Tom Wakeford
September 2019

Extinction engagement – let’s turn communication on its head

environmental SCIENTIST | The new radicalism in environmental engagement | July 2019

Tom Wakeford discusses how engagement from the ground up provides a platform that values local cultural knowledge once cast aside by traditional scientism approaches. 

Public engagement about environmental issues has just been turned on its head. Environmental activists such as Extinction Rebellion (XR) have recently used radical forms of engagement that, along with the global School Climate Strike initiated by Greta Thunberg, have brought the crisis of climate change into society’s consciousness as never before. Gone are groups of scientists going to give talks in schools and at local environmental groups. The monologue of conventional engagement has become a genuine dialogue, which we might call ‘extinction engagement’. It’s now the grassroots that are taking a lead. 
However, overcoming the barriers to the radical policy shifts needed to achieve climate justice requires a more sophisticated approach to engagement. It was with this in mind that XR made its third demand, to have a citizens’ assembly on how we can tackle climate change. Environmental scientists could play an important role in supporting such an assembly. However, in order to do this, they must shift from the traditional view of their role in one-way dissemination to an ignorant public. Instead they need to acknowledge that, despite their professional training in particular areas – indeed in some ways because of it – they have their own areas of ignorance. In tackling the big environmental issues facing humanity, everyone in society should be allowed to bring expertise from their life experience. 
Blank and blind spots
Professional researchers, including environmental scientists, are part of a hierarchy of knowledge that arose in parallel with the rise of the modern research university. The institutionalisation of knowledge took place as an integral part of the colonisation of peoples around the world by European powers alongside the industrial revolution. Two centuries of colonial dominance imposed a new world order in relation to knowledge. It systematically denied contributions from those who were not members of the European professional elites. Over the centuries, the hegemony of a single, narrow approach to the production of what constitutes valid knowledge has benefited some but marginalised and excluded many, many more. The process has also been to the detriment of humanity’s overall knowledge base, particularly as it has wiped out much valuable indigenous knowledge about the environment.
Educationalist Jon Wagner highlights two different kinds of ignorance: blank spots in existing knowledge – matters scholars know they don’t understand – and blind spots, that keep scholars from seeing patterns in the world that they have not yet noticed.1 While natural scientists are often able to identify blank spots, history is replete with examples where those without formal research training have revealed patterns that the scientists had not noticed. Scientists’ existing theories, methods and perspectives have created blind spots that have prevented them from seeing these patterns.
Photograph of rice terraces in Vietnam © Sasint | Adobe Stock
Time and again, knowledge systems existing among non-professionals that could have shown up blind spots were marginalised. People and their systems of knowledge have been oppressed at the hands of European colonists and their descendants in a process that has been called ‘epistemicide’. In response, Indian anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan has called for ‘cognitive justice’, a process whereby societies attempt to recover the systems of knowledge that have been lost or degraded by scientism and its violent cousin, colonialism.2 Visvanathan is thus calling for colonised peoples to have the right to use any alternative ways of knowing about themselves and the environment that have managed to survive the assaults of colonisation.
Philosopher Miranda Fricker has characterised the practice of ignoring the expertise that people have gained from life experience as ‘epistemic injustice’, while arguing for people’s rights to learn and to have their existing knowledge recognised. She also makes a useful distinction between heuristic injustice (the denial of opportunities to develop greater knowledge) and testimonial injustice (where expertise derived through life experience, rather than professional training) is side-lined.3 With particular reference to his own discipline of psychology, Thomas Teo has described how epistemic injustice often translates into the pathologising of marginalised communities. Academics circulate ‘findings’ that ‘ignore structural conditions, history, and power; and misrepresent (...) outcomes of structural injustice as causes of oppression’. Even projects by socially progressive top-down researchers can reproduce a ‘punishing gaze on those who have paid the most severe price for historic and contemporary oppression. These data circulate in ways that falsely confirm deficits and amplify fears that stick to marginalised bodies, justifying the containment and denial of human rights’. Teo has named this all-too-common process ‘epistemological violence’.4
Formalising participation
Participatory action research (PAR) is a set of approaches that has emerged from people who are in, or who are working in close collaboration with, communities experiencing oppression. In PAR, as with indigenist approaches, people who had previously been marginalised are able to designate the focus of the participatory and dialogue processes themselves. Its premise, to be agreed by everyone involved, is that no one group knows everything. PAR has the potential to act as a counterweight to the current spread of fake news and the promotion of populist alternative facts, such as those relating to climate change. Far from saying ‘anything goes’, PAR calls for research to become more rigorous by eliminating potential blind spots in the perspectives of both professionals and everyday experts.
Photograph of Silhouettes of the traditional stilt fisherman at sunset © alinamd
PAR has thus emerged from many traditions in several different languages over many years. Although it has been academics who have published the most widely cited PAR guidelines and principles, most of those who undertake PAR at the grassroots prefer to base their practice on rules of thumb developed by other members of social movements through lived experience. It is often transmitted peer to peer and through other forms of informal and solidarity-based learning, rather than through written texts. Even if they accept that they need not be seen as universally applicable, some activists have resisted establishing a fixed set of key principles for PAR. In this spirit, the following six features of PAR are to help orientate the reader and are key for many, but not all, of those who attempt it:
1. PAR attempts to contribute to an improvement of the human condition through repeated cycles of collective action and reflection, with the members of the collective all working on an equal footing.
2. PAR raises two related questions: ‘Who has relevant knowledge?’ and ‘Who should have the power?’
3. PAR answers these questions by challenging assumptions of academic autonomy (i.e. that professional researchers know best and therefore should be in charge).
4. PAR demands that research institutions should decide the agenda of their research programmes in collaboration with others outside the institutions that have relevant knowledge and may be affected by its outcome.
5. PAR aims to support intercultural dialogue between those whose knowledge and interests have historically been marginalised and treated solely as objects of research, and those experts and institutions in dominant positions.
6. PAR encourages professional researchers to abandon the myth of neutrality and become more fully involved in struggles related to people who are experiencing oppression, thereby putting themselves economically, socially and potentially physically at risk.

“While natural scientists are often able to identify blank spots, history is replete with examples where those without formal research training have revealed patterns that the scientists had not noticed.”


The applications of PAR
Given that our global ecological crisis ultimately has its origins in social problems, it should be no surprise that PAR is often at the forefront of attempts to address urgent environmental issues, such as land grabbing for industrial agriculture, desertification and sea-level rise. 

The adoption in Western academia (such as those in Australia, Canada, the EU, the UK and the USA) of neoliberal policies and the government imposition of metrics that discriminate against participatory approaches risks worsening epistemic injustice and various forms of oppression. As we know from history, rampant inequalities and oppression create tension and conflict, the opposite of the conditions needed for equitable dialogue and mutual understanding. 

Even after XR and Greta Thunberg turned engagement on its head, those of us working with the public will only make progress by building alliances that allow us to break out of the fugitive institutional spaces in which many of us still find ourselves. Extinction engagement would nurture cross-cultural conversations between those using PAR, the majority who use more conventional engagement approaches and those whose practice comes somewhere in between. 

We should encourage our interlocutors who are inclined to be wary of PAR to revisit fundamental questions such as: ’Who is the expert?’, ‘How should research be conducted ethically?’ and ‘What should be done with the conclusions?’ We should have the humility to welcome questions about participatory approaches. We should also acknowledge that, in such politically difficult times, research and engagement are often just one small element in larger projects for ecological justice and transformation. 


Dr Tom Wakeford is a staff member of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), a small civil-society organisation dedicated to monitoring and democratising science and technology. He is also Honorary Associate Professor at the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, University of Exeter, and a Fellow of the Linnean Society. 
1. Wagner, J. (2010) Ignorance in educational research: How not knowing shapes new knowledge. In Thomson, P. and Walker, M. (eds.) The Routledge Doctoral Student’s Companion: Getting to Grips with Research in Education and the Social Sciences. London: Routledge.
2. Visvanathan, S. (2009) The search for cognitive justice. India Seminar: Knowledge in Question. [accessed 5th July 2019]. 
3. Fricker, M. (2007) Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
4. Teo, T. (2008) From Speculation to Episteme in Psychology. Theory and Psychology 18, pp.47–67. 
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