A Critical Systems Approach to Socio-Ecological Systems: Implications for social learning and governance
McCarthy, Daniel Dennis Patrick
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This dissertation builds on work that has applied complex systems thinking to socio-ecological systems as well as on research that explores critical and reflective approaches to planning. A broad, interdisciplinary literature review was undertaken to explore the implications of complex and critical systems thinking and critical social epistemology for environmental management, planning and policy research, governance and social learning. Building on the insights from this review, one of the key contributions of this research is a conceptual framework that explicitly integrates knowledge and learning into an understanding of socio-ecological systems. It is argued that in the highly complex and uncertain realm of environmental policy, planning and governance, we should begin to discuss such systems as socio-ecological-epistemological (SEE) systems. This research addresses the complexity, uncertainty, high decision stakes, power relations and plurality of knowledges involved in the process of social learning in environmental planning and governance. The SEE systems conceptual framework for research and intervention was developed in the form of descriptive (Co-Evolution, Reflexive Uncertainty, Cross-scalar Considerations) and prescriptive (Critical Awareness, Pluralism, Power) principles. Based upon these principles, a critical systems-based approach to planning and policy research was developed and applied to two case studies of innovative, integrated environmental planning and governance: the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Long Point World Biosphere Reserve. A conceptual model for describing and refining the contributions of environmental movement organizations to social learning in the context of environmental governance emerged. The model describes the requirements of social learning as defined along three axes: typology of knowledge; levels of critical reflection; and, a scale axis from individual agent to larger social structures (institutions). Through this work, it is evident that insights from complex and critical systems understanding have influenced thinking in environmental management, planning, governance and social learning. Through the exploratory application of the SEE systems approach to complex environmental planning and governance systems, the SEE systems principles appear to resonate strongly with the experience of environmental movement organizations. In particular, three key findings emerged from the two exploratory, empirical case studies. First, interviewees and workshop attendees in both case study contexts described the importance of various types of knowledge, especially scientific, local technical and governance knowledge in initiating policy change. Second, research participants stressed the importance of understanding the cross-scalar dynamics that affect their ability to influence policy as well as the need to develop policy and governance structures appropriate to the scale of the issue of interest. And finally, the need for individual as well as organizational critical reflection upon policy tools and implementation, policy goals as well as the power differentials embodied in certain policy and governance structures was also highlighted in the qualitative, empirical data generated through interviews and workshops. This research reaffirms the importance of the collaboration and the collective contribution of academic researchers, civil servants and volunteer members of environmental movement organizations to fostering social learning for sustainability in the context of complex SEE systems.