Five principles or themes for addressing unruly social and ecological complexities

On the presumption that the dynamic flux of ecological and social complexities cannot be well understood from an outside view…

positions of engagement must be taken within the complexity. Engagement denotes deliberate involvement in a situation in ways that presume that other people will also take an active role…

On-going re-assessment means that engagement invites participation or collaboration… [C]ollaboration 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.

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…”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.”

The qualities of engagement, participation, and cultivating collaborators are illustrated by the case of community planning in a district in Northern Ontario… However, as the postscript to that case shows, the community’s capacities were stretched and its plans undermined by decisions made at a distance by a multinational employer. This experience 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.

The final ideal. is fostering curiosity—embracing the questions opened up once we set out to put engagement, participation, cultivation of collaborators, and transversality into practice.

‘The word [curiosity] pleases me..: it evokes “concern”; it evokes the care one takes for what exists and could exist; a readiness to find strange and singular what surrounds us; a certain relentlessness to break up our familiarities and to regard otherwise the same things; a fervor to grasp what is happening and what passes; a casualness in regard to the traditional hierarchies of the important and the essential… I dream of a new age of curiosity.’ (Foucault, The Masked Philosopher, 1996)

(Extracted from Taylor, P. J., “The ethics of participatory processes: Dynamic flux, Open questions,” pp. 325-337 in Rozzi, R., Pickett, S. T. A., Callicott, J. B., Chapin, F. S., Power, M. E., & Armesto, J. J. (Eds.). Earth Stewardship: Linking Ecology and Ethics in Theory and Practice. Springer, 2015.)


Schema of 5 principles or themes.
To derive them we proceeded, as indicated in the text above, from the top of the schema downwards. Yet, once the principles or themes were identified, the lower ones could be seen to drive those above them (connected by a line), where drive means “If principle A holds, that makes it more likely that principle B will hold.” That directionality does not, however, mean that we then focus our energies to establish the principle at the bottom first and only once that is in place, move upwards to establish the next one. Instead, in whatever we are doing, if principle X is not working well or we want to improve it, we should examine what is needed to enhance a principle lower than X that drives it.

More explanation of the upward (and downward) connections:

  • In fostering Curiosity, i.e., seeing questions to address, one area of questions lies in making sense of Transversality.
  • Transversality means paying attention at recurrent intervals to translocal resources that could be contributed to or withdrawn from a specific situation in which you are positioned.
  • Transversality also means alternating between, on one hand, reflecting explicitly on one’s diverse and somewhat idiosyncratic resources to help decide to move in different directions, and, on the other hand, simpler discursive themes that help crystallize the need to mobilize different resources or organize them in new directions, such as “Convince others of what is really going on” or “Promote participatory approaches.”
  • Transversality also means keeping in mind Big Visions (e.g., slow global CO2 growth) but grounding them in action in specific situations.
  • In fostering Curiosity, another area of questions, which contributes to Cultivation of Collaborators, involves respecting and listening well to others at the same time as delving into one’s own assumptions, commitments, and blockages. This is the Connecting phase of CPR spaces. (In turn, Curiosity is stimulated by the Probing and Reflecting Phases.)
  • Cultivation of Collaborators contributes to Participatory and Collaborative processes. (In turn, to help these processes go well, they should always be pursued in such as way to Culitivate Collaborators.)
  • In paying attention at recurrent intervals to translocal resources, that makes Participatory and Collaborative processes less vulnerable, that is, more prepared to resist having those resources withdrawn or to mobilize to secure them.
  • Paying attention to one’s diverse and somewhat idiosyncratic resources at the same time as respecting and listening well to others makes Participatory and Collaborative processes more likely to be ethical in the specific sense of recruiting and maintaining a diverse range of participants. (Diverse participation, in turn, enhances the different aspects of Transversality.)
  • Curiosity, Transversality, and Participation enhance Engagement in specific situations or positions.

If these five principles of themes enhance the continual reassessment of knowledge, plans and action in response to developments, which is the key to addressing rather than suppressing unruly social and ecological complexities, the corresponding subjectivity of agents is a sense that it is impossible to simply continue along previous lines. While it is possible to do so, it is no longer ever simple.

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