By Alexandra Knight and Catherine Allan
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.
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:
- 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.
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.