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We Need an Inclusive Ecological Economics (by Courtney Hammond Wagner & Caitlin Morgan)

Attending the Research Agenda for Ecological Economics workshop this week has underscored some ideas that have been developing for us over the past months and years. We would like to spark a conversation about group dynamics that manifest even here in our progressive community.

For Ecological Economics to achieve its goal of contributing to a societal transformation, a new research agenda must be met with a change of culture within the community. To be truly transdisciplinary, collaborative, and open to diverse perspectives and experiences, the community of ecological economics needs to walk the walk and engage in practices and dialogues that foster unity in shared ideals, rather than divisiveness and opposition.

An open, collaborative community strives to create a space that is safe and welcoming for all to express their opinions. Rather than follow the traditional strategies of the economics discipline and the academy that rely on divisive, critical language to prop up one’s own worth and contribution by denigrating others, we can make a concerted effort to use constructive language, to celebrate good ideas, and to collaborate in an effort for shared understanding. While we appreciate efforts to have gender balance on panels and call on women first during Q&A, this is not enough. Organizers often lament, “we tried for gender balance, but there just weren’t enough women.” Or when faced with a crowd of men with their hands raised and no women, it’s quite difficult to call on a woman first – and it’s incredibly awkward for the women in the room (“we’re trying to call on you first, why isn’t your hand raised?”).

Incorporating more gender balanced and culturally diverse voices into Ecological Economics starts with conversations, classroom settings, email correspondence, listserv dialogues and all the other formal and informal spaces in which we set the norms for how to engage with each other. If a woman doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up in a classroom setting because her male colleagues are often fighting tooth and nail to expound on the brilliance of their own ideas she’s probably not going to contribute to the conversation. These types of combative and competitive environments in the classroom often make women, less-outgoing students, and students for whom English may not be their first language, feel like their voices are unwelcome. A couple steps down the line it’s going to be quite difficult to get a woman coming out of that classroom experience to be the first person to raise their hand in an audience of dozens at a conference or workshop. Male students in our community have also expressed to us in conversation feeling there is limited space for younger voices or true inter-generational collaboration.

How can we create a welcoming and inclusive intellectual community? We have to start by intentionally changing the norms of how we interact with each other. As a transdiscipline, we propose that each conversation start with a space of openness to different theoretical perspectives. Drop the competitiveness, and the combat. Listen, try to understand, and strive for a shared understanding. How many times have you been in a conversation with someone about a topic and their immediate response is to find the flaw in your thought? While this type of argumentative approach can help individuals to solidify and refine their argument, it also silences brilliant, diverse voices and perspectives. We believe Ecological Economics suffers from this perhaps more than other disciplines because the field appears to carry a chip on its shoulder, constantly defining itself in opposition to the big bad beast of neoclassical economics.

So, how do we change these norms? And what new norms do we want to instill? There are tons of strategies for creating more space for diverse voices. Here are a few of them (thanks to the fabulous space-maker Deb Markowitz for many of these!):

  • Elect a facilitator to manage the flow of conversation and make sure that all voices that want to be heard get the chance
  • Following a talk, give the audience a couple moments to jot down ideas before asking for questions.
  • Check yourself!
    • Are you engaging in dialogue, open to having your mind changed? Or are you running away with the adrenaline rush of an argument, driven to prove your point.
    • Are you making space for others? Try to keep tabs on how often you contribute to the conversation and scan the room, are there others who you are inadvertently silencing or speaking over?
  • Help nudge others behavior
    • Are others taking up too much space and not allowing voices to be heard? Tactfully intervene to bring other voices into the conversation. For example:
      • “Thanks XXX for that comment, CCC, what do you think of that or do you have something else you’d like to share?”
    • Reaffirm and validate comments from those who often don’t speak up. For example:
      • “I just want to go back to what CCC said, I really appreciate that perspective.”
    • If you disagree with a comment, frame your response in a way that encourages dialogue:
      • “Thanks for sharing that piece XXX. I read it a little differently…I’d love to hear what you think about it.”

We have seen and felt examples of these positive practices in some EE spaces. When events are student-led, they naturally tend to feel more inclusive and empowering. There have been several examples at this workshop, too, of people in positions of power using their position to amplify voices that were otherwise going unheard. We applaud these efforts at intentionally planning for and practicing inclusion.

If Ecological Economics is to ever move out of this niche space that we occupy in the academy and meaningfully engage with public policy, we need to build a community that people can identify with and want to be a part of. We hope that we can all, from the newest to the oldest members of this community, take a step back and try to be more open, more curious, more kind, and more collaborative in our interactions with each other. We think that this can go a long way towards fueling our research and action to make transformative societal change. And if for nothing less, it will make our time together more enjoyable for all.

If you have thoughts about what Ecological Economics as a community could or should be, we encourage you to take a moment, write down your thoughts, and share them with a colleague or a friend, or if you’re comfortable, with us. Let’s start a conversation and make this community and society one that we want to be a part of.

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1 reply »

  1. Thank you Courtney and Caitlin for bringing a lot of insight to this incredibly important topic. I completely agree that the ecological economics community is often a brilliant and inspiring one, but that as a community we also need to do some real introspection to move away from the kind of divisiveness that is not worthy of our best ideals.

    I think the divisiveness we see – and sometimes feel in ourselves – can come from at least 3 sources: 1) the traditional hierarchical/patriarchal nature of academia, 2) a very real “chip on our shoulder” with the dominant neoclassical paradigm, and 3) the broader pattern of toxic discourse in society brought on by our current political environment. Too often we can add a fourth: those of us who have lived through an environment of emotional aggressiveness or abuse may unintentionally replay patterns of aggressiveness in both work and personal lives until/unless we can properly heal.

    It’s worthwhile and important for each of us to examine how much we perpetuate these sources of divisiveness or seek to understand and move past them. This is especially critical for leaders in our field, no matter what your age and experience level: we need not just academic credentials but wisdom and compassion if we’re really going to walk the walk.

    One last point – as you mention, all of this is vitally important to creating inclusion especially for women, introverts, and those who’ve learned English as their second language. But beyond that, it’s also critical for neoclassical economists and political conservatives that some in our field might consider their “enemies.” Ecological economics has important built-in features that dovetail with liberal values. But if we’re ever going to resonate beyond Vermont/preach beyond the choir, we need to practice patience, listening, and real dialogue that can speak to multiple value systems. I think about this all the time as someone who’s lived red/purple states and had those Thanksgiving dinner conversations with family about what I do, always looking for the words to convey why what we do matters outside of the academic bubble.

    Thank you both again for raising these points. I think the strategies you mention are excellent ones, and hope we as a field can pay the needed attention to both our hearts and minds, as we seek to get more hearts and minds to join us in the great work of our time.

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