West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Low Impact Development Hampered by ‘Illegitimate’ Knowledge

The mine of information that is www.lammas.org.uk, the website for the Lammas eco-village project at Glandwr, Pembrokeshire, has a section full of research reports, all fascinating, but one appealed to me particularly, because it dealt with our understandings of ‘knowledge’, and that was a topic of my own PhD thesis several years ago.

Knowledge which is officially valued influences public policy far more than knowledge which is perceived as ‘common’ or non-expert. This is a conclusion of Karolina Rietzler, in her 2012 M.Sc thesis for the Albert-Ludwigs Universität, Freiburg.

Karolina, studying in the environmental governance department, titled her thesis ‘The Role of Scientific Knowledge and Other Knowledge Types in Grassroots Sustainability Initiatives: an exploratory case study of a low impact development eco-village in Wales’. The issues she highlights go a long way to explaining the reluctance of governments to treat low impact development as anything other than a niche, and the reluctance of local planning authorities to depart from the ‘scientific’ assessments to which they have become accustomed.

So far, in Karolina’s analysis, the insight of German sociologist Ulrich Beck has been lost on mainstream policy makers. He argued that the environmental crisis should be understood as a “profound institutional crisis of industrial society itself”.[i] If this is the case, industrial society cannot be both the cause of and cure for the crisis. Yet policymakers and policy implementers tend to “dismiss knowledge and understanding generated outside accredited scientific institutions”.[ii]  Those institutions have been the fount of knowledge for the failing (or failed) industrial society.

For Karolina, the Lammas project  of nine smallholdings at Tir y Gafel, Glandwr, represents transdisciplinary research, which is often discounted by policymakers because it does not come from a defined scientific tradition. The same policymakers fail to appreciate that ‘subjects’ and ‘disciplines’ are human constructions, and that knowledge is unitary. Instead, they are guided by the “legitimating function of scientific knowledge from recognized sources”.[iii]

At Lammas, Karolina found new knowledge being created by citizen scientists, with different skills, co-operating with other, but planners tend not to regard this knowledge as ‘legitimate’, because it has not been produced by people they regard as ‘experts’.

The requirement for ‘experts’ disadvantages low impact development because proponents usually cannot afford to hire them. Low impact means low cash, too. The generation of a large cash surplus is not on the low-impact agenda, but for ‘experts’ to be afforded, there needs to be a plentiful source of money. Low-impact applicants start with their hands tied behind their backs, and no one comes along to untie them. This means that, although paying lip service to the desirability of low-impact living, policy makers ensure it rarely happens because of the ways they nobble the pioneers.

Link to Karolina’s thesis: http://www.lammas.org.uk/oldsite/lowimpact/documents/ThesisKarolinaRietzler2012.pdf

Pat Dodd Racher

[i] Beck U, Giddens A and Lash S (1994) Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

[ii] Irwin A (1995) Citizen Science: a study of people, expertise and sustainable development. London, New York: Routledge,  pp67-68

[iii] Karolina Rietzler (2012), op.cit. p.68


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