Australia is patently unsustainable in many ways, and so will have to change.  Will this change be wisely and pro-actively managed?  Or will it be forced on us in unwelcome, disruptive and possibly catastrophic ways?

Wise management will require governments at all levels to make lots of difficult decisions, and to make them expeditiously.

In this decision making, public opinion is a critical constraint.

For example, there is a good case for road use pricing to manage our unsustainable dependence on use of private vehicles.  Yet this option is instantly dismissed by both major political parties, fearing a public backlash – no matter how ill-informed, short-sighted or self-serving that public reaction may be.  Meanwhile our cities become increasingly gridlocked, with escalating economic, health and environmental costs.

Simply put, unless we can improve the relationship between government decision making and public opinion, we’re going to “hit the wall” in numerous respects.

Of course, the importance of public opinion has hardly been lost on sustainability advocates.  There has already been, and continues to be, lots of good work in this area – particularly as regards climate change.  Considerable insight has been gained on topics such as how opinions are formed, how they are related to behavior, and how they can be influenced.

As part of this effort, we must also develop better ways to find out what the public opinion is, i.e. what the public actually thinks.

But what’s the problem?  Don’t we already know pretty much what the public thinks, from the endless stream of opinion polls? And isn’t the problem in fact that there is too much monitoring of public opinion, and that governments are too sensitive to it?

Its true that public opinion, in the standard sense – what might be called the public attitude – is in oversupply.

What we almost never know is the considered opinion of the public – the public wisdom.

Public attitude versus public wisdom

Public opinion, as we usually understand it, is the kind of information generated by the familar polls run by organisations such as Morgan and Gallup and delivered as fodder to the mainstream media.

The public wisdom, by contrast, is the collective, considered opinion of the public.  It is what the public as a whole would think if it were able to think seriously about the matter, i.e. become well-informed, reflect carefully, and somehow pool their thoughts into a coherent position.  Thinking seriously in this way requires collective deliberation, i.e. constructive discussion and debate.

Public opinion falls a long way short of public wisdom.  In his book When The People Speak, notable theorist of democracy James Fishkin has pointed to a number of problems with public opinion:

  • Respondents are generally ill-informed; indeed they will usually be rationally ignorant on the topic.
  • Individuals’ attitudes are subject to manipulation by powerful forces pursuing their own agendas, e.g. major corporates resisting progressive tax reforms.
  • The opinions elicited in standard polls may be artificially manufactured by the polling process itself, i.e. may not reflect any real attitude held by the respondents but rather are generated on the spot in response to the polling process and are shaped by that process.

To which I would add: the respondents will generally not have engaged in any serious deliberation (on their own, or with others) on the issue, and the polling process provides no opportunity for such deliberation.

In short, standard opinion polls give us a distorted snapshot of the attitudes the respondents happen to have at that moment – not a fair reflection of what they (would) think about the issue.

To compound matters, standard polling processes do nothing more than tabulate individual opinions.  They don’t synthesize or aggregate the viewpoints of the respondents into a common or collective position, as would be required for genuine “wisdom of the crowd.”

For an example of genuine collective wisdom, consider the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  These are generated by means of an elaborate process, involving much high-quality deliberation, in which exceptionally well-informed scientists pool and refine their knowledge, coming up with an agreed expression of what their community as a whole believes.

This post is the first part of a draft chapter What Do We Think? Identifying the Public Wisdom to Guide Sustainability Decisions, in preparation for the volume 20/20 Vision for a Sustainable Society, being put together by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.

Coming up: