Trust is the key to engaging communities in green politics

Why does anyone bother to join social activist organisations, and commit time and energy to their causes? It is a problem worth considering because non-members (‘free riders’) enjoy the benefits of successful social change just as much as the members do, though only the members incur the costs. This might suggest that, on the basis of a purely rational ‘social cost-benefit analysis’, most people will not bother to join, say, unions or environmental organisations when they can get the benefits for free. This incentive to not bother supporting these organisations is often described as the ‘collective action problem’ or the ‘free-rider problem.’

However, since it is clear that many people do join a wide variety of such organisations, the question might be put another way: What are the incentives that overcome the self-interest of the free-rider mentality?

In trying to understand the reasons why people do get involved in environmental organisations in particular, Russell Dalton has considered the values and objective conditions which may explain participation. The four factors he identifies are as follows:

Democracy, because it tolerates and may even encourage political mobilisation.

Socio-economic development, as it enhances levels of urbanisation, mass education and social mobility, and simplifies mass communication.

Extensive environmental problems, because they cause people to demand improvements.

Postmaterial values, as people are more concerned with quality of life.

Taken at face value as an explanation for participation in environmental groups in western nations, this combination of values and conditions looks promising. There is just one problem. When environmental group membership in various countries is evaluated against these four factors, the results are unconvincing: there just doesn’t seem to be a strong connection between them.

Kim Mannemar Sonderskov offers a solution. He suggests that the collective action problem may well apply in the first instance, but may be overcome in certain situations by generalised trust.

Ordinary (‘particularised’) trust enhances cooperation between people who know each other. Generalised trust, on the other hand, is the expectation that other people in society share the same basic attitudes and values as oneself, which in turn fosters cooperation between people who do not know one another. This increases the expected benefit to any individual of cooperating with others, and thus the likelihood of widespread cooperation between large numbers of people is enhanced.

Effectively, therefore, Sonderskov proposes that the explanation of levels of involvement in environmental organisations requires a two-stage process. First there must be a certain level of generalised social trust in the society to encourage more than a handful of people to become involved. Then, if the level of social trust is sufficient, the degree of local participation will reflect the particular balance in that society of post-materialist values, socioeconomic and democratic conditions, and environmental problems, as predicted by Dalton.

Using survey data from 52 countries (ie, including both affluent western nations and non-western nations) along with Dalton’s earlier research, Sonderskov shows this two-stage model to be a good description of what is actually observed.

Let’s think about the situation in societies with lower levels of generalised trust. The model outlined above would suggest that seeking to increase engagement in environmental activism requires us to face a much deeper social problem than we might otherwise imagine. Overcoming the much bigger issue of a lack of generalised social trust in a community is far more than a ‘marketing’ problem or even an ‘education’ problem.

If I can take the risk of applying this insight to the green political context (acknowledging there are other factors at play here too), I would suggest there is a very important message in Dalton and Sonderskov’s work. In circumstances where social trust is low, pouring scarce resources (time, hard-won money, and every last drop of energy) into expensive campaigns to raise a profile for a few months every election year is hardly going to make an impact on levels of active membership and community engagement. Grassroots involvement in local communities is what, over time, will facilitate the engagement that greens seek. We need to be part of our communities, know them, work in them, and work with them accordingly.

Russell J. Dalton (2005) The greening of the globe? Cross-national levels of environmental group membership. Environmental Politics, 14(4), 441-459.
Kim Mannemar Sonderskov (2008 ) Environmental group membership, collective action and generalised trust. Environmental Politics, 17(1), 78-94.

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