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Adaptive Governance and Evolving Solutions to Natural Resource Conflicts - WP 07/03

3  Adaptive Governance - Defining a Vision

Does international experience offer frameworks and tools that can help us identify and meet the challenges we face in managing demands on our natural resources? This section looks at lessons available in managing the frameworks challenge while the next deals with tools.

The first stage in identifying and meeting the challenges ahead is to acknowledge the complexity of what is being managed; i.e. interacting social and ecological processes operating at national, regional and local level and evolving over months, years or decades. Water use for example can involve dams that last a hundred years, millions of dollars to convert an extensive pastoral farm to intensive irrigated dairying, and groundwater impacts that may take decades to emerge.

The next stage is to define what we mean by sustainable development and determine what exactly we are trying to preserve or create; this can then lead on to decisions about whether to promote resilience or adaptability in policies, institutions and ecosystems.

So how do we manage complexity, what is sustainable development, what does resilience really mean, and how can the necessary vision be pulled together and sustained?

3.1  Managing complexity

Growing pressures on natural resources are a worldwide issue. Common problems include competing objectives from the same resources (e.g. irrigation, electricity generation, wildlife preservation, canoeing and fishing), growing public expectations of access to nature and for its preservation and business demands for investment certainty.

All of these demands exist in a context of growing volatility in environmental systems (e.g. more extreme weather shifts), and a growing risk of state changes (e.g. a change in dominant plant or animal species) because ecosystem resilience has been reduced (Folke 2005). These factors combine and interact to create the ‘wicked’ problems we now face.

Complexity is inherent in ecosystems because of external impacts (e.g. irrigation can deplete groundwater and can lead to contamination in streams), uncertain internal interactions (what are the critical functions performed by any given plant or animal and how is it affected by land use changes?) and threshold effects (e.g. lake eutrophication[17]once pollution reaches certain levels or the effect of over-fishing of predator species on the makeup of marine populations).

Scale issues can be spatial; e.g. the need to manage air quality in cities, water systems at the catchment level, and climate change globally. They can also be temporal; e.g. time lags in ecosystem changes and investment decisions.[18] Where issues must be managed across multiple scales, this puts pressure on management structures to co-ordinate and sustain efforts.

Finally social and ecological changes interact. Social components of social-ecological systems include diverse groups of varying size (families, fishers or boaties, tribes, etc), with different goals and impacting the environment through different practices (e.g. agriculture, hunting, walking and swimming. Likewise ecosystems operate at many different overlapping scales. Social behaviours shape and are shaped by the environment, and social and cultural values also slowly shift over time. Managing either social or ecological effects without accounting for the other risks ultimate failure.

Social-ecological systems: Interconnected societies and ecosystems, with changes in each affecting the other and creating feedback.

Traditional approaches to public policy face difficulties in addressing natural resource pressures because of the above issues. This is a concern if it is correct to argue that “evidence points to a situation where periods of abrupt change are likely to increase in frequency, duration and magnitude” (Folke 2005, p442),[19]such as the more volatile weather that has been predicted as a consequence of climate change.

Complexity can of course be managed and is. Effectively managing complex interactions and competing objectives requires integrating multiple levels of government, resources users and stakeholders, in a manner that does not result in ‘paralysis by analysis’ or ‘consultation fatigue’.

Such an integrated approach includes balancing multiple overlapping goals, comprehending ecological and social conditions that are changing in uncertain ways, incorporating evolving scientific understanding and multiple data sources, and increasing the resilience of policy frameworks and ecosystems. This challenge can be argued to be beyond the scope of traditional ‘scientific management’ approaches and single purpose statutes and agencies (Brunner 2005).

There is some literature, and limited experience, on describing the task discussed above and developing a framework within which to address it. Core concepts from this literature and experience include sustainable development, resilience and ‘adaptive governance’.

3.2  Sustainable development

So what are we trying to achieve in this complex world? The simple answer is sustainable development. Even commonly accepted definitions of that term, however, raise questions given uncertainties about the longer-term impact of activities and debates around the relative weightings of future and present needs.

Other complicating factors include incompatible demands (e.g. clear-cutting of timber versus carbon sequestration), demand exceeding supply in the absence of appropriate price signals and rights (e.g. for water in fast-growing urban areas), limited scientific understanding of ecological conditions, and the interaction of social constraints and ecological conditions (Brunner 2005).[20]

Sustainable development is therefore “a ‘wicked’ or unstructured problem for government”, but it can still provide a useful wider focus for coordination of long-term policies (Kemp 2003, p2).[21] Such a focus role fits well with an adaptive policy framework that recognises a range of goals but does not itself attempt to resolve them. Rather it allows the appropriate resolution to vary regionally and over time and is resilient to change in goals and circumstances.

Sustainable development: “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.[22]

This type of role moves us from trying to deliver equilibrium outcomes or particular “desirable states” to “resilience analysis, with a simultaneous focus on adaptive ... governance” (Walker 2004). In other words rather than try to produce a particular environmental equilibrium, we should aim to develop a regulatory regime that can adapt itself to changing social and environmental conditions, and to put the ecosystem into a state where it can cope with shocks.

An example of such a regime could involve specifying the level of resource use permitted (e.g. water abstracted from an aquifer) based on rolling measures of rainfall with buffers built in to prevent a collapse in pressure. Abstraction rights could then be traded and send signals about scarcity that would encourage efficient use.

One of the key factors in unsustainable resource use tends to be lack of price signals regarding the scarcity of resources (e.g. water) or the third-party impacts of an activity (e.g. runoff into waterways).


  • [17]Eutrophication involves an increase in nutrient levels which can lead to increased algal growth, reducing transparency and oxygen levels in the water, among other effects.
  • [18]Looking at the correct temporal scale helps avoid side-effects of partial management – e.g. stopping bush fires in the short term can result in uncontrollable longer term outbreaks. “Environmental and renewable resource issues tend to cross temporal and spatial scales … [and] have to be tackled simultaneously at several levels” (Folke 2002a, p907-908).
  • [19]Institutions of conventional resource management have been successful in producing yields and economic growth in the short term, but have not been very successful in safeguarding the dynamic capacity of ecosystems or in managing ecological and social systems for long-term well-being” (Folke 2002a, p907-908). An “institutional framework for improved linkages between dynamic ecological and social systems is arguably the biggest challenge” facing governments, although partially hidden by the extent to which mining existing resources and new technology conceal underlying losses (Hughes 2005, p383).
  • [20]These problems are reflected in the difficulty of measuring value in integrated ecological economic systems.
  • [21]It fits this description since it can’t be measured, there is no consensus on what should be sustained, it can be defined at local or national or global levels, and achieving it seems to involve fundamental change without short-term benefits. It can also be seen as an “example of a wider class of policy issues where there is a lack of consensus as to some fundamental aspects of the problem that raise difficult ethical questions” (Hodge 2004, p341).
  • [22]
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