Ecology and ethics: From conservation to capabilities to cultivation

In a chapter just submitted for an anthology on Earth Stewardship I raise the possibility of translating the non-equilibrium view of ecological complexity (Pickett 2013) into a view of ethics and social action. This leads me to introduce five ideals for a “dynamic flux ethics”—engagement, participation, cultivating collaborators, transversality, and fostering curiosity.  I unpack these a little below, but something I realized after writing the chapter is that two shifts were involved:

1. From conservation (jointly of habitats, cultural forms, and peoples threatened by environmental degradation; Rozzi 2013) to people’s capabilities (of engagement, participation,..); and

2. from having those capabilities to cultivating them.

The second shift seems important because the ideal of transversality is far from realized in any political theory or practice I am familiar with.  Anyway, here are very brief sketches of the ideals:

Engagement denotes deliberate involvement in a situation in ways that presume that other people will also take an active role.   On the presumption that the dynamic flux of ecological and social complexities cannot be well understood from an outside view (in which complexities are, say, reduced to a unifying metric such as energy, ascendancy, or ecosystem services), positions of engagement must be taken within the complexity (Taylor 2005, 203ff).  Engagement has, in a sense, long been emphasized in Adaptive Environmental Management (Gunderson et al. 1995).

On-going re-assessment means that engagement invites participation or collaboration.  Collaboration in environmental research allows multiple perspectives to be combined, and, in view of the problematic boundaries of ecological situations, for study to extend over time and span distance.  It can also generate new perspectives, ensure durability of outcomes, and develop people’s capacities—including their capacity to collaborate (Taylor et al. 2011).

Generating knowledge about dynamic fluxes and about the effects of people’s actions within those fluxes is only part of the rationale for engagement and participation. The objective of developing people’s capacities invites attention as well to the process, with a view, whatever the content or outcome, to cultivating collaborators.  In what I have previously called flexible engagement: “researchers in any knowledge-making situation [should take up the challenge] of connecting quickly with others who are almost ready to foster—formally or otherwise—participatory processes and, through the experience such processes provide their participants, contribute to enhancing the capacity of others to do likewise” (Taylor 2005, 210).

A case of community planning (Taylor 2005, 207ff), in which the community’s capacities were subsequently stretched and its plans undermined by decisions made at a distance by a multinational employer, points to the need for an additional quality to engagement, namely, that it cuts across and connects different strands, processes, and social realms.  Such transversality of engagement means not only taking seriously the creativity and capacity-building that arises from well-facilitated participation among people who share a place or livelihood, but also incorporating knowledge-making of non-local or trans-local researchers—including knowledge about the dynamics that produce adverse trans-local decisions and about ways to try to mitigate their effects.

My last ideal concerns a sense of stewardship characterized not by firm positions or readily identified loyalties, but by mutual recognition among inquirers—among people trying to make sense of their own circumstances as they seek ways to change what has been given to them by dint of history, place, and the unfolding actions of others.  The final ideal that I would associate with a dynamic flux ethics is fostering curiosity—embracing the questions opened up once we set out to put engagement, participation, cultivation of collaborators, and transversality into practice.


Gunderson LH, Holling CS, Light SS (eds.) (1995) Barriers and bridges to the renewal of ecosystems and institutions. Columbia University Press, New York

Pickett STA (2013) The flux of nature: changing worldviews and inclusive concepts. In Linking ecology and ethics for a changing world: Values, philosophy, and action. Rozzi R et al. (eds.), Springer,  Dordrecht, pp. 265-79

Rozzi R (2013) Biocultural ethics: From biocultural homogenization toward biocultural conservation. In Linking ecology and ethics for a changing world: Values, philosophy, and action. Rozzi R et al. (eds.), Springer,  Dordrecht, pp. 9-32

Taylor PJ (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Taylor PJ, Fifield SJ, Young CC (2011) Cultivating collaborators: concepts and questions emerging interactively from an evolving, interdisciplinary workshop. Science as Culture 20:89-105


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