Social Ecologist Profile: Rafter Sass of Urbana, IL




Please introduce yourself (What kind of work you do, Where you live,  etc.)

I’m a research agroecologist, Permaculture designer, and educator-activist. I recently moved to Urbana, IL, with my partner Brook, where I’m working on a PhD at University of Illinois.

As a Permaculturist and ecological designer, I’ve done work in waste and water treatment, agroforestry, whole farm and homestead design, and integrated mushroom production. Within academia, my research is oriented toward rebuilding some of the derelict bridges between Permaculture and empirical research. So far that’s included proposing and testing a participatory farm design process, and now I’m looking at simplified and low-cost techniques for mushroom production, for food, bioremediation, and drinking water treatment.

The heart of all my work is the intersection between social justice and ecological design. I’ve been developing and sharing a workshop curriculum, about discovering and creating those connections, for the past six years, under the name Liberation Ecology Project. That work is now folded into a larger collaborative project, which includes more of a focus on on-the-ground research and design, called Just Design Institute. My primary collaborators over the past few years have been  Felix Wai and Sarah Kadden, two great thinkers and activists who are still living in Burlington, VT.

How did you become introduced to the ideas of social ecology? How do you define social ecology when asked about it?

My first substantive introduction to social ecology was the wonderful ISE Intensive in NYC in January 2010. I’m so grateful to the teachers and organizers of that event, which was deeply informative and inspiring, as well as amazingly cheap. This is the first time I’ve been asked to define social ecology, actually, since I haven’t used the term much, as I only recently started to get to know it. But now that I’ve been asked, I would say this:

As a recently out-of-the-closet dialectician, I would have to say that I’m interested in social ecology as a process, or practice, rather than a theory-of-everything. I should unpack that a little. Unlike Bookchin – or what I understand of his work – I don’t think that there are any moral (or ethical) principles writ in the organization and behavior of natural systems.  For me, human desire is, and has to be, at the root of our actions, and the engine of the change we envision. The universe is a cold and amoral place, except for where sentient beings make it otherwise.

In contrast to moral/ethical principles, I do think that we can “read” strategic and practical principles from the dynamics and behavior of ecosystems (including coupled human-natural systems). I use the term “reading” here as shorthand for what is actually a fundamentally creative act of translation and transliteration. Reading the dynamics of complex systems, and distilling what you read there in pithy formulations, is is not a process that can ever be complete.

Therefore, I think of the social ecology milieu at any given moment as a snapshot of a process: a set of observations about the relationships between the dynamics of ecological systems and those of social systems, and some principles for action and design that emerge from those observations. Even better, though, the social ecology that I am interested in is the practice of making those observations, formulating principles or directives based on them, and taking action – in the interest of collective liberation.

How does social ecology and/or your experience with the Institute for Social Ecology influence your current work?

Given that definition, I think it probably makes sense to say that I am most influenced by social ecology as a community of practice – or maybe praxis is a better word here. Working on the intersection between the social and ecological, as well as working in the uneasy zone between theory and practice, can be isolating. I don’t do high theory (much), and I’m also not a community organizer – but I do work in ideas, and I do work in communities.

The ISE is an incredible resource of people thinking hard about the relationship between the natural and social world(s), and taking action, and letting the results of their actions affect their thinking, and on and on. That’s what I’m drawn to, more than any static body of theory.

My relationship with the ISE itself is new enough that I’m not sure how it influences my work yet!

What do you see as the greatest opportunities and greatest challenges for achieving a sustainable relationship between humanity and the wider world?

The challenges are so multifarious that I can’t think of anything remotely interesting to say about them. I do think that we are presently witnessing capitalism succumb to its own internal contradictions, but there is no guarantee that what comes next will in and of itself be any more desirable.

In terms of opportunities, the lever to which I’ve aimed my work at is to put the resources of the “sustainability science” world as directly at the service of popular grassroots movements as possible. Right now we have, on one hand, a resource-rich community of research and innovation that is unhinged from any mandate, and lacks the leadership that will make their work relevant and meaningful in people’s lives. And we also have a lot of communities that are struggling to exercise their mandate, and who also have the clearest and most intimate vision of the converging crises that we face as a civilization. My interest is in exploring and exploiting the complementarity between these two groups, by channeling the resources of the former under the leadership of the latter.

Any great stories about being around the ISE?

Nope, just looking forward to generating some. 😉 Any suggestions?