A couple of years ago I did a piece of research for Shelter NSW on the redevelopment of public housing estates. If you're a real nerd you can read it here, but unless you're especially interested in the literature on public housing renewal you'll find it very tedious.
One of the many reports I read involved the researchers interviewing residents who had lived in the midst of a redevelopment project in Minto, Sydney. They suggested that a large part of the reason for the disconnect between the plans made by the redevelopment authority and its contractors, and the preferences of the tenants, was that they view the neighbourhood very differently.
Redevelopment professionals - architects, planners, project managers and so forth - see the suburb as a grid, as if viewed from the air, and for them all parts of the grid are of equal priority. Residents see it in a more personal way, in a series of circles centred on their own home and radiating out to their immediate street and neighbourhood and then the wider suburb. The planner wants to know, "How can I deliver this entire project in the most efficient and cost-effective way?" The resident wants to know, "When will be able to turn my taps on again? When will I be able to get back into my driveway?"
The more I think about it, the more this idea has grown on me. It seems to me that it applies to much more than redevelopment projects. Each of us in our personal, community lives view things in concentric circles. Most of our attention is focused near the centre, on ourselves, those who are close to us and the people and places we know well. As issues and events get further from this centre they become more abstract and distant from us and it becomes much harder for us to take any interest.
On the other hand, people who have responsibility for the wider systems - government ministers, senior officials, planners and so forth - tend to see the issues from a greater distance and are obliged to think about the system as a whole. They tend to view things as if they were looking down from a great height, to see the whole picture and the way the parts of it interact and interrelate. In the process, it is easy for them to lose sight of the individuals involved and to become exclusively focused on the whole system, to make abstract calculations about gain and loss, to sacrifice some people for what they see as the greater good.
A couple of examples illustrate how this might work.
First is the story of Mojgan Shamsalipoor. Mojgan is a 21-year-old Iranian woman who was completing Year 12 at Yeronga State High School, just a kilometre or so from where I live. She was applying for Australian residency after fleeing Iran and had recently married. However her application was refused and in August she was arrested at the school without prior warning by armed Immigration Department officials and sent to the detention centre in Darwin.
The staff, students and parents of the school were shocked at her detention and have been protesting vigorously ever since. They have protested at the office of the Immigration Minister, they have spoken about it in the media, they have made formal requests for ministerial intervention and a review of her case. A couple of weeks ago they staged a half-day strike at the school to remind everyone that they haven't forgotten.
They believe Mojgan when she says she will be in danger if forced to return to Iran, but they also say quite clearly that her detention doesn't make any sense. She is a popular, intelligent young woman, she studies hard and does well at school, she makes a positive contribution to the wider community, she is newly married to a young man of Iranian descent who has Australian residency. What could make more sense than to let her stay? What danger does she pose to anyone?
All these protests have predictably fallen on deaf ears. Minister Dutton has provided his usual brick wall response to their requests, she remains in detention in Darwin. Both Department and Minister are determined to deport her as soon as they are able to.
Now, it's only fair to point out that Yeronga High has quite a few refugee students and so their staff and supporters are sensitised to the issues involved. However, they are not professional advocates or political activists, they are ordinary teachers and parents. They are simply responding with common humanity, standing up for their friend, pointing out the opportunity for an act of mercy which will cost nothing and add a valuable member to the Australian community.
It's tempting to ask why Minister Dutton and his advisors and officials can't see this. Is it simply that they are heartless psychopaths? I suppose it's possible, but unlikely. As far as I'm aware, Dutton is a kind husband and father and a fairly normal, if highly conservative, human being. However, as Minister he is tasked with overseeing the wider system. He is virtually unable to see Mojgan Shamsalipoor because he sees the thousands of asylum seekers in camps around the world, the thousands who have attempted to reach Australia by boat, the vast scope of the global refugee challenge,
He sees threats to the orderly management of Australia's humanitarian programs. He fears lost political capital from any failure to stem the flow of asylum seekers coming by boat. After consideration and advice he and his government have chosen a policy based on deterrence and they know for that to "work" he can't afford to show a compassionate face. He sees the map, the grid, not the individuals who people it. It's all a question of perspective.
You won't be surprised to hear that I'm firmly on the side of Ms Shamsalipoor and her school in this dispute. I agree, it doesn't make any sense to detain her. As a local resident I'd be more than happy to have her and her husband as neighbours. Yet I also acknowledge that Dutton and co are dealing with a real problem. Our planet has a huge refugee problem, and it needs to be solved. I don't agree with their solution. I think it attempts to solve a symptom while leaving the problem untouched, and victimises innocent people in order to achieve an abstract outcome. However, in this debate it is not enough to appeal to compassion, we also need to develop an alternative systemic response to the needs of refugees. Not bombing and invading their countries of origin might possibly help there, but I digress.
The point is that both perspectives have things to say to each other. The staff and students of my local high school have a message of compassion which Mr Dutton needs to hear. If he can't hear it and make a reasonable response (and it is clear that he can't) then his approach is flawed and needs to be changed. However, he also has something to say - asylum seekers do drown at sea and this needs to be prevented. We do need to retain some reasonably orderly process for receiving and assessing applications for asylum. If we want to participate in this discussion we have to be prepared to address these issues.
In this case, the local concentric perspective yields a greater measure of compassion and humanity, but it's not the same for every issue. Climate change is once again on the front page thanks to the Paris talks this week and the nations of the world - including us - are once again stumbling towards an inadequate response.
I suspect that in this case it is the concentric view of the world that makes us slow to act. Here in downtown Brisbane, the impacts of climate change don't seem all that bad. The weather is a bit less predictable (and hotter!), but we still have plenty to eat and drink, the occasional weather incident is covered by our insurance (I even got a brand new roof out of the last one!) and overall it seems quite minor. Australians obviously think this way - the Liberal Party's campaign against the Carbon Tax was based almost exclusively on an appeal to our self-interest, and it was resoundingly successful. If we show an inclination to respond to the problem, as we did in 2007-08, our commitment is shallow and easily reversed.
Yet the science, and the representatives of poor countries, tell us that climate change is anything but minor. Some Pacific Island nations have their very existence threatened by sea level rises. Millions of poor Indian and African farmers have had their livelihoods destroyed by drought and flood and are forced to move to increasingly overcrowded urban slums. A multi-year drought was one of the most important triggers for the Syrian civil war that has given us Islamic State and our recent spike in terrorist attacks.
All these things - scientific theory, the plight of poor African and Indian farmers, the war in Syria, the fate of Pacific nations whose location we can't point to on a map - are on the very outer ring of the concentric circles. It takes a lot for them to penetrate into the circle within which we are impelled to serious action.
In this case, we need to listen more carefully to the insights of the grid view, the view from above. The danger in climate change is precisely the things we in the West don't see locally right now. The people suffering may be far away, but they are still people just like us and they are knocking on our door in increasing numbers. Furthermore, the scientists tell us that climate change is a slow burn - even if we stop emitting now, the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will continue to warm the planet for decades and our own environment will get worse.
This creates a big communication challenge. What will motivate us to act, in the absence of a local impact that makes us take notice? Perhaps it's real stories of climate change in other places to help us put a human face on the issue. Perhaps it's future scenarios for our own communities. Perhaps it's a shift in our mindset which helps us think more globally and see the planet as our home, rather than just our suburb. Perhaps there is an element of self-interest we can play on. Either way, those who see the climate change grid need to find a way to insert that knowledge into the concentric world-view that we mostly live by.
As I say, neither view is right or wrong. They are different perspectives on the same thing. We use both in our lives, and which one is dominant depends on how we engage with each particular issue. We need both if we are to solve problems and make our world a better place.