What might a living systems meta-epistemology offer to a new oikos?

By Yoland Wadsworth

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We can broadly identify the often bewildering lack of correspondence between the properties of living systems/ecologies and the properties of the human production–consumption–exchange economics system with which we are witnessing our species colonise the planet.

But how did this happen?  How is it that people want to fully live life, individually and collectively, just like every other ecology on earth that we know of, yet we routinely seem to move away from the life-giving and end up ‘crashing our businesses’ (small and large), ‘crashing the economy’ – the oikos/ home that sustains us – even ‘collapsing our civilisations’ or threatening to collapse large swathes of our own earth life system per se.

How do we get to that? – and then routinely work to get back up afterwards, often initially creating an ecological-style of self-organising, from the smaller scale, sharing-based, collective exchange systems, only to have them morph yet again into bigger and bigger hierarchical corporate entities that concentrate power and wealth in the few, seeking growth and size at all costs, and we have the crash-scenario and bloody peasant or populist uprisings all over again as various systemic reactions try to ‘right the ship’?

How do we keep getting so out of kilter? What can account for this systemic pattern of moving so far from dynamic equilibrium, then enduring often violent revision of direction, or our own life-crashing extinction?

If our human populations are indeed part of all other living systems, sharing the properties of all other living systems, and subject to the same conditions applying to those properties, how is it that we seem to be the rare species that keeps systemically trying to take itself out?

How is it that right now we seem to be morphing (not technically ‘evolving’, though some might like to call it that) towards a dream of becoming not-a-living-system at all and instead becoming ‘perfect’ by becoming not-human, where the singularity in which carbon-based 'orga' merges with and becomes 'mecha' in a kind of non-life form of life-like replicant?

If we are to find urgent ecological-economics solutions to all of this, we need an effective theory of how and know why we do it.

I want to come at this deeper theory question through a different lens than usual – and one which we are for the most part entirely unaware, even though we all use it every moment of our lives. This is a practice-derived transdisciplinary way of thinking about living ecological, exchange systems as 'inquiring for life' – using an integrative meta-epistemology or ‘full cycle science’ (Wadsworth 2010).

While the fields of social ecology and complex systems thinking in biology have begun to chart this territory, the connections to human psychology and sociology remain elusive.

But the latter are where I have come from via sociology and organisational psychology – through four decades of practice-based collaborative social research and evaluation aiming at ‘systems change’ in both community-based and large ‘human exchange systems’ in health, adult education, community services and human welfare – a trajectory which has brought me back full circle to living ecological systems via a meta-epistemology of ‘inquiring life’.

I hope this new transdisciplinary theory may be able to contribute to some of the key concerns of ecological economics.

Yoland Wadsworth is a transdisciplinary sociology research practitioner, facilitator and theorist who since 1972 has helped pioneer the development of change-oriented research and evaluation methodologies, including participatory, dialogic and ‘whole systems’ action research in health, community and human services.  Authored Australia’s best-selling introductory research, evaluation and systems-demystifying books.  Adjunct Professor with the Social & Global Studies Centre, RMIT University; Fellow of the Australasian Evaluation Society, Life Member of the international Action Learning Action Research Association, and The Australian Sociology Association.