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The methodology for this thesis is based on a series of four action research cycles which engage with the applicability of ecological principles for enhancing sustainability in both theoretical and practical contexts. Concepts of integration, dialogue, experiential learning and reflective practice are utilised to devise a strategy of inquiry that is appreciative and able to evolve in accord with the context-specific requirements of the research. Such an approach facilitates a transdisciplinary exploration that engages in a practical context and moves through theories associated with sustainability, systems, learning, ecology, thermodynamics and development, and through levels of reality, ranging from hard systems to soft systems to ethics.
In the first action research cycle, a preliminary ecological framework is developed through exploration of relevant theory and existing ecological approaches to sustainability including biocybernetics, ecoliteracy, permaculture, Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems (CASE) and ‘living economies’. The development of this framework is facilitated by the extraction of four Formative Ideas from selected literature addressing non-equilibrium thermodynamics, ecology, complexity, cognition, social capital and ethics.
In the second action research cycle, the preliminary ecological framework is modified as a result of analysis of a context-specific perspective on ‘environment and development’. This action research cycle took place during fieldwork with the Green Productivity for Integrated Community Development Program (GP-ICD) in Việt Nam and revolved around engagement with community practitioners that propelled cycles of learning. The adaptive modes of Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle were used to facilitate qualitative analysis of these interactions. Several insights emerged from this action research cycle. A ‘relational’ view on sustainability amongst the community practitioners is described. This view is based on emphasising social networks and concern for environmental matters that impacted on these networks. The experiences and conceptualisations of the community practitioners indicated that they felt responsibility for their development, though have limited capacity to influence it, in part because of prevailing perspectives on participation. On the basis of these observations and theoretical insights, particularly from permaculture, the ecological framework is modified to make it more appropriate for the context.
In the third action research cycle, the modified ecological framework is applied in a practical context involving the expansion of the GP-ICD program in Hải Dương province Việt Nam. Application of the modified framework illustrates the potential for ecological principles to support the community’s capacity to aspire to a more sustainable future and to foster a learning-oriented and systemic approach to development practice.
In the final action research cycle, the insights from the previous cycles are developed in more detail. A proposal for an approach called ‘Ecological Systemic Praxis’ emerges that is based on ecological principles, experiential and intuitive learning, the capacity to aspire to sustainability, and grounding of sustainability in concrete experiences. Ecological Systemic Praxis is used to identify the ways in which development practice can foster mutually supportive interactions within and between social and ecological systems.
This thesis advances the case that reframing sustainability in terms of interconnected social and ecological systems as well as deepening context-specific understandings of sustainability are important steps in learning to be better at being sustainable. It offers a strong foundation, based on integration of theory, practice and ethics, for the use of ecological principles and practice to create change toward a sustainable future.