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Fit in the Body: Matching Embodied Cognition with Social-Ecological Systems

Janne I Hukkinen, University of Helsinki


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Analysis of fit has focused on the macrolevel fit between social institutions and ecosystems, and bypassed the microlevel fit between individual cognition and its socio-material environment. I argue that the conceptualizations we develop about social-ecological systems and our position in them should be understood as ways for a fundamentally cognitive organism to adapt to particular social and ecological situations. Since at issue is our survival as a species, we need to better understand the structure and dynamics of fit between human cognition and its social-ecological environment. I suggest that the embodied cognition perspective opens up possibilities for “nudging” evolution through the conceptual integration of the cognitively attractive but ecologically unrealistic neoclassical economics, and the cognitively less attractive but ecologically more realistic adaptive cycle theory (panarchy). The result is a conceptually integrated model, the Roller Coaster Blend, which expresses in metaphorical terms why competitive individuals are better off cooperating than competing with each other in the face of absolute resource limits. The blend enables the reframing of messages about the limits of the social-ecological system in terms of growth rather than degrowth. This is cognitively appealing, as upward growth fires in our minds the neural connections of “more,” “control”, and “happy.” The blend’s potential for nudging behavior arises from its autopoietic characteristic: it can be both an account of the social-ecological system as an emergent structure that is capable of renewing itself, and a cognitive attractor of individuals whose recruitment reinforces the integrity of the social-ecological system.

Key words

adaptive cycle; adaptive management; blending; cognitive anthropology; cognitive linguistics; conceptual integration; embodied cognition; environmental policy; neoclassical economics; panarchy; social-ecological systems; socio-ecological systems

Copyright © 2012 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087