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The emergence of sustainability culture and the sustainability practitioner

Parnell, Matthew (2012) The emergence of sustainability culture and the sustainability practitioner. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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In this thesis, I propose that sustainability is a new emergent cultural phenomenon – a new “dreaming” - arising from our conscious and unconscious actions, our relationships and our connection to place. Such a culture of sustainability is essential to support the vision of a sustainable global society. I further propose that the way sustainability is practised, both personally and professionally, has significant potential for fostering the emergence of sustainability culture, and that a mature sustainability culture, in turn, will support our myriad actions towards sustainability. The above propositions have a significant caveat: emergence, as understood in complexity theory, is not predictable. The current unsustainable paradigm of global development is also an emergent phenomenon. Real sustainability is therefore not inevitable, simply because a vision has been articulated, and strategies and actions implemented.

I also contend that as sustainability is holistic in conception, it requires a holistic approach to practice, in addition to the mechanistic prescriptions common to much contemporary sustainability practice. To move towards a holistic approach to practice requires a different type of practitioner from the conventional practitioner: more generalist than specialist, drawing on their “inner sustainability culture” when faced with complex sustainability problems, capable of working across scales, open to discovery of new patterns, and mindful of the degree of complexity in any practice setting.

In recognition of the need for a new cultural paradigm of sustainability, and drawing on the concept of emergence as described by complexity theory, I have designed this research project to investigate the following four themes:

1. Culture as an emergent quality of complex adaptive socio-technical systems;
2. The connections between human action and emergent system qualities;
3. The prospects for the emergence of a culture of sustainability; and
4. The implications of emergent sustainability culture for the sustainability practitioner.

In this thesis, I argue that we need a model of sustainability culture that accommodates the emergence phenomenon and new ways of emergence-based sustainability practice. I therefore propose an Emergence Model of Sustainability Culture to illustrate the relationship between sustainability, culture and the emergence phenomenon, and I articulate four Emergence Patterns for Sustainability Practice as a working framework for emergence-oriented sustainability practice across different generic practice settings in simple, complicated, complex and chaotic space. I hope that sustainability practitioners will find my Emergence Model and Emergence Patterns to be helpful in progressing to a more considered and deeper approach to sustainability practice than contemporary approaches, especially where sustainability problems are complex and difficult. In this way we may continue to develop a culture of sustainability as a new “dreaming” and the practice of sustainability will progress further to service humanity’s compelling need.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Sciences and Humanities
Notes: For further information regarding this thesis including Appendices do not hesitate to contact the author via the email address provided.
Supervisor(s): Newman, Peter and Pettitt, Bradley
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