The Omnivores’ Trifecta: A feast of ideas

This week I went to a seminar presented by Dr Richard Bawden of the Systemic Development Institute, Australia. This was the first event in MSU’s “conversation about our food future”. It turned out to be much more interesting than I had hoped; Bawden is an engaging and charismatic speaker who presented a thoughtful perspective on what he termed ‘The Omnivores’ Trifecta’: Agriculture, Food and Health and the Systemic Relationships between them. He covered a hearty spread of ideas, so I’ll recap his most interesting points in bite-sized pieces:

i) Bawden suggested that Agriculture, Food and Health (A-F-H) when considered separately are not a system. But by understanding each as a discourse (i.e. as a subject for “formal discussion of debate”) they become viewed in a systemic perspective.

ii) At the intersection of these three subjects are four very important (sub-)discourses which Bawden termed the “engagement discourse subsystem”. These are: business, lay citizens, governance, and experts.

iii) Bawden proposed that it is the profound differences in episteme (worldview) between these discourse ‘subsystems’ that are at the heart of the majority of the conflicts across the A-F-H system and the environment in which it is situated.

iv) These epistemic differences are so profound as to be polemic. Bawden bemoaned this fact and highlighted that “Dialectic yields to Polemic“. He emphasised that dialectics are the only way forward to forge a world in common and that polemics prevent deliberation, debate and kill democracy.

v) To illustrate these points Bawden used the case of Australian agriculture since the mid-20th century. He described this case as being characteristic of many messy, wicked problems and argued that reductionist science alone was insufficient to bring resolution (and hence is why he founded the Systemic Development Institute). During this argument he quoted Beck but questioned whether we have reached second modernity. Bawden argued that the “culture of technical control” still prevails within current modernist society has an episteme that privileges fact over value, analysis over synthesis, individualism over communalism, teaching over learning and productionism over sustainablism.

vi) On these last two dichotomies, Bawden suggested that the question of what is to be sustained (and therefore what sustainability is) is a moral question not a technical one.

vii) He proposed that higher education is about learning differently not learning more; the ability to look the world and make sense of it for oneself (and then take action in response) is what characterises a good education. Awareness of the presence of different worldviews is key to this ability. Furthermore, Bawden argued that the complete learner will be prepared to enter a form of learning that the academy is currently unable to provide because it is too reductionist. This learning would require critical reflection of one’s own worldview, as Jack Mezirow has proposed.

viii) Bawden then presented the diagram that synthesises his message (see below). This diagram describes the “integrated process of the critical learning system” and shows how perceiving, understanding, planning and acting are connected within our rational experience of the world and how they are linked to the intuitive facets of learning.

Quite the feast of ideas eh? I’m still digesting them and might be for a while. But the key message I take away from this is a post-normal one; in learning about human-environment interactions and to solve current wicked problems, inter-epistemic as well as inter-disciplinary work will be needed. Although different scientific disciplines such as ecology, biology, and chemistry have different terminology and conventions, they share a worldview – the one that favours facts over values and aims to subsume empirical observations into universal laws and theories. Other worldviews are available. Inter-epistemic human-environment study would seek to cross the boundaries between worldviews, recognize that reductionist science is only one way to understand the world and is unlikely provide complete answers to wicked problems, and emphasise dialectics over polemics.

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