Whole Knowledge


* email humphrey@ufl.edu

Understanding the Environment. Bridging the Disciplinary Divides . Grafton, R. Q., L.Robin, and R. J.Wasson , editors . 2004 . University and Reference Publishing Services , Sydney , Australia . 247 pp . ( xviii + 229 ). AU$39.95 (paperback) . ISBN 0-86840-912-X .

Educators increasingly subdivide expanding knowledge to transmit understandable fragments to young minds, so how can the rising generation learn to manage complex ecosystems to sustain environments, economies, and societies? This intellectual and practical problem is confronted in an important new book. Editors (and authors) R. Quentin Grafton, Libby Robin, and Robert Wasson seek to identify environmental “whole knowledge” by mapping the shared questions, aspirations, and contrasting world views of 10 disciplines represented in their own intellectual community, the interdisciplinary Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the Australian National University, Canberra.

Understanding environmental knowledge matters not just for environmental managers. It matters first for scientists deciding what questions to study and what insights to publish; scientists will adapt and clarify the reliable, usable knowledge on which practitioners will act. It matters for teachers deciding what and how to teach, for faculty designing degree programs, and for administrators crafting academic units and research institutes. Scientists and educators will largely determine what the next generation thinks it knows. The paths chosen could further isolate traditional academic disciplines and subdisciplines or they could stimulate integrated understanding across the entire range of relevant knowledge. In a human-manipulated world, nothing less than the life-support system hangs in the balance.

Grafton, Robin, and Wasson offer two precious insights (pp. 6, 201). The first is stunning in its simplicity and value: the essence of interdisciplinary thinking is to ask new questions or ask old questions in new ways. The interdisciplinary thinker will be rewarded in his or her individual life space by applying this insight to the circumstances at hand. Their second insight is to accept the existing, traditional disciplines as they are organized and practiced without sterile analysis of disciplinary hierarchy, taxonomy, or self-proclaimed stature. Thus they avoid the endless and divisive debate about disciplinary legitimacy in which academicians are all too willing to indulge.

Instead, Grafton, Robin, and Wasson foster appreciation of the understanding that related subjects can offer by leading the authors of each chapter to define the content and boundaries of each domain; describe the essential concepts, controversies, and limitations of each; and identify the main research methods or tools exemplified in a few illuminating cases. Knowing that readers might benefit from a second, deeper reconnaissance, the editors and authors also cite a few classic works or textbooks that further characterize each field. The disciplines addressed in the chapters are environmental history, anthropology, environmental economics, human health, environmental policy, ecology, environmental earth science, hydrology, mathematical and statistical sciences, and geography.

Here are a few vignettes intended to show why the chapters are so rewarding to read. Libby Robin and Daniel Connell indicate that, contrary to popular opinion, the greatest contribution of history is not to avoid repeating past mistakes but rather to provide a long-term perspective on current moral dilemmas, giving a seasoned context that could help us escape the entrainment of the present (p. 21). Appreciating this lesson from history is perhaps counterintuitive, or even disturbing, to mechanistic, reductionist thinkers, but it offers a potentially liberating approach to emerging problems.

Deborah Rose identifies four streams of theory and method (subdisciplines) in anthropology: social-cultural anthropology, linguistics, archeology, and biophysical anthropology. Development of integrative, environmental anthropology within the first stream has highlighted the indisputable fact that many preindustrial societies have solved the human sustainability problem for long intervals. Inquiring minds in industrial societies want to know whether these conditions were achieved through conscious learning and design or merely as a passive outcome of low population densities and less destructive technologies. Anthropology offers the opportunity to actually ask some of the actors about their traditional ecological knowledge and, less directly, to study evidence from a wide array of societies (p. 36). One's conclusion about the drivers of historic and prehistoric cases of sustainability affects one's judgments about what can be done to shape the future relationship between society and environment (pp. 37–38).

In possibly the most revealing chapter, D. Hazell, R. Heinsohn, and D. Lindenmayer present ecology as a fundamentally biological discipline, not inherently interdisciplinary. This narrow view ignores the possibility, based on recognizing people as powerful components in complex, adaptive ecosystems, that ecological theory could be elaborated as a conceptual framework connecting the related biophysical and social sciences, leading to major new insights about humans in nature. The authors suggest such a role for conservation applications but not more broadly. We disagree with the suggestion (p. 110) that “perhaps, the greatest contribution that ecologists can make is to emphasize how much we don't know and how little capacity we have for estimating the impacts of further destruction of the natural environment.”

In contrast, Richard Baker presents geography as an integrative subject, involving both social and biophysical phenomena, that engages with human communities in explicitly interventionist ways, for example, in adaptive management, social equity, and land use planning (p. 170). The author emphasizes the cultural tradition among geographers of welcoming cross-disciplinary engagement rather than defining differences.

Last, but not least, Quentin Grafton and Libby Robin close with a chapter on bridging the disciplinary divides. They note that events beyond scholarship have forced scholars to think across comfortable boundaries to understand the environment. Among these events were destructive nuclear testing and war starting in the 1940s, the nature-displacing postwar economic expansion, the “environmental crisis” of the 1960s and 1970s (now forcefully reprised in China), and the striking photos of a finite spaceship Earth made possible by space exploration. The authors also identify four bridging concepts (scale, systems, landscape, and sustainability), which are of mutual interest but contested via differential definition and use across domains. Such “contested concepts” show that simply connecting is not transformative without new effort to learn. The authors call for scholars seeking the cross-fertilization of ideas from different domains of knowledge to cultivate a tolerance for how people trained in other domains understand such concepts. The cost in time and intellectual effort increases as disciplinary distance enlarges, but the result can be to recognize new questions and see the world differently.

This book makes a good start in showing young and seasoned scholars alike how the domains of the selected disciplines interface, but it leaves the reader hungry for more. Inevitably the book's approach of carving up the general field frustrates the search for ways of bridging effectively the disciplinary divides. Are the 10 disciplines covered in individual chapters necessary and sufficient for understanding the environment? The editors make it clear that the choice of disciplines included was a “hotly debated question” (p. 187). Why, for instance, was the mother discipline of the social sciences (sociology) left out? Even if the “right” set of disciplines is examined, however, the more practical concern for scholars and managers is that different problems require distinctive interdisciplinary combinations.

The endeavors of experts to understand those in other fields will take concerted and purposeful deliberation among the parties, best facilitated by a team focusing on a particular problem. Working together stimulates the understanding of each others' conceptual frameworks, theories, and methodological approaches as facts are gathered and integrated. But more than dialog is needed. To succeed, experts in each discipline must study the fundamentals of the other fields, investing heavily to be effective team members. It is through the interplay of team dynamics and remedial study that real learning will occur. Thus the first step in real interdisciplinary work may be to set up “loose gangs” intent on finding novel approaches.

How proficient should each of us be in the face of complexity, uncertainty, and power when addressing intractable problems or seeking innovative policies? The answer will differ among individuals, but Understanding the Environment implies that scientists who are serious about confronting complexity must systematically move beyond their comfort zone and make new efforts to become reasonably competent in related fields of knowledge. For students, “only” undertaking an interdisciplinary program of study is required. For post-graduate scientists in the workplace, deep immersion in some “alien” discipline in the context of struggling with a real problem may be the only opportunity available. Fortunately such work is made easier by frequent calls for cross-cultural work on complicated issues and by modern information technologies for literature access and modeling. Moreover the outlook is bright because one can find, increasingly, many instances of interdisciplinary approaches and cross-fertilization among disciplines. Seekers of environmental whole knowledge will want to collect such cases as further reading to illustrate and complement this valuable volume.