Empowerment and Social-Ecological Resilience in the Anthropocene | Lewis Williams

Reproduced from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323356737_Empowerment_and_Social-ecological_Resilience_in_the_Anthropocene

Empowerment and Social-Ecological Resilience in the Anthropocene

Lewis Williams (University of Saskatchewan)


In these times of rapid and escalating social, political and environmental shifts which we now know as the Anthropocene —an epoch whereby human beings now represent an independent geo-physical force impacting upon the planet — we are faced with urgent questions about how we shall live within the earth’s carrying capacity. Increasing the likelihood of the continuance of life on this planet into the next century at the very least necessitates collective action. Such efforts must be at the “intersections of sustainability”; the ‘pressure points’ or emergent spaces of creative tension between often competing worldviews, identities, diverse cultural biographies, sectional interests and political agendas. Our ability to navigate the ripple effect of these overlapping and intersecting dynamics substantially influences the extent to which they either diminish or result in generative possibilities for the future. Public health, in particular the focus on ‘upstream’ determinants of human-ecological well-being through community action, otherwise referred to ‘empowerment’, is a potentially significant area of intersectional practice. Its historical roots in Western positivism however, mean that in reality empowerment practice is sometimes inadvertently wielded by practitioners as a double-edged sword – while it may draw strength from public health’s legitimacy as a significant field of Western Scientific medicine, paradoxically the same field is implicated in the individualist paradigm that has created many of our ecological ills in the first place. Never-the-less, empowerment practice remains a potentially influential field of analysis and action for sustainability practice, provided we can draw on its actual and perceived strengths whilst revolutionizing some of its most fundamental tenets from within.

Aside from resilience discourse largely in the field of mental well-being, and more recent mention of community and Indigenous perspectives of resilience, the concept remains largely under-developed in the context of human-environmental well-being with few mentions of social-ecological resilience. This article re-orientates empowerment practice away from its anthropocentric tendencies towards considerations of human-wellbeing as a component of an interconnected bio-sphere. In doing so, it centralizes social-ecological resilience as a potentially unifying concept which supports epistemological and cultural critique of empowerment practice whilst taking account of the diverse and sometime divergent agency imperatives of different cultural groups and sectional interests. Three critical capacities for empowerment practitioners working at the intersections of sustainability are outlined. It is argued that without such critique, empowerment practice runs the risk of being at best impotent or at worst damaging to human sustainability imperatives in the 21st Century.


Despite the dire implications of eco-system collapse for human well-being, the health sector has been slow to respond to this unfolding crisis (Hancock 2011; Hancock et al, 2015). A recently released report by the Canadian Public Health Association (Hancock et al, 2015) is a promising sign, however, that the deeply habituated human-environmental divide within Western consciousness and related health–promoting practice may be diminishing. Advocating for public health to adopt an ecological (rather than purely social) determinants of health approaches, the report identifies that key to this transition will be “integrat[ing] new theories of place into health promoting practices” (Hancock et al, 2015, p. 67). Paralleling these developments Poland, Dooris, and Haluza-Delay (2011) call for ‘a robust theorisation of sustainable development’ that explicitly bridges health promotion and environmental justice, whilst centralizing engagement with Indigenous and other dis-enfranchised groups and related knowledge systems in the process.

Human agency, participation and equitable access to health determinants (for example, traditional lands, cultural practices, language, housing, healthy and sustainable foods) remain central to these calls. Health promoting discourse has most often encapsulated these concepts under the rubric of ‘empowerment’ (Cyril, Smith, and Renzaho, 2015; Labonte and Laverack, 2001; Rissel, 1994; Wallerstein, 2006). However, for a variety of reasons — e.g. the emphasis placed on individualistic notions of empowerment in the wake of public-health funding cutbacks or the concept’s almost exclusive focus on human relationships and associated anthropocentric tendencies (Arihihenhua 1993 in MacDonald 1998, p. 40; Williams, Roberts and McIntosh, 2016), its transformative power in securing supportive environments, and healthy human-ecosystem relations — central tenets of the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion (1986) —  is now somewhat diminished.

Health promotion’s impotency in tackling environmental issues undoubtedly in part lies in the epistemic rift between Western and Indigenous approaches. Yet there is increasing recognition that the holistic frameworks adopted towards health promotion by Indigenous communities (Panelli and Tipa, 2007), are important for our shared planetary future. Paralleling these developments, and in the face of the increasing urgency of human-ecological issues, Indigenous and non-indigenous scholars alike are drawing attention to the importance of collective action across sectors and cultural groupings. Such approaches need to take account of the nuanced and pluralistic understandings of human-ecological issues (Callison, 2014) and the importance of constructing “new knowledges that are neither binary nor oppositional” (Arabena, 2006, p. 43). In this regard, “social-ecological resilience” (Resilience Alliance, 2009) — broadly conceptualized within this chapter as the harmonious co-evolution of human and other than human life — holds promise as a unifying concept.

This chapter is a modest attempt to respond to some of these developments and challenges. Its focus is on two key dimensions of empowerment practice considered critical to facilitating health promotion’s necessary transition to a focus on the ecological determinants of health:

  1. The potential of place-based conceptualizations of agency and the importance of epistemological critique more generally in identifying and making explicit the worldviews underlying various empowerment practices; and,
  2. The contribution of socio-ecological resilience as an organizing concept for working across diverse cultural collectives in addressing issues of human-environmental well-being.

The first dimension focuses primarily on the issue of epistemology, while emphasising the need for empowerment practitioners to come to understand how ‘place-based agency’ differs significantly from human-centric notions of agency and empowerment. Familiarity with this dimension is therefore important to developing the first and second empowerment capacities emphasised in this article — epistemological differentiation or critique of various theoretical approaches to agency and empowerment, and therefore the ability to discerningly engage with the various epistemological positions underlying sustainability approaches. The second dimension — the contribution of social-ecological resilience as an organizing concept — applies the first capacity, epistemological differentiation, to the development of the third capacity, appreciation of the respective strengths and interrelationships between various culturally-informed worldviews. It achieves this through providing a framework to consider culturally-informed human-ecological perspectives while anchoring these in the dynamics of social-economic interests (political economy).

Several premises inform this article. Firstly, inevitably, our actions as human beings are shaped by our beliefs about reality and our relationship to other life-forms. Systematic and rigorous engagement with underlying premises of ontology and epistemology is crucial therefore in coming to know how we think we know, and developing critical perspectives of human agency. Secondly, the emergence of Participatory worldviews which have increasingly come to view all matter as being alive, with varying degrees of consciousness and agency (Fessenden, 2007), and the re-assertion of Indigenous placed-based epistemologies (Kovach, 2009; Stewart-Harawira, 2005) are important to human-ecological well-being. Formed over 1000s of years in place, the latter group of knowledge-bases are equivalent to the ‘epistemological bedrock’ of place and therefore an invaluable source for restoring harmony between human and other than human life. Through their cross-cultural relevance, Participatory world-views offer non-Indigenous groups the potential of an authentic connection to place in ways which are culturally situated and relevant. Thirdly, given the primacy of epistemology to our shared ecological future, empowerment theory must transcend previous constructivist and critical postmodern conceptualizations, which are often closely interwoven with identity politics and primarily concerned with equitable access to the social, cultural and economic determinants of health (Hankivsky and Christoffersen, 2008; Williams and Meadows, 2017). Accordingly this chapter argues that practice should be inclusive of socio-cultural histories, while emphasising and making explicit the underlying epistemologies of various communities and subsequent potential for collective action aimed at addressing the ecological determinants of health.

Western Epistemologies of Empowerment

Empowerment theory and practice has largely been shaped within neo-colonial contexts that have privileged Western identities and knowledge systems over others; most often positioning humans as discrete entities, part of, but separate from the ‘natural’ environment. Early research for example constructs empowerment as ‘control over’ or ‘mastery’ over the social environment (Rappaport, 1987). Later scholarship conceives empowerment as a multi-levelled and dynamic construct involving intrapersonal, interpersonal and socio-political elements (Rissel, 1994; Wallerstein, 2006); aptly captured in Wallerstein’s conceptualization of empowerment as a process progressing along a dynamic continuum of action from individual and small group development, to community organization, partnerships, and advocacy / political action (2006).

Drawing on feminist and critical postmodern theory, more recent developments illuminate the ways in which multiple social identities such as gender, ethnicity and class interact with forms of power in shaping empowerment processes (Hankivsky and Christoffersen, 2008; Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach, 2008); including Williams’ comprehensive articulation of the Empowerment Terrain (Williams and Meadows, 2017, p. 87). In recent years ecological approaches to health and empowerment have begun to occasionally appear within health and empowerment-related literature — for examples, Norton’s concept of “ecological empowerment” (the mutual empowerment of people and the natural world) (2009, p. 5) and Bentley’s (2014) more recent discussion of human and ‘other than human agency’. In summary, however, Western ecological approaches to empowerment are embryonic in that they largely overlook the agency of other life forms and non-discursive forms of inter-subjectivity and experiential ways of knowing so evident in Indigenous and Participatory paradigms.

Understanding Place-Based Agency and Empowerment

For Indigenous peoples, empowerment is closely tied to the re-assertion of Indigenous epistemologies which are in turn closely linked to Indigenous decolonization and resurgence — the restoration of cultural practices and the re-generation of one’s relational place-based existence (Corntassel, 2012). While Indigenous worldviews are particular to place and peoples, they share some similar epistemological roots and principals. Stewart-Harawira (2005) summarises these as: the interconnectedness of life; the life-force of every element or life form; that matter is imbued with spirit; and reciprocity between life forms.

Paradigms of Indigenous Resurgence differentiate themselves from non-Indigenous sustainability efforts through their grounding in three political themes or agency imperatives– (i) Resurgence — the resurgence of place-based consciousness and culture; (ii) Responsibilities — guardianship and responsibility towards all living things; and (iii) Relationships — other than human forms of life are not resources in the way of the free market economy, but rather part of the web of life (Corntassel 2012). To varying degrees, these agency imperatives (reasons for acting) differ significantly from other cultural communities who while may be equally concerned about human and environmental well-being and subscribe similar epistemologies, are, however, differently positioned within globalization and neo-colonialism.

Aninshnabe and Haudenosaunee scholar Vanessa Watts (2013) similarly captures this perspective through her observation that in contrast to Euro-Western understandings, for Indigenous communities, society is constituted not just by human to human relationships, but from the interactions between the entities within the Indigenous Life-World — i.e., the interrelations between humans, other animals, plant, mineral and spirit worlds. She articulates this consciousness as “Place-thought”, a distinctive space which recognizes the interconnectedness between thoughts and place, “based upon the premise that the land is alive and thinking and that humans and non-humans derive agency through the extensions of these thoughts” (2013, p. 21). The mutuality inherent in this notion of agency and well-being is captured in a Maori Elder’s recount of kaitiaki (guardianship):

When the world was created everything was given full wairua (spirit) and mana (power)……so everything is its own master….If people want to exercise kaitiaki (guardianship) they will first need to understand the value of all things, and the wairua of all things….….. For us this does not mean being in charge…you don’t go and tell the pipi how to live, you allow it to have the opportunity to live in the way that it knows best…and that is kaitiaki is. It is about knowing the place of things in the world including your place in the world. When you get to that place you realize that the thinking of all things is the same. (Smith, 2007, p. 1)

Indigenous perspectives of whom and what contributes to societal structures are quite different from post Enlightenment Euro-Western thought in which the agency of other than human life is subjugated to the desires, needs and agency of humans. “From an Indigenous point of view”, Watt’s continues, “habitats or ecosystems are better understood as societies; they have ethical structures, inter-species treaties and agreements, and further their ability to interpret, understand and implement (2013, p. 21). Within Indigenous communities in Canada and globally, these contracts between humans and place have existed and been nourished in the form of sacred guardianship agreements between particular tribes and places.

The evolution of Participatory worldviews emanating from Western scholarship reflects a progression from earlier focuses on the pre-reflective ground of embodied human perception to an emphasis on social constructionism and human inter-subjectivity and flourishing to later genres which position all matter as alive and with varying degrees of consciousness and view knowledge as resulting through the interplay between matter and mind, human and other than human life (Fessenden, 2007). Participatory Worldviews however, differ from Indigenous Paradigms in so far as the latter are always specific to place and peoples. Participatory scholarship more represents a generic set of principals born out of re-engagement with place by individuals and communities seeking to re-capture the indigenous relationship to the earth community enjoyed by their ancestors — it offers an important means of engaging with place, but it is less so uniquely born from continuous, place-based existence. Whilst Participatory paradigms are political in that they are seeking life-giving ways forward beyond the bounds of Western modernist development these differ significantly from Indigenous Resurgence political imperatives. As it becomes evident in research results articulated later in this chapter, not with-standing the devastating impacts of colonization for Indigenous communities, those who have maintained some connection to traditional lands are more often ‘of a place’ with respect to thought, language and culture — i.e., reflect the consciousness of place — than those who have a broken relationship with place.

Engaging Health with Sustainability

In providing a way of thinking about resilience as a state of an entire social-ecological system (e.g. a community which encompasses both human and other than human entities), social-ecological resilience therefore offers a meeting place for diverse cultural perspectives of people in place, and importantly a means of re-connecting Western, modernist subjectivities to the environment. The epistemological critique necessary for trans-disciplinary and intercultural approaches to participatory forms of socio-ecological resilience is potentially illuminated by Esbjorn-Hargens and Zimmerman’s model of Integral Ecology (2009). Their organizing approach is the AQAL model — all quadrants, all levels, all lines, all states and all types — referring to “the intrinsic perspectives that occur at all scales and in all contexts (2009, p. 50). Shown in Figure One, AQAL is underpinned by three spheres of reality: 1) the empirical sensory world pertaining to the interior and exterior aspects of the bio-sphere as perceived by the five senses, feelings and somatic experiences, (upper left and upper right quadrants); 2) the exterior levels of physio-sphere, biosphere and noosphere as perceived through the senses and studies within the physical and social sciences, (upper right and lower right quadrants); and, 3) the entire Kosmos (Life-World) in all its dimensions, interiors and exteriors, (upper right, upper left, lower right and lower left quadrants). In this context, interiors refer to the unseen, dimensions of the Life-World such as energy, consciousness and spirit, whilst exteriors refer to the visible, material, and therefore more easily observable, so called objective dimensions of the Life-World. The AQAL model views inter-subjectivity as occurring at all levels, becoming simpler but not absent as one travels down the Life-World (Kosmos) scale. Esbjorn-Hargens and Zimmerman assert that equal ontological or epistemological priority be accorded to all four quadrants as these perspectives co-arise in the seamless fabric of reality. Ecology’s next vital step they argue is not to deny modernity, but to transcend it, enfolding it into a more encompassing ecology that integrates interiors and inter-subjectivity with exteriors and inter-objectivity.

Figure One: Esbjorn-Hargens and Zimmerman (2009a)

Environmental studies have generally privileged the upper right and lower right quadrants (objectivity and inter-objectivity) —  i.e., that which can be physically perceived within natural and social systems, individually and relationally. Likewise health promotion, with its historical roots in Western bio-medicine, has also tended to privilege externalities (individual objective states, upper right), and to a lesser extent forms of individual subjectivity; (upper left) which have been shown to be linked to states of physical health. There is a body of empowerment related literature for example devoted to demonstrating the links between relative deprivation or states of powerlessness and physiological impacts such as increased cortisol levels leading to increased blood pressure and heart disease (CSDH, 2008). Whilst Western-orientated empowerment practices emphasizing ‘control over’ the social determinants of health have also integrated inter-objectivity (lower right), far less developed is the upper left quadrant with respect to the subjectivities of other than human forms of life; and the lower left quadrant of inter-subjectivity. Participatory and Indigenous Worldviews on the other hand, extend constructivist and critical postmodern approaches to empowerment in that they accord equal ontological priority to all four spheres of being and agency. They correspond to an eco-centric definition of empowerment which might conceivably approximate: “the ability to understand, respond to, and work towards what is in the best interests of and will benefit all human beings and life on the planet” (Spariosu, 2005, p. 6).

Social Ecological Resilience and Empowerment Practice

The Ecology of Wellbeing Project (EWBP) (Williams and Hall, 2014; Williams, 2017) provides an example of an approach towards mental health which potentially situates human well-being within a broader relational ethic that encompasses place. Its long term goal is to address mental wellbeing with Indigenous and international migrant women affected by forced migration in Canada and Aotearoa / New Zealand. Both populations experience significant mental health disparities relative to dominant groups. While presenting symptoms are often largely due to disruption from culture and place, ‘treatment regimes’ are predominantly framed by Western bio-medical frameworks consisting of therapeutic drugs or counselling. The epistemological framing for the EWB study, however, encompasses Participatory and Indigenous-Life-World perspectives both with respect to theoretical understandings of wellbeing, migration and non-human relationality, and worldviews held by participants. Simultaneously, it recognizes that most participants received Western educations and accordingly also have modernist understandings of human and environmental wellbeing.

During 2011 and 2012 thirty-eight Indigenous and migrant women from both countries participated in individual interviews and two day-long group dialogues aimed at re-surfacing traditional land-based knowledge (individual empowerment) and building critical alliances across these seemingly disparate communities (group empowerment). In 2015, participants from each country exchanged perspectives on this project as part of an international summit.1 Methodologically, the Maori concept of Turangawaewae, (standing place) was successfully used to facilitate (sometimes nascent) land-based, holistic conceptualizations of resilience and well-being. Often conceived as a place of belonging in terms of land, it also refers to a place of power — the place where one is powerful, and as such is closely aligned to Canadian Indigenous perspectives of resilience (Kirmayer et al, 2011). Narratives of globalization and colonization (of land, spirituality, knowledge systems) served as important connecting points as did emergent epistemologies of place.

While the same struggle to belong and be included exists for both populations, significant differences are also apparent. For example, for Indigenous communities citizenship often includes rights and responsibilities that include the natural world and run counter to the values of the nation state into which they have been forcibly incorporated; often see themselves as forcibly incorporated into the nation state, international migrants are looking to settle down and fit within existing social and economic frameworks and tend to be more immediately focused on their human rights as citizens (Fleras, and Maka, 2010). Accordingly, emerging research results (Williams and Hall, 2014; Williams, 2016) also demonstrate not only the traditional knowledge of woman who maintain a connection to place to be stronger, but that these same connections afford acts of resurgence such as place-based tribal management plans and critique of economic modes of productivity which result in ecological degradation. Urban, international migrant women without connection to land, living may be under more direct scrutiny for their economic contribution as prospective citizens and perhaps therefore, more likely to be forcibly incorporated into such status quo models of ‘citizen as consumer’ (Walsh, 2008).

Through the application of the social-ecological resilience concept, emergent findings demonstrate the ways in which place-based thought and agency are mediated by the political ecology of place, and attendant cultural-power dynamics. While international migrant and refugee women may subscribe to Participatory worldviews of place-based agency and well-being, they are possibly less well-positioned to articulate these than women who are Indigenous to place and arguably less reliant on state-centric forums of citizenship. Re-visiting empowerment as a multi-level construct (Wallerstein, 2006) highlights the relevance Indigenous and Participatory worldviews in that they re-cursively embed human being and consciousness within the larger Life-World, whilst critical postmodernism illuminates the interplay of dominant power-culture dynamics within public health policy and programming outcomes.

Table One contrasts Positivist, Transformative / Critical Postmodern, Participatory and Indigenous approaches to empowerment and the social-ecological basis of health. The paradigms in the three right hand columns are conceptualized as transcending and including positivism, which continues to play a significant role within the biological and physical sciences and related technological innovations, which are rooted in the epistemological divide between human and other living beings. These tendencies are similarly reflected in individualistic approaches to health which are philosophically rooted in State-centric discourses of development and human progress which closely align citizenship and economic productivity. It is these neo-liberal and corporate interests which in more recent years have captured empowerment practice. Participatory and Indigenous paradigms are conceptualized as including an emphasis on the transformation of human-social structures towards the goal of social-ecological balance, wherein nature is conceived as part of society.

The agency imperatives of Indigenous and Participatory paradigms are framed within a reciprocal participatory exchange which situates human rights and well-being within the earth’s carrying capacity — i.e., the mutual flourishing of all life forms. The socio-political levels of empowerment, articulated earlier in terms of citizenship conceptualizations, rights and responsibilities embedded in State-based policy frameworks tend to differentially shape the agency imperatives of Indigenous and immigrant communities. Whilst at the epistemological level, both groups may subscribe to attributing equal ontological priority to all for quadrants of Esbjorn-Hargens and Zimmerman’s AQAL model, in reality the agency imperatives of these groups regarding human-ecological well-being, may well diverge because of the ways they are differently positioned within the wider political ecology.

Table One: Four Empowerment Paradigms and the Social-ecological Basis for Health.
Source: Williams, 2016 (Click on table to enlarge)

Social-ecological resilience prioritizes the resilience of the whole human-ecological system while illuminating the various agency imperatives of different cultural groups and associated power-culture dynamics. Within the EWBP, Indigenous and Participatory Paradigms were focused on through activities which cultivated epistemologies of interconnectedness such as ceremony, story-telling and deliberately holding activities in Indigenous spaces. For example one all day dialogue was held in a Whare Tupuna (Maori ancestral meeting house). In such spaces carvings traditionally incorporate human and non-human ancestors, powerful evoking the interconnectedness of life. The Transformative / Critical Postmodern Paradigm was more drawn upon in activities requiring the analysis of the ways in which structural forms of power are operationalized, within and between participating communities as well as in relation to dominant discourses and social structures.


Working effectively with the social-ecological basis for health requires critical framings of empowerment practice regarding its underlying epistemological assumptions. Place-based agency as articulated within Indigenous and Participatory paradigms plays a key role, not only in the conceptualization of empowerment, but in terms of reconceptualizing ecosystems not as resources for human consumption but as relational participants within the social-ecological equation. Critical capacities for empowerment practitioners working with the ecological determinants of health include: 1) the ability to distinguish between different epistemologies and interests which underlie various empowerment approaches; 2) the discerning engagement of empowerment practices with sustainability approaches (such as Esbjorn-Hargens and Zimmerman’s AQAL model); and 3) understanding the respective relevance of Indigenous, Participatory Worldviews and Critical-Postmodernist approaches to empowerment practices. Analysis of the epistemologies and cultural perspectives which underlie social systems, in ways that dig underneath discursive identities of diverse communities is critical to working with communities to develop the social-ecological resilience necessary for human-ecological well-being. In essence the ability to operationalize capacities of this nature require empowerment practitioners to make an epistemological shift to viewing themselves as an implicit part of bio-diversity, whilst understanding the nuanced power-culture dynamics operating at discursive and structural levels that shape community and socio-political aspects of social-ecological resilience.


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Published in Resilient Systems, Resilient Communities (2018)
Makere Stewart-Harawira and Jordan B. Kinder (eds)
Intersections of Sustainability: University of Alberta Press.

This article appears in its original form as Williams, L. (2017). Empowerment and the ecological determinants of health: Three critical capacities for practitioners. Health Promotion International, 32(4), 711-722 Doi: 10.1093/heapro/daw011 (Advanced Access online March, 2016).


  1. See the project’s website, https://www.intergenresil.com, for more details.