Educate. Connect. Inspire

Educate. Connect. Inspire

Oct 17, 2011

Citizen Participation

by Livia Minca

Citizen involvement in environmental activities is an important driver of change in shaping mentalities and promoting sustainable practices. However, getting people to take part in campaigns, events or environmental programmes can be quite challenging because it depends on a lot of factors such as education level, income or social and political background.

There are several approaches to involve people, ranging from voluntary work to offering incentives, like prizes or stimulants; from local actions that mainly target one community to global campaigns that  cover a large number of countries; from one-day events to programmes that span over several years; from aiming at direct effects in communities to focusing on capturing as much media coverage as possible in order to spread the word.

No matter how they are organized, all these campaigns have one particular goal in common: to raise awareness among citizens with regard to a certain environmental issue. Basically the aim is to make citizens move from a mindset where they “hide”under different excuses (“I don't have time”, “This is too much for me, I cannot do it”, “I don't care”) to building up a confidence that it is all right to just do what they can and that this already makes them a part of the solution. This way, people will feel included without being pressured and it is likely that they will respond positively when asked to do a bit more, or even start including on their own more environmentally friendly actions in their daily routine.

Differences can be spotted when looking at citizen participation in various countries. Citizens in developed countries have acquired, besides a higher average life quality that allows them to think more about environmental issues, a better sense of organizing themselves and getting involved more easily in public actions. From a very distinct perspective, in ex-communist countries for example, people are still shadowed by the old habit of never questioning the authority and just complying with what is given.

This is why campaigns that involve public participation should take into consideration the location of the target group and adapt the contents to address the special needs and mindset of the region where they are developed. This is likely to lead to a higher impact and better results.

Here are the examples of two different environment-themed events, where citizen participation was the main ingredient. Both took place on the 24th September this year.

The idea for Moving Planet came from, a global campaign and network that works with grassroots organizers in 188 countries to mobilize against climate change and for a just future. Moving Planet is a collaborative effort of many organizations, movements, and individuals. Inspired by the democracy movements in Egypt and elsewhere this year, the organizers wanted to show that people power is stronger than the fossil fuel industry’s power and can move action on climate change that has felt stalled since the UN Climate meetings in Copenhagen, 2009.

The goal was to get moving beyond fossil fuels—both symbolically by pouring into the streets in the thousands on foot, bicycle and other means of sustainable movement, and politically by bringing powerful demands to leaders to move beyond fossil fuels to a 350ppm world.

The organizers encouraged their partners to adapt the idea for Moving Planet to what was most appropriate and strategic locally. Actions ideas around the world ranged from mass bike rides or marches, bike or walk to school/work days, to a march or bike ride from a problem (e.g. coal plant) to a solution (i.e. solar plant), a mass march or bike ride to encircle a government building/deliver a petition, non-violent direct action at fossil fuel targets, and a long multi-day march or bike ride to demonstrate commitment.

The Planet certainly moved on 24th September as over 2000 events took place at the same time in more than 175 countries worldwide. Now that's global action!

“Let's do it, Romania!” was a national day of action aimed at cleaning up the whole country from garbage in a single day. The original idea belonged to Estonia, which organized such a day for the first time in 2008. Several countries started implementing it thereafter and Romania was this year at its second edition.

Besides the actual cleaning, the project also aimed at convincing public authorities to raise the issue of waste infrastructure in Romania higher on the agenda and make local institutions more responsible in organizing controls (both on tourists and economic agents) and better enforcing the rules and regulations to prevent the country's tourist attractions to be overtaken by trash.

The concept was simple: during the year people could register on the website locations of the garbage piles (through GPS coordinates), that were compiled in the end in a garbage map. When the action day approached, the people organized themselves in teams and were allocated a pile that they had to clean up. When the action was over the garbage bags were picked up by partner waste collecting companies from the respective locations. As basic as it sounds, the project involved a large number of volunteers, NGOs, companies and institutions who worked together to put everything in place for the big day.

But the most important thing was the mobilization of citizens. No matter if they came with their work colleagues, with friends or through organizations, people did show up in large numbers. In fact, this year more than 250,000 citizens responded to the call for action in every corner of the country, with 50,000 more than last year. This is a great achievement. Hopefully next year the number will be even higher but the garbage that they'll have to collect will be much less.