for civic regionalism is to bring the various kinds of knowledge together when developing management strategies, rather than allowing these knowledges to compete—one laying claim to rationality, the other to morality or local wisdom. We need to learn how to use both so that our management plans are both effective and just.
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