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

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.

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