Participation

How do we in the developed world reclaim a sense of meaningful participation, when all of the messages coming from our culture counsel passivity? Perhaps we can begin by reasserting that we are capable of providing ourselves with much of what we need. The empowerment of something as simple as a home cooked meal can become a transformative experience, because we're living in a beauty-ad world where every problem is a technical one and has a solution through applying the right mechanism.

I recall a personal epiphany when, as a child, I watched my mother make salad dressing by herself one evening. I had always uncritically assumed that salad dressing was simply something you bought. The fact that a regular person, working in an unexceptional residential kitchen, could recreate this wonder of the food factory - indeed, improve upon it - struck me forcefully even in childhood, and remained with me since. But after the epiphany, how do we get involved? Where's the point of entry?

Ask yourself what you're interested in. Sweatshop labour and corporate globalization? Littering? Overconsumption of useless baubles? Energy production? Clean air? Clean water? Rain forest destruction? Alternative transportation?

Find out what organizations are involved in struggling for change and join one. Most of them are more desperate for volunteers than for money. Find out what the organization does, and offer your time, energy and efforts. Go to meetings, listen carefully and speak up. Go to town/city council meetings and be heard. Write letters to your MPP, your MP, the Prime Minister. Go to rallies and show solidarity. It all starts with small steps, and each step leads you in a new and unexpected direction.

Let's say you're really interested in transportation issues. It's an excellent cause. Cars in Canada directly cause some 4,000 deaths each year from collisions. They probably cause the same number of deaths again in heart and lung disease. They are loud, ugly and dangerous. They soil the land, water, and air. They destroy architecture and contribute to acid rain. They encourage suburban sprawl, long commutes, strip malls and "box stores." They discourage people from exercising, leading to more sedentary lifestyles, more obesity, and all the health risks associated with this. They kill animals. Roads are carved through ecosystems, dividing them in half and cutting off natural migration routes. And if you don't own a car, it is exceedingly difficult to get around in all but the biggest cities, cutting large numbers of people (often the most vulnerable - the young, the elderly, the poor, the sick) off from participating fully in society.

You want to avoid driving, so you try to walk more. Then you notice that there are long strips on major roads where the speed is high and there are no safe crosswalks. You try to bicycle more. Then you notice that riding on the road can be dangerous and harrowing. Drivers are rude and impatient. There are few bike lanes, so you are grappling with thousands of pounds of steel on a severely tilted playing field.

At this point you realize that personal lifestyle choices are not enough. This is the consumer sovereignty myth: the idea that if I want to change the world, I need only change my buying habits, maybe recycle a little (as long as I'm still buying). This is, of course, a cop-out perpetuated by large corporations and their paid lobbyists to keep people from getting together and pursuing political and social goals outside the marketplace.

This is the point at which you realize that you can't really make a significant difference acting as a lone wolf. Only if significant numbers of people are willing to participate in the development of public policy will our government begin to reflect the will of the people. It is surely an uphill battle, for two very specific reasons:

  1. Governments are not in the habit of being handed policy from citizens. Our representative system of democracy is such that governments develop policies in consultation with corporate lobbyists and then these policies are handed to the public once every four years for ratification.

  2. With lax donation and funding laws, it is extremely easy for corporations to dominate campaign spending and exert an enormous influence over government policies. Also, the revolving door between key government positions and key corporate positions all but guarantees that like-minded people will share the task of forming both governments and the policies that they adopt.

For this reason, it is vital that people make so much noise they can't be ignored. It has happened before, with, for example, the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), which was abandoned because of widespread public protests. Now, most of the key proposals of the MAI are on the table through the World Trade Organization (see Newsletter #2 for more details), so it is vital to keep informed.

Getting back to the example of transportation, you do a little investigation and discover a little-known organization dedicated to improving alternate transportation options in your community. You join the organization and bring all your imagination and energy to bear. You've heard of the "Critical Mass" bike rallies and want to start one in your city. You write letters to councillors and attend city council meetings to raise the issue of cross walks and bike lanes. You go door to door or set up downtown getting signatures to a petition which asks for better pedestrian and bike access. You go to downtown shops, explaining how encouraging more cycling would improve business in a city core with serious traffic problems and lousy parking. Maybe a revitalized downtown core would encompass closing some roads to cars altogether for exclusive pedestrian access. Maybe you're experienced with communications and can help your organization to raise its profile. Whatever, the options are exhausted only by your imagination.

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Copyright © 2000, 2002 by Ryan McGreal