Do we all agree on the importance of learning and knowledge integration for environmental governance?

By Jens Newig

A couple of days ago, I received the report of a symposium I was invited to earlier this year. The symposium, held in May at the Stockholm Environment Institute, was about “Environmental Governance in an Increasingly Complex World: An Interdisciplinary Exchange on Adaptation, Collaborative Learning and Knowledge Integration”, gathering some 25 researchers and practitioners (You can access the website here, and the report here).

Learning and knowledge integration were the key issues discussed by speakers like Ryan Plummer (adaptive co-management), Bernd Siebenhüner (transdisciplinarity), Arjen Wals (social learning in education), Stephen Elstub (deliberation) and myself (governance learning). There certainly was a lot of interesting detail from empirical and conceptual studies. One key insight, however, emerged more implicitly: There seemed a remarkable consensus in the whole group that more learning – either through participation, co-management, or transdisciplinary interaction – would benefit sustainability and environmental governance. To quote from the report, knowledge integration and learning were even seen as “a necessary precondition for transformative change toward more sustainable futures”.

I certainly agree that without learning no major leap forward can be achieved – whether this concerns sustainability or not. I just have this slight unease with the high level of consensus on the issue. Are we still asking the right questions? Are we as reasearchers still learning (sic!) enough when studying learning? Going against the grain, a couple of contributions appeared to indeed question the dominant focus on standard models of learning. Arjen Wals, for example, brought forward the idea of un-learning. While this is not new as such, I believe it would be worth discussing more thoroughly in this community. (In the Leverage Points project – WP 2 “Re-Structure” – we will focus on related topics of de-institutionalisation for the benefit of sustainability). Perhaps it is as important to study what kind of (unsustainable) beliefs, convictions, practices, institutions we need to do away with, as it is essential to examine what new things we need to learn.

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