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Wicked And Messy Environmentals Problems Environmental Sciences Essay

Human activities over the decades have undoubtedly affected the environment.The advent of industrialization and technological progress is one such activity that has been argued as the cause of great damage to the natural environment. Coupled to the increasing need to provide for the growing populations around the world , this has led to a myriad of environmental problems some of which have been described as “messy” or “wicked’’. Amidst the vast technological advancements, these wicked problems still remain unraveled and elusive. They challenge our governance structures, our skills base and our organizational capacity. It is important, as a first step, that wicked problems be recognized as such. Successfully tackling wicked problems requires a broad recognition and understanding, including from governments and Ministers, that there are no quick fixes and simple solutions

They are the opposite of “tame” problems which have straightforward clear-cut solutions.

Rittel and Webber (1973) describe wicked environmental problems as defying classification and devoid of clear cut solutions. They have also been associated with “radical uncertainty” and “plurality of legitimate perspectives” (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1991).What does this mean for natural resource management? This suggests that natural resource management has been plunged into an era of turbulence with diminishing effects of the traditional/conventional approach to problem solving.

This brings to bear the challenges environmentalists and policy makers have to contend with in the management of wicked environmental problems quite commonplace in modern times.

This essay attempts to suggest ways by which natural resource management can be effective in dealing with these wicked problems. It begins by discussing four challenges that wicked problems present: change, conflict, complexity and uncertainty. It does that by using the Sierra Nevada Forest and the European cap- and trade program for carbon dioxide emissions in the European Union as case studies. Finally, proposes that for effective management of environmental problems through policy and practice, a combination of the precautionary, adaptive and participatory approaches must be considered to reduce the uncertainty and complexity associated with wicked environmental problems.

The first challenge associated with wicked problems is complexity; a trait Gunderson (1999) suggests is inherent in natural resource problems. Complexity implies a difficulty in establishing cause and effect patterns due to the presence of interdependencies and multiple variables. Complexity is determined by the degree of uncertainty and social disagreement on a particular issue (Patton, 2011; Stacy, 1996; Zimmerman, 2001).For example, the condition and trend exhibited by wildlife populations are as a result of the interactions between factors such as prior population, weather, predators, habitat, disease, off-site factors and chance events. If there is species decline in a population, which of these factors can be blamed for this outcome? The answer is not as simple as a solving to a mathematical problem since the problem may be caused by one of the factors or many acting in concert.

The technical and social aspects of complexity have also been identified. The former is linked to limitations in quality of information and a deficiency in knowledge systems which makes the diagnosis of a problem very hectic and introduces high levels of uncertainty. A quote by Lawrence J. Peter alludes that ‘’ some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them”. The social aspect on the other hand, emanates from difficulties in the coordination of information, activities and stakeholders across several disciplines. The differences in views, values, perception and beliefs of various stakeholders introduces conflict: another challenge in resolving wicked environmental problems.

Adding to complexity is the diversity and range of stakeholder values, a recipe for conflict.Values have been observed to be a key element in the actions of people(Rescher, 1969).There is often little consensus on what the problem is, let alone a general solution (Ritchey, 2005; Rittel and Webber, 1973).Whether the issue is about air quality, water use, building a dam or protecting forest species ,the differing values of stakeholders is not in doubt.Parties usually involved in environmental policy formulation usually span the entire length and breadth of governance, from the politician to the peasant farmer.

Given the difficulty of incorporating the divergent views all the parties may legitimately put forward, conflicts have left most environmental problem–solving attempts stranded and engulfed in litigation. For example, a water resource controversy in Colorado started over a proposed dam (Bingham, 1986).Some parties declined to participate in the discussion until the question of whether or not a dam was needed was answered. Others thought, a dam was the only way to solve the water shortage problem. However, asking the question ‘’ how much water do we need?” is essential to understanding the problem which brings into sharp focus problem-framing; a critical but quite problematic step in environmental policy formulation.

The process of problem- framing involves asking questions that explore different aspects of the problem. It’s astonishing how often people fail to ask what or why a problem is occurring rather than assuming the solution is evident (Watzlawick et al, 1974).This assumption of knowing the solution before exploring the problem further has mainly been associated with experts who may see new problems as exactly as old ones (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1982).The presence of conflicting values,risk and uncertainty does not mean a definite decision cannot be taken.It only stresses the manager’s need to think beyond the traditional approach to problem framing and problem solving. failing to see that most wicked problems unique and associated with change, another challenge of wicked problems.

As discussed earlier, the various interdependencies and multiple variables in wicked environmental problem makes change inevitable phenomenon. Horst Rittel in his paper “Dilemmas in General Theory of Planning” explains that when dealing with wicked problems one must recognize that every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem.Considering the fact that ecosystems, social, econonmic, knowledge, technologies and public attitudes are so dynamic it is reasonable for management strategies and practices to be dynamic as well.Policies must be continually be adapted to change as well as constructed for local application.Wildavsky et al,(1995) suggest that the only way to ensure consistent progress in dynamic and uncertain situations is to take incremental steps that are bold enough to leave room for possible errors that enhance learning.

Uncertainty is another challenge associated with wicked problems due to the constant revision and review of science and development. Thus , it is quite rare for scientists to agree unanimously on something as complex on an environmental or ecosystem level.In a complex open system like the environment ,knowledge has limits and certainty is far-fetched.

What is the story today with the approach to solving wicked environmental problems? Is it working? It can be argued that uncertainty really has played a role in the many arguments that have characterized environmental management discussions and a contributor to the plethora of appeals and litigation. The responses form government agencies have been to produce more complex policy documents justifying their actions and advocating for more research to make up for the knowledge gaps that exists with the assumption that disputes are centrally about science. On the contrary, evidence shows that difference in stakeholder positions have more to do with conflicting values than with scientific uncertainty. This side of the argument is scarcely explored resulting in the formulating of more documents which have little to do with the underlying problems.

Owing to the fact that environmental management makes decisions that affect both future and present generations. There is a need for better rules and ethics to guide environmental managers.

Bearing in mind the challenges of varying ecological and social conditions across large and spatial scales, multiple stakeholder groups with very divergent values, high levels of perceived risk and scientific uncertainty, many researchers and environmental managers have espoused several theories and practices which they deem are most appropriate for dealing with wicked problems. In the next sections of this essay, three approaches; adaptive management, participatory processes and the precautionary principle will be introduced as the most appropriate for dealing with contemporary environmental problems.

Adaptive management has been argued as a management strategy that will deal with scientific uncertainty and real world examples of its applicability is evident as reviewed in Stewart et al.(2004). It has been associated with varying degrees of success across a gamut of cases, each with outcomes that enhance learning. The adaptive approach has been described as a learning approach that continually improves policy and practice in the face of uncertainty and a tool to frame philosophical, methodological and practical challenges that come with natural resource management (Holling 1978; Walters 1986; Lee 1993; Gunderson et al. 1995).” Learning by doing” is the basic concept of adaptive management. This approach has been recognized by international interdisciplinary efforts such as the sustainability science program(Clark and Dixon, 2003), the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment(2005) and the Equator Initiative of the United Nations Development Programme ( UNDP, 2005) as having the potential to deal with the complexity of socio – ecological processes and enhance learning.

A case study of the ongoing success of the adaptive management approach is shown by Canada’s Model Forest. To reduce the uncertainty, complexity while promoting the development of innovative ideas and sustainability the Federal government initiated Canada’s model Forest Program in 1992.The Program consists of eleven model forests across Canada selected to reflect the diversity of ecosystems and social systems present in Canada’s Forest environment. Each model Forest is designed to function as a living laboratory where novel integrated forest management techniques are researched, developed, applied and monitored in a transparent forum that engages and partners with stakeholders from environmental organisations, industry, native groups, educational and research institutions, community – based associations, recreationists and landowners as well as all levels of government.

The success from this adaptive approach have been many and includes the development of voluntary wetland conservation programs for private lands;establishemenrt of protocols for reporting on socio economic indicators based on Statistics Canada census data; developing an ecosystem –integrated resource management plan for the Province of Saskatchewan, production of a code of forestry practice to help landowners understand and apply the principles of sustainable forest management; establishment of the Grand River Reserve to protect three eco-regions and habitat for the endangered Newfoundland pine marten.

Researchers have identified two forms; the passive and active types of adaptive management (Wilhere, 2000). The passive is strongly science centred and formulates policy based on models and revises the models as monitoring data becomes available. The active form however conducts management action as deliberate experiments. Though the passive is quite simple and inexpensive the active form results in better understanding of the responses of natural systems to management and can help develop better policy.

However, no single approach has the complete arsenal for fighting wicked problems and though adaptive management has had many successes it has its limitations. Short term project frames,rigid targets and a focus of success prompt managers to continue with conventional and controlled management approaches, even when encouraged by government rhetoric to apply adaptive approaches(Allen and Curtis, 2005)

This limitation is due to the fact that wicked problems do not only have scientific uncertainty but also is engulfed in a plethora of stakeholder conflicts. Thus adaptive management needs to incorporate a social side as well including institutional barriers. For example, institutional stability, organizational culture hinged on learning and adequate political and administrative commitment of resources( Lee,1993).To be effective, adaptive management will need to include knowledge from multiple sources, system models and support cooperation among stakeholders( McLain and Lee, 1996).This need has led to adaptive co-management an approach that combines adaptive and collaborative management in which rights and responsibilities are jointly shared to better combat the challenges that wicked problems may bring. Thus, collaboration brings into sharp focus the need for carefully designed public participation.

Public participation has become an entrenched concept in the formulation, implementation and management of environmental issues owing to its suitability for addressing the interests of multiple stakeholders and reducing conflict. It is quite common to see National and subnational governments require the input of the public in managing and developing of environmental policy. An example being the US National Environmental policy Act and the US Federal Advisory Committee Act. Thus participation in decision-making is increasingly regarded as a democratic right (Reed, 2008).Increasing calls for public participation rests on many factors including growing distrust of public institutions and officials,inareaing legislative requirements for public participation,the complexity and uncertainty of contemporary problems, different risk perceptions and a growing recognition that decisions are not entirely scientific but social values and politics are inherent in all administrative decisions.

Politics has not been extricated from how the environment is managed, level of public participation and at what point in the policy making process it is incorporated.

Participatory processes also have a challenge of identifying groups of stakeholders and bringing these interests together in an environment conducive for learning( Gray ,1989).It has also been associated with intensive resource commitments( money, time and human capital), prolonged decision making, reduced decision quality , increased conflict and diminished likelihood of a successful outcome(Sample, 1993 ;Steelman 2001).

The Precautionary approach is one possible response to wicked problems in the face of uncertainty and risk. Some scholars assert that it is a powerful tool for protecting human health and the environment under uncertain conditions(Cameron and Boucher, 1991) whiles other think it is ill- defined, unscientific and of little value to policymaking(Manson 2002). Still many nations have some form of precautionary principle in place when confronted with uncertain health risks though they may not explicitly refer to it ( Zander, 2010).While the main importance of this principle is embedded in adages like ‘’ better safe than sorry” it central idea is that technologies or practices that have the potential to endanger the environment should be banned or strongly regulated until proven safe.

Under the precautionary principle, the absence or lack of evidence concerning the harmful nature of a substance or practice cannot serve as a justification for delaying action to regulate them (Raffensperger and Tickner, 1999). For example, the issue of global warming usually includes arguments that either favour business- as –usual or the precautionary principle. Opponents against the principle base their arguments on scientific uncertainty regarding how humans have contributed to climate change and the severity of effects that may occur. They generally advocate for further research to reduce the uncertainties before costly emission-reduction policies are implemented. Advocates of the precautionary approach on the other hand argue that the likely adverse effects of the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are serious enough to justify potentially costly regulation despite remaining uncertainties.

Its contribution to long term, multigenerational effects of policy decisions has been emphasized however it cannot single –handedly provide a practical guide to dealing with wicked problems.

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