Figure for Thought: A “Glocal” approach to bridging human well-being and sustainability

By Amanda Kelley

Achieving sustainable development goals requires drawing upon knowledge from a diversity of people – with different research backgrounds, life experiences and problem-solving approaches. Further, defining the “success” of these goals may vary from place to place and community to community.

Often, the policymakers, scientists, and others constructing solutions are operating under a restricted definition of what human well-being means and excluding, even if inadvertently, the ideas, values, and knowledge of local communities. What happens if a community has a different definition of well-being than what is assumed by external groups?

We may fall short, argues the SNAPP team Assessing Biocultural Indicators and their collaborators in a recent publication in Nature: Ecology & Evolution. They underscore the importance of bridging the gap between local perspectives and research- or policy-driven decisions to manage resources appropriately.

Lead author Eleanor Sterling, chief conservation scientist for the American Museum of Natural History, comments on the need to meaningfully engage local communities in defining well-being:

“This paper discusses the importance of approaching environmental and sustainability challenges in a way that is responsible, effective, and ethical for all involved parties. By including local peoples’ knowledges, values, and perspectives along with more generalized knowledge, we can develop more appropriate indicators and management approaches for achieving sustainability and well-being.

This figure illustrates how different knowledge systems can be either synergistic or disruptive to one another, depending on the approach taken. The two knowledge systems we depict are (1) generalized ex situ knowledge, for instance climate change impacts, which typically requires synthesis of data across sites regionally or globally (depicted by the world sphere on the top left); and (2) locally grounded in situ knowledge, such as the population status of a culturally important fish, which is locally derived and reflects values, beliefs, and knowledges of local people (depicted by the fisher person sphere on the top right).

The middle panel shows that if generalized knowledge is applied without considering local knowledge systems, the resulting management outcomes can miss out on crucial local information and have negative local impacts, from misallocation of resources to disenfranchisement our outright erosion of local institutions. For example, generic surveys developed for use across many cultures can frame questions in a way that is culturally or socially inappropriate, possibly resulting in incorrect data collected or restructuring of local values.

In contrast, the bottom panel shows that when different knowledge systems are included and given proper recognition and respect, they can be complementary and synergistic and lead to better outcomes.”

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Each month, we pull an interesting figure related to our work from the academic literature and ask the lead author to explain it for Figure for thought. Got an interesting figure to share? We’re open to your ideas. Contact seifert [at] (Jenny Seifert), communications officer.

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Posted on November 15, 2017