Natural resource management, health and wellbeing: drawing parallels

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Woodhill (2002) describes the development of natural resource management over time as:

– a technocentric era – where it was seen as a “technical problem requiring technical solutions” (page 69) and primarily the responsibility of government

– a localist era – focussed on community participation and local level change.

However, his work challenges this localist perspective and says it needs to be complemented by “broader scale institutional change” (page 70).  He says that NRM is entering an institutional era.

He advocates that a paradigm of social learning is central  to “overcoming such institutional constraints and engaging with the deeper causes of the ecological unsustainability of modern society” (page 70).

In my area of practice, my concern is with the health and wellbeing of people – both current and future generations.  By health I draw on the World health organisation’s 1947 definition:

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity

I can see parallels in the ‘eras’ of people’s understanding of health and the factors that influence it to that described by Woodhill.  If you go back to Victorian times, the concern with sewerage and housing conditions, recognised the impact of environmental factors on health.

However, as ‘science’ took off, the medical model of health which paid attention to individual biology, restricted attention to medical intervention and medical discoveries in relation to health.  I see links with the technocentric era of NRM.

Eventually the medical model expanded to pay attention to people’s behaviours and lifestyle choices – such as smoking or alcohol consumption.  This seems like an era that paid attention to personal responsibility and like the localist era in NRM used community based development and individual level changes.  It worked on the premis that if an individual has the ‘right’ knowledge then they will change their behaviours.

The social model of health places the individual into a wider social context.  The paradigm shift started to happen in public health research in the 1970s and one of the most widely used models on the determinants of health was published by Dahlgren and Whitehead in 1991 (see google images result for examples of this model).

Going back to Schon’s ideas, these ideas have been on the ‘margins’ of society for a while.  It is only now that they are becoming ‘ideas in good currency’ within public health policy.  This has been helped by WHO’s work on the social determinants of health and in England, Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s review of health inequalities.

The notion of “social determinants of health” have now hit the mainstream in the recent public health white paper.  But, there are still some aspects of the research behind into this issue that are being sidelined – there is less mention for example of Wilkinson and Pickett’s work on income inequality (see Equality Trust) which demonstrates that the degree of income inequality in rich countries in the world is related to a whole host of social problems – the greater the ‘distance’ between rich and poor, the greater the problems.

I also think that whilst there is an acceptance of the importance of the social determinants there is still quite a technical and scientific focus to the ‘fix’ to these problems – we are still working on first-order change.  And, are only really looking at the ‘living and working conditions’ of Dahlgren and Whitehead’s model, rather than taking notice of the general socio-economic and cultural conditions.

Woodhill describes how the concerns of late modernity are with the risks that have been created by technological and industrial progress.  My knowledge of public health leads me to identify the distribution of wealth – not only between countries but within countries – as one of those risks.  The  current globalised economic system leads to the concentration of wealth and power and in turn this causes inequity in access to good health.

As Woodhill says:

our current political systems tend to appease powerful economic interests at the expense of the overall well-being of the majority and the environment (page 60)

So, the interests of the environment and the interests of wellbeing and health of people come together in Woodhill’s institutional era.  The same paradigm of social learning, along with new forms of democratic participation, are vital for wellbeing of both people (current and future) and the environment.


Woodhill, J. (2002) Sustainability, Social learning and the democratic imperative: lessons from the Australian Landcare Movement in Blackmore, C (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, The Open University/Springer Publications, Milton Keynes/London

Schön, D.A. (1973) Beyond the stable state pp.30, 116 – 179. The Norton Library, W.W. Norton and Company INC, New York reprinted as Chapter 1 in Blackmore, C. (Ed) (2010) Social learning systems and communities of practice, The Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes/London

Dahlgren, G and Whitehead, M (1991) Policies and strategies to promote social equity in health, Institute of Future Studies, Stockholm

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