In the context of manifold crises across the globe, including climate change, questions of urban sustainability, resilience, adaptation and liveability are now more crucial than ever. And it is more important than ever that our understandings of climate change adaptation are both theoretically engaged and systematically translated into practice. For example, in considering the kinds of issues that positive climate change adaptation might involve, having a comprehensive plan of action across all the domains and subdomains of social life becomes important.
The approach to understanding climate change adaptation presented here begins with the social. If positive sustainability and adaptation is defined as practices and meanings of human engagement that project an ongoing life-world of natural and social flourishing, then adaptation is a broad social phenomena rather than primarily an economic or narrowly an ecological phenomena. In other words, as well as having profound ecological and economic implications, it is also a political and a cultural implications.
Why Four Domains?
It is analytically possible to divide the social into any number of domains. Social domains are spheres of social life understood in the broadest possible sense. In this case we have chosen the minimal number of domains that are useful for giving a complex sense of the whole of social life: namely, ecology, economics, politics and culture.
A lot could be written about how we came to choose these four domains and to acknowledge the limitations of making such a claim. Without going into much detail, we argue that they provide a much richer and less reductive, less skewed approach than alternatives such as the triple-bottom-line approach.
That mainstream and often-naturalized approach tends to treat economics, for example, as if it is completely distinct from the social. It is amazing how, across almost every field of practice, clichés such as ‘economic, environmental and social sustainability’, or ‘economic, environmental and social concerns’, roll off the mainstream production-line of naturalized phrases. Only critics of market-dominated politics ask why economics has come to be treated as the master domain separated from it social foundation. Very few people ask why the environment tends to be reduced to an externality of the economic. Even less people ask why the social is treated as grab-bag of extra things that are left over after the economic and environmental are designated and demarcated. Moreover, it is increasingly rare to actually try to define these basic terms: ecology, economics, politics and culture. Even Raymond Williams’ classic text Keywords only explores one of these four concepts.
Certainly, the lived demarcation of these domains is only generally meaningful as modern categorizations. Earlier, meditations can be found that begin to separate out different social domains. For example, in the fourth century BCE, Aristotle implicitly lifts out ‘politics’ to name the process of considering how one should best live in a polis. However, this does not involve an explicit separation of domains. He treats the oikos, the co-residential household, as the basis unit within the polis and therefore the household economy as embedded in interconnected processes. It is also instructive to note that oikos was the ancient origin of the modern words ‘economy’ and ‘ecology’. Prior to the dominance of the modern, people did not live these projections as taken-for-granted separate domains of life.
The first step in setting up a sustainability assessment process is to define the domains of practice and meaning that are to be assessed. These ‘social domains’, as we define them here, are analytically derived by considering the human condition broadly across time, across different places, and across different ways of life. The four domains that have been chosen — ecology, economics, politics, and culture — represent a minimal holistic account of the social.
How Can We Best Define the Social Domains?
Taking into account the many earlier controversies over defining these concepts, here are our definitions:
The ecological is defined as a social domain that emphasizes the practices, discourses, and material expressions that occur across the intersection between the social and the natural realms.
This includes focussing on the important dimension of human engagement with and within nature, ranging from the built-environment to so-called ‘wilderness’ areas. This means that the ecological domain focuses on questions of social-environmental interconnection, including human impact on, and place within, the environment from the unintended consequences of living on the planet to issues of the built-environment.
The economic is defined as a social domain that emphasizes the practices, discourses, and material expressions associated with the production, use, and management of resources.
Here the concept of ‘resources’ is used in the broadest sense of that word, including in settings where resources were/are not instrumentalized or reduced to a means to other ends, including accruing exchange value. Although the domain of economics was only abstracted as a named and begun to be practiced as a separate domain in the early modern period, previously deriving from the Greek oikonomia, meaning ‘household management’, this definition allows it to be used across different places and times.
The political is defined as a social domain that emphasizes practices and meanings associated with basic issues of social power as they pertain to the organization, authorization, legitimation and regulation of a social life held-in-common.
The parameters of this area thus extend beyond the conventional sense of politics to include social relations in general. They cross the public/private divide; itself in formal terms a modern construct. The key related concept here is a ‘social life held-in-common’. Not everything that is done in the private or public realm is political just because it may have consequences for issues of the organization, authorization, legitimation and regulation of a social life held-in-common.
The cultural is defined as a social domain that emphasizes the practices, discourses, and material expressions, which, over time, express continuities and discontinuities of social meaning of a life held-in-common.
The concept of ‘culture’ had its beginnings in agriculture and cultivation, with subsidiary senses of ‘honour with worship’ of cultura, which in the sixteenth century were linked to understanding of human growth and development.