Start main page content

Experts call for climate change mindset shift that draws from various knowledge systems

- Wits University

Coleen Vogel, Professor at the Global Change Institute among experts who propose the adoption of practical wisdom in the fight against climate change.

Practical wisdom is a useful approach when there are conflicting values, power inequalities, and knowledge gaps. According to Greek philosophers, practical wisdom is the central virtue of citizens involved in public and social life. It is the capacity to navigate complex and contentious situations with will and skill. Practical wisdom is an ethical compass that aids decision making amid uncertain knowledge and conflict. Furthermore, wisdom enquiry suggests that the pursuit of wisdom is preferable to the pursuit of knowledge. This allows practitioners and researchers to find new and rational ways to address urgent challenges without relying on technical and positivistic ideas of rationality.

“In climate science, without a guiding principle, we may become mired in the complexity of competing ideas and contexts, which leads to paralysis. This is despite the best intentions  to find timeous solutions to guide effective action, ” said Professor Vogel.

The paper entitled Practical wisdom and virtue ethics for knowledge co-production in sustainability science, is a radical attempt to outline how sustainability practitioners can co-produce knowledge where collaboration is held in the highest regard among all stakeholders. In the article, the authors argue that engaging with practical wisdom and virtue ethics can enhance researchers’ capacity to foster transformative change. “This approach is also focused on learning and reflexivity,” says Vogel.

The authors show how practical wisdom works when addressing real-world problems such as food systems in South Africa, biodiversity conservation on Māori indigenous land, green spaces in small German towns, and water pollution in Hungary.

The Southern African Food Lab (SAFL), for example, adopted the practical wisdom guiding principle in its Food Futures Scenario Project. SAFL created and disseminated transformative stories about food system futures through interaction, communication and collaboration between different actors, including those with conflicting interests. When an activist criticised the dialogue process, Lab participants responded in a way that demonstrated their commitment to continued engagement rather than polarisation. All participants agreed to stay engaged and seek connection with one another to consider the solutions to hunger.

The authors propose that universities and research institutes embrace practical wisdom in their measurement of good quality science. They claim that, if research institutions want to be viable leaders in today’s world and fulfil their commitment to serving the public good, they need to invest more and become better in creating the conditions for cultivating practical wisdom. Practical wisdom can help universities to become powerful actors of change.

“We live in a time of multiple and interconnected crises. We are all in this together. Practical wisdom as a guiding tenet provides a way of dealing with complex challenges, now and in the future,” said Vogel.