By David Salt
As a younger man I honestly believed that sustainability was a tractable problem; a difficult challenge no doubt but one that was solvable with hard work coupled with science and technology. And, as a confident young thing, I thought I could contribute to this outcome by serving in the area of science communication and education; get more talented young people into science, and increase community acceptance of emerging technological solutions so they can be effectively implemented.
How might science and technology save us? By providing us with insights on the many problems being faced by humanity and the environment, and by helping humanity lighten its footprint on Planet Earth. Well, science has definitely provided ample insights on the plight of our planet, and technology has given us so many ways to be more efficient in how we do things.
For all that, however, we are moving away from being sustainable; indeed, we seem to be accelerating away from it. In the last half century, humanity has pushed the Earth system over several planetary boundaries, unleashed a sixth extinction event, and seems unable as a global community to do anything about greenhouse gas emissions which are remorselessly on the increase (as a by-product of our addiction to economic growth).
Science and technology has underpinned so much of our wealth creation and economic activity, and many techno-boosters are fervent in their belief that science and technology is the solution to the many problems facing our environment (indeed, I heard Australia’s Chief Scientist say this exact thing on the radio this morning, as I write.)
As I grew older and watched the natural world decline around me (on a number of scales; think of weed infestation in your local bush reserve, glacial retreat or the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef), my enthusiasm for (and faith in) science and technology also declined. I could see the potential of all these new discoveries (think renewable energy, nanotech and biotech as examples) but could never see where the outcomes were creating a more sustainable future. For example, for every 10% improvement in efficiency in process X, we seemed to see 100% increase in people using that process resulting in more waste, more consumption and more damage (albeit less impact per capita, see the Rebound Effect for a discussion on this).
The dangers of partial solutions
It’s not that I’m anti science and technology and I do believe increasing efficiency is important. However, by themselves they are not enough.
Then I was asked to write a couple of books on resilience science (Resilience Thinking and Resilience Practice) and my doubts on the belief that ‘science and technology is the solution’ crystallised into a new way of looking at the world. The experience of writing about resilience opened my eyes to ideas of complexity, and the capacity of a complex systems to absorb disturbance and retain their identity (the definition of resilience). The consequences of these ideas are deep and far reaching. In a range of different ways, I’ve been attempting to articulate them in my stories for Sustainability Bites.
One major consequence of acknowledging the complexity around us is to be aware of the cost of partial solutions sold to us as complete answers. Science and technology (and endlessly increasing efficiency) are not only not enough to move us to being sustainable, an exclusive reliance on them (and belief in them, think ‘technology not taxes’) will actually reduce resilience in the systems we depend upon and make us more vulnerable to disturbance.
There are many lines of evidence supporting this contention (see Resilience Thinking and Resilience Practice) but in the space I have here I’d like to discuss how natural resource management agencies decline over time. Improving science and technology (and efficiency) is often touted as the solution but only fuels this decline. This discussion is based on a landmark paper by CS Holling (one of the founding fathers of resilience thinking) and Gary Meffe, written a quarter of a century ago: Command and Control and the Pathology of Natural Resource Management.
The command-and-control pathology
Holling and Meffe point out that when command and control is applied in natural resource management, the initial phase is nearly always quite successful. Insect pests are reduced by pesticide use; fishing and hunting are enhanced by stocking or predator removal; forest fires are suppressed for years; floods are minimized by levees and dams.
But what follows on these initial successes is rarely acknowledged. The agencies responsible for management shift their attention from the original social or economic purpose towards increasing efficiency and a reduction in costs. (Of course, all agencies/companies do this over time not just NRN agencies. It’s a pattern well described in the idea of ‘adaptive cycles’ first proposed by Holling.)
NRM agencies search for better and more efficient ways to kill insects, eliminate wolves, rear hatchery fish, detect and extinguish fires, or control flows. Priorities thus shift from research and monitoring (why ‘waste’ money studying and monitoring apparent success?) to internal agency goals of cost efficiency and institutional survival.
Holling and Meffe contend that as this happens, there is a growing isolation of agency personnel from the systems being managed and insensitivity to public signals of concern. They describe this as institutional myopia and increased rigidity (again, something well described by the theory of adaptive cycles).
At the same time, economic activities exploiting the resource benefit from success (of more fish, or water or whatever) and expand in the short term. We see greater capital investment in activities such as agricultural production, pulp mills, suburban development, and fishing and hunting. There’s nothing wrong with this, they say, within limits.
But the result is increasing dependency on continued success in controlling nature while, unknown to most, nature itself is losing resilience and increasing the likelihood of unexpected events and eventual system failure. When natural systems are ‘controlled’ they invariably lose their natural diversity and processes, which leads to a declining ability to absorb disturbance (while maintaining its identity).
With dependency comes denial and demands by economic interests to keep and expand subsidies, and pressure for further command and control.
So, the initial successes of command and control come with a costs that are usually never acknowledged. Command and control reduces natural variation and erodes resilience, environmental managers aim for efficiency rather than connection with the system they are managing, and economic interests that benefit from original command and control distort the system to maintain it. The composite result is increasingly less resilient and more vulnerable ecosystems, more myopic and rigid institutions, and more dependent and selfish economic interests all attempting to maintain short-term success.
Holling and Meffe point out that solutions to this pathology cannot come from further command and control (for example, stronger regulations) but must come from innovative approaches involving incentives leading to more resilient ecosystems, more flexible agencies, more self-reliant industries, and a more knowledgeable citizenry.
Back in the ‘real world’, you’ll largely hear our political leaders deny the complexity of this and simply say science and technology will save us. Unfortunately, in a complex world, simple solutions have a habit of only making the situation worse.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love science and technology. However, by themselves, they are not the solution. To contribute to a sustainable world, they need to work with complexity, not subjugate it.
Banner image: Dams are an important piece of human infrastructure offering many valuable short-term benefits by controlling our rivers. In the longer term they come with a range of often unacknowledged costs. They reduce the natural variability of the river; they encourage human settlement in areas subject to flooding; and allow food production in areas that normally wouldn’t support agriculture. Over time, the agencies managing the dam become myopic and rigid, the economic sectors depending on the dam become increasingly reliant and selfish, and the river system becomes increasingly vulnerable to disturbances. (Image by David Salt)