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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2012

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Book of Note


Valerie A. Brown, John A. Harris, and Jacqueline Y. Russel (editors), London: Earthscan, 2010.

In Tackling Wicked Problems, the authors adopt the concept developed almost 40 years ago by planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber and, like a number of recent scholars and public agencies, find it highly pertinent in framing current socioecological problems ranging from climate change to water pollution. The book is based on conversations between its contributors in the Human Ecology Forum at the Australian National University. It is a testament to the quality and benefit of these ongoing, long-term discussions between diverse participants linked primarily by a desire to work toward “a just and ecologically sustainable future for the planet.”

The five chapters in the first part of the book lay out the conceptual framework. The introduction emphasizes the importance of imagination in responding to wicked problems and the paradoxes that commonly lie within them. Next is a chapter clarifying what is meant by transdisciplinarity, though at times it left this reader wondering how many buzzwords like complexity, hybridity, reflexivity, and transcendence could be strung together in one sentence. Surely a bit more intellectual humility and clarity are also part of the transdisciplinary project?

The third chapter provides the philosophical foundation for the book, arguing that the kind of science required to effectively respond to wicked problems is characterized by an explicit and “open” posture to ethics, ontology, and epistemology. The fourth chapter expands this framework by discussing five knowledge cultures-individual, local community, specialized, organizational, and holistic forms of knowledge-and how these can be validated and combined in a collective learning cycle. The fifth considers the role of ignorance and uncertainty, emphasizing that “knowledge is power, but so is ignorance.”

The 15 chapters in the second part of the book apply more or less explicitly the concepts introduced in part one in a diversity of practical settings. They are grouped in terms of the five knowledge cultures identified in chapter four, and include authors' reflections on issues such as the practice of research, community conflict resolution, organizational change, and intercultural communication. The final two chapters then attempt a synthesis and prognosis, first to reiterate the importance of the conceptual and methodological foundations of the human ecology paradigm, and second to consider whether the approaches discussed in the book can constitute a new form of science, implemented within coherent communities of practice.

Though some chapters are more compelling than others, I found this book very enriching. It is a thoughtful discussion of new ways of linking science and practice to respond to socioecological problems, describing and contributing to a broader trend reflected also in our work here in South Africa on issues such as food insecurity.


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