Intentional ecology: Building values, advocacy and action into transdisciplinary environmental research

By Alexandra Knight and Catherine Allan

authors_alexandra-knight_catherine-allan
1. Alexandra Knight (biography)
2. Catherine Allan (biography)

As a society, how do we encourage early and ethical action when building our knowledge and confronting serious challenges?

In this blog post we explore the conceptual framework of intentional ecology and apply it to a case study to illustrate how it deals with the question raised above.

Intentional ecology – foundations and actions

Intentional ecology, illustrated in the figure below, is a new conceptual framework that enables early, applied and relevant integrated action, as well as reflexive and dynamic approaches to implementation of conservation and sustainability measures. It’s a better way of doing science.

knight_intentional-ecology_structure
Intentional ecology: foundations, actions, filters, informing disciplines and the relationships among them (adapted from Knight and Allan, 2021, which provides the references cited)

Intentional ecology recognises the deep interrelationships between humans and the more-than-human world, and enables an ethic of care and love. Intentional ecology draws on foundations in feminist science and ecofeminist theory; in addition, conservation biology and systems theory, particularly intervention science, are also essential to the framework.

Recognising the principles and approaches from these disciplines encourages and enables ecological research/management teams to exercise:

  • care
  • reflexivity
  • methodological pluralism
  • action and advocacy.

Combined, these actions constitute intentional ecology.

Why “intentional” ecology?

Intention takes us into the realms of choice and action. “Intentional” suggests that it is not by chance or mere habit that something is done. Intention is intrinsically related with active understanding, with aims and purposes, meanings and importance. Because intent is value-laden it leads to ethical considerations.

Intent informs decision-making and comes to the fore when linking research with advocacy and action, and supports the transdisciplinarity essential for addressing complex issues.

Being an intentional ecologist – the Sloane’s froglet case

Here we show how we use the intentional ecology framework in our research, action and advocacy for Sloane’s froglet, Crinia sloanei, a small, rather undistinguished frog, now listed as endangered in south-eastern Australia; see also the figure below. Our transdisciplinary research commenced in 2009, and both research and action continue in 2022.

Early in the research we acknowledged our values:

  • the intrinsic worth of the non-human world;
  • the right of Sloane’s froglet to continue to live in-situ;
  • that we (humans, non-humans, ecological processes and interactions) are all interconnected and dependent upon one another for our well-being; and,
  • that research which could be applied to management actions should be applied in the work.

We also believe that a rigorous and honest scientist can be an advocate for the diversity of life with no incongruity.

knight_intentional-ecology_framework
Intentional ecology framework applied to the Sloane’s froglet case (source: the authors)

In applying the intentional ecology framework for Sloane’s froglet we transcend single-species ecological research and acknowledge and incorporate the complex social ecological situation. Taking this approach involves moving beyond the traditional sphere of an applied ecologist – a challenging and rewarding move. Our work gains its credibility through its reliance on theoretical perspectives beyond the accepted space.

We use multiple approaches. Initially, we used well-established ecological methods to research the distribution and habitat of Sloane’s froglet to obtain fundamental wetland and micro habitat information that would be directly and immediately applicable to management. We are now moving to understand landscape-scale connectivity for Sloane’s froglet – moving from individual wetlands to the space between them.

We iteratively examine the boundaries to our research, for instance, we intentionally choose to research habitat rather than, say chytridiomycosis (a fungal disease).

During and following the initial scientific data collection and analysis we started to advocate action in support of Sloane’s froglet via presentations to several local community groups and forums, Landcare groups, individual stakeholders and landholders, non-government conservation organisations and government officials. This engagement continues in new forms including with local, state and national government and in environmental court cases.

Sloane’s froglets are intriguing and drive our scientific curiosity. And we care for Sloane’s froglet and its environments and openly express that care while undertaking rigorous research. We are not alone here – many ecological researchers care about the organism or process that they are studying, and many feel a heavy burden of responsibility. Care can be considered a strength and a motivating force for knowledge-based action.

In advocating for the protection of Sloane’s froglet we express our delight in its beauty, its tiny nature, its seeming courage as it chirps and breeds in the middle of cold wet winters – a sound and inspirational expression of what environmental philosophers have described as the ecological impulse. Curiosity and care inspire us to continue working in arduous conditions and in a sometimes conflicted socio-political context.

As a result of our research and advocacy:

  • Site-based action to protect Sloane’s froglet started very soon after research commenced.
  • Knowledge has been mobilised and many people now undertake activities to protect Sloane’s froglet independently of our work.
  • The wider community is knowledgeable about Sloane’s froglet; Sloane’s froglet is protected at many individual sites; it is protected by national legislation; and new wetlands are built for it. (Such institutional and legislative changes have been slower, but are now accelerating.)
  • School children sing songs about Sloane’s froglet, and Landcare groups have wetland planting days for it.
  • The presence of Sloane’s froglet is actively monitored by citizen scientists.
  • Scientists, practitioners, and locals all come together to exchange knowledge and work for Sloane’s froglet wellbeing.

All of these are expressions of care and intention to make a difference through better understanding.

Conclusions and questions

The Intentional ecology approach is powerful as it motivates scientists and practitioners to not only undertake rigorous ecological research, but also to act and advocate. In requiring reflection and reflexivity, intentional ecology can help build spaces to draw expertise together. Intentional ecology provides a platform and imperative for choice and ethical action.

Do you have a framework for incorporating advocacy into your research and practice? Is it explicit? Do you have examples of how care contributes to better research practices and practical outcomes? Can you see applications for the intentional ecology framework to problems that are not necessarily ecological?

To find out more:
Knight, A. R. and Allan, C. (2021). Intentional Ecology: Integrating environmental expertise through a focus on values, care and advocacy. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 8, 290. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-021-00960-1

Biography: Alexandra Knight PhD is a Lecturer in Environmental Management at Charles Sturt University’s Port Macquarie campus, Australia. She is committed to working for the benefit of the Australian environment. She works closely with Landcare and other community groups to build and share knowledge of the natural world and how best to manage it. She has a particular interest in amphibians, knowledge exchange and co-design.

Biography: Catherine Allan PhD is a Professor in Environmental Sociology and Planning at Charles Sturt University’s campus in Albury-Wodonga, Australia. She has a strong personal and professional connection to rural landscapes. She has engaged with natural resource management in south eastern Australia for over 30 years, and is particularly interested in adaptive management, social learning and participatory and collaborative research.

18 thoughts on “Intentional ecology: Building values, advocacy and action into transdisciplinary environmental research”

  1. Copied from a Tweet by Jacob PJ Chacko

    Curious, why include feminist science, and not include aboriginal science or Critical race theory.

    Is this the case of scholars epistemological background affecting neutrality of a generalized theory/perspective.

    Reply
  2. Great blog post and very useful framework. I shall read the article with a lot of attention. I believe I can bring this framework into one of our consortium projects in which, as an overall objective, we’re aiming to develop a more-than-human design methodology for accounting the needs of humans and non-humans (in this case urban animals) equitably in developing a urban lighting solutions for the Nordic dark season. We have scientists and design researchers in the consortium and there’s a definite need for giving the scientists (in this case urban ecologist) research-based perspectives that’ll give “permission” to be advocates of the non-humans.

    On another note, I believe some disciplines or research areas are more comfortable with advocacy than others either due to training or the characteristics of the research area. Arguably, advocacy is inherent in solution-oriented sustainability science, for example, and projects focus on normative goals of various sorts comfortably.

    And finally, I “advocated” for caring for parents in this article that presents a caring research agenda for exploring parenting and climate change. I can imagine how the framework can be applied in this context. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S266604902030030X

    Reply
    • Thankyou Idil for yoru interesting comments. I’m very pleased that you can see ways to apply the intentional ecology framework.

      It can be very difficult as a scientist to find that space where you have “permission” to speak up for the more-than-human world. Many scientists still fear advocacy, even in the face of the urgency of the climate crisis. And many thoughtful members of the public and government planning departments strongly desire that scientists are impartial and “objective”. They are seeking that sense of reliablity, and that scientists are not party to vested interests. So, it’s a very difficult space to move into and through. Even for solutions-oriented sciences, academic and departmental cultural constraints can limit advocacy.

      This is where the strength of “intent” lies. The intentional ecology framework calls for openness and explicit reflection. Part of that intent can be to do rigorous and care-ful science as well as speak up in a way that is congruent with the researcher’s values and beliefs. I hope that having the four guiding actions for intentional ecology is an enabling esperience for your urban ecologists.

      By the way, in Australia, we have the Mountain Pygmy Possum, which eats migratory moths. Scientists suggest that the moths have been impacted by light pollution. So we now have Lights off for the Moths each Spring. I don’t think it is very effective yet. It would be great to learn more about what you are doing with urban lighting to see if it can be applied in Australia too. https://theconversation.com/you-can-help-track-4-billion-bogong-moths-with-your-smartphone-and-save-pygmy-possums-from-extinction-123512

      Thankyou for the link to your paper. I found it very useful. As an environmental lecturer, I find facing and responding to the despair of my students very difficult, and your paper gave me some insights into which quesitons I need to be asking (within my institution) of the teacher-student relationship and how to approach intervention.

      Reply
  3. Thank you very much for leaving many thoughts in my head . I am a teacher of Environmental Education and Action Research at the Doctorate of Environmental Education Pedagogic Institute UPEL IPC Caracas Venezuela. Your paper clearly express the value of combining different paradigms in the study of the Environment. I liked the term Intentional Ecology because it incorporate the philosophy behind action research as a way to live and to act. As John Elliott pointed a long time ago as Phronesis. Also Kemmis, S. (Australian) referred to the Praxis Model in Education in Kemmis, S. (2007). Participatory Action Research and the public sphere. In P. Ponte & B.H.J. Smit (Eds.),The quality of practitioner research: Reflections on the position of the researcher and the researched (pp.9-27). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

    Reply
  4. Thank you Alex and Catherine for sharing your views and for advocating for advocacy by scientists based on the rigor of their science and their values. My own values extend to embracing the rights of nature as a group of us have recently expressed in an open access paper about the rights of wetlands – see https://doi.org/10.1071/MF20219. Our team of authors was a mixed bag and benefitted greatly from the interaction of diverse backgrounds, experiences and knowledge.

    The idea of rights not surprisingly to ourselves has been critiqued, but also attracted a lot of interest during various virtual conference presentations. We saw this as the start of a discussion, not the end, and involving more than ecologists, such as legal and social experts and local communities who may well have differing views on the concepts or the details that we proposed. A paper by Bridgewater raised a number of different viewpoints that we appreciated while not fully agreeing, as expressed in our reply (see https://doi.org/10.1071/MF21132 ).

    We see this discussion as continuing and intend to extend our advocacy along these lines, and to learn while doing this.

    Reply
  5. Lovely blog. I am struck by the similarities between this kind of perspective emerging in the ecological space and the themes I explore in my own work on systems thinking to address complex social problems (e.g., “Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, Methodology, and Practice”, Springer) – particularly explicit reflection on boundaries and values, methodological pluralism, and intentional action for improvement. There are also people explicitly linking across the ecological and social systems communities of practice, such as Anne Stephens (“Ecofeminism and Systems Thinking”, Routledge). I’m drawing attention to these connections because it feels like there is a systemic way of thinking about research that is now transcending boundaries and appearing in many different places, all at the same time. Good to see.

    Reply
    • Gerald, thankyou for your kind words and for bringing Anne Stephen’s work to our attention.

      Our development of the intentional ecology conceptual framework was an iterative process in which we actively sought concepts, frameworks, models and terminology from a number of existing disciplines. We explicitly drew on your work when developing intentional ecology, and, in particular, found your work on systemic intervention inspiring. For me (Alex), reading your 2003 paper Science as Systemic Intervention: Some implications of Systems Thinking and complexity for the Philosophy of Science was very exciting, as it deeply resonated with my research processes, and helped in articulating what is needed for an intentional ecology.

      Your work and the work of Deborah Bird Rose (Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation) were both motivating in helping develop our thinking, and in keeping us moving forward with Sloane’s Froglet conservation. Thankyou.

      Reply
  6. Intentionality in research opens up a much needed discussion about recognising we, as resarchers, are never value free and that we need to fully acknowledge why we do what we do. Some, such as the philosopher Nicholas Maxwell, even suggest that opening up to this is a necessary part of overcoming global challenges and that avoiding it continues to dirve a science that is complicit in the worlds problems. As such I love this framing of ecology as part of intention, allowing space for those involved to bring their whole person as part of how they understand what they seek to understand and how they act in the world. This is a great contribution to help us develop a more nuanced approach to research. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Ioan, thankyou for your thoughtful comments on the blog. They have had me pondering for a few days now.

      I have been thinking about what it means as a researcher to bring my ‘whole person’ – and I wonder what you mean by it?

      Developing intentional ecology was definitely a process of seeking congruence between research/action and ethics. No single discipline provided me with the foundation to freely express, consider, relfect and act, – and this was really a driver for developing a new conceptual framework. The drive to develop an intentional approach also came from a number of interviews I did with environmental practitioners, who expressed deep-seated care, openly advocated for their species or process, and were incredibly knowledgeable about the social context that influenced their approaches.

      Now I am wondering if there is another aspect to bringing my ‘whole person’ to my work.
      As a field ecologist, I’m in a very fortunate position. Undertaking field work to understand frog ecology is an experiential and embodied type of research, where you can be outside in wetlands for many hours, night after night, deeply immersed and focussed, using all of your senses. Focussing on being quiet, even your breathing; touching the wetland lightly so as not to disturb the night creatures; listening and differentiating sounds of animals calling; watching carefully for light and movement that might give away the presence of a frog; feeling the air, the water temperature, the changes in barometric pressure that will influence the findings; checking the position of your arms and legs in the swamp; smelling and tasting the rain as it comes in, and the different qualities of the water, all centre you in the moment, a moment when you bring all of your humanity to your work. Deeply and carefully observing is central to science, and this field and nature-based approach to research allows more than the presence of the intellect.

      I wonder if social researchers too, experience their research in this way, when they keenly listen to an interviewee revealing their experience and provide a space for insight to emerge?

      If I was going to develop some principles or modes for intentional ecologists, then Honouring the Observing would be high on my list.

      Thankyou for getting me thinking!

      Reply
  7. The ideas in this blog and the very nice paper that goes with it herald new approaches to thinking about ourselves in relation to nature, for the benefit of nature. Great stuff.
    It resonates with another paper, by Ute Thiermann and Bill Shete. Read this one, too – it wouldn’t usually be readily discoverable by ecologists: Thiermann, U.B. and Sheate, W.R., 2021. The way forward in mindfulness and sustainability: a critical review and research agenda. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 5(1), pp.118-139.

    Reply
    • Thankyou Mark for commenting and adding that interesting paper to the discussion.

      Coming from a background as a practitioner of conservation biology, I (Alex) was sure that research into amphibians needed to be applied. I was unsure how far down that road of ensuring application I should head – providing recommendations based on rigorous research is easily justifiable, however, heading into the realm of advocacy or campaigning is more controversial. There is some discussion about this in Alison Ritter’s blog and comments of 22 March on this site – ‘Drawing lines between researcher and advocate?” https://i2insights.org/2022/03/22/researcher-and-advocate/

      Openly acknowledging my beliefs in the intrinsic value of Sloane’s Froglet, and that in situ conservation is best, emboldened me to express my concern in a range of venues – from school wetland planting days to cases in the Land and Environment Court. I think more scientists should openly show their care and curiosity – both these attributes are drivers of sound and rigorous research, as well as societal transformation.

      Catherine adds that reflexivity is equally important – show care and curiosity, and actively collaborate and reflect on the impacts and consequences of doing so.

      Reply
  8. Really nice blog and important points. I’ve been thinking about intentionality in the context of impact recently, and this is more of a philosophy than an approach or technique – it pervades everything. I think that the complexity and apparent intractability of many ecological problems makes it easier to sit and study the problem than it does to take action, but when we integrate our values with what we do, we should be compelled to action, even if we don’t yet fully understand the problem.

    Reply
    • Thankyou Mark.
      Exploring intention is a way of understanding the will or purpose embedded in action. Using that exploration as a relective tool can help in understanding both the constraints and enablers of action. And – taking that intent in-hand will compel action!

      In Australia, it can be very hard to face the ecological problems that have become huge in such a short 200 years. I can’t imagine living in an Australia where there are no koalas – it’s unthinkable. That might sound trite to those who are struggling with the aftermath of climate change-driven fire and floods. Transformation requires more than studying and planning. Transformation to sustainability requires scientists to explicitly examine their values and beliefs and purposefully and intentionally step forward into that lesser-known space of advocacy and action.

      Reply

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