Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Rethinking Sustainable Development, ELC Essay #7: Adaptive Management, Resiliency, and Why Sustainability Discussions Give Me a Headache
Climate change does not change our view of sustainability; it heightens the importance of sustainability thinking. The concept of sustainability is inextricably linked with ideas of planning and management. From an ecological standpoint, sustainability guides resource management—helping ensure that current use of a resource will not deplete the resource and that future generations (or even just future versions of us) will be able to use the resource as well.
Take the simple example of sustainable timber management. If we cut down all the trees today, we won’t have any trees available for timber next year. If we harvest timber in a way that leaves the soil vulnerable, we’ll make it even harder to have trees in the future. Therefore, when deciding how to manage the forest, we make a plan that involves cutting down only some of the trees. We look at water, soils, and nutrients to determine what actions will protect our desire to cut down more trees in the future. We consult scientists and economists and take ecological and social considerations into account. And then we realize that our simple sustainable forest example is not really so simple. To meet our goal of sustainable timber harvest, we must also adopt an approach that considers many factors and is open to change and adaptation as inputs change or our information about (understanding of) the system grows.
Sustainable timber management offers a glimpse into the complexity of thinking broadly about sustainability, yet climate change makes sustainability analysis even harder. Keeping with our forest example, climate science tells us that we are likely to see even greater changes in water regimes, nutrient availability, and species richness. Things are going to get harder because our earlier predictions about the future were wrong. Things are going to get harder because our current understanding of the natural world is still wrong. Things are going to get harder because all of our natural and social systems will be facing increased stress.
Sustainability thinking necessarily involves both (1) thinking about the future and (2) taking an adaptive approach. Sustainability as a concept and approach means considering the future health of ecosystems and seeking to maintain functioning systems. If we seek to sustain anything, we must establish some projections of what the future conditions will be. We need to determine what prescriptions are needed. Climate science (along with many other fields) tells us that the world is a changing place and that the future is not always easy to determine.
Adaptability is what makes sustainability effective in an era of climate change. Mechanisms like adaptive management enable us to revisit policies and programs as circumstances change. A call for embedding ideas of adaptive management in our environmental laws is not new. Yet, we have only been minimally successful on that front. Much of law, especially laws regarding environmental protection and property, are static. Our methods of land conservation, for example, have focused on park-like protection where we set land aside for public ownership or protect it with conservation easements. We set static rules regarding the land, often adopting a hands-off approach and hope that will serve future needs. This means we sometimes get part one of the equation right—we think about the future. But we leave off part two. We don’t create mechanisms to reexamine our rules or management strategies. In our changing world, we are too focused on fixed points.
Breaking free from current practices and norms is not an easy task. the ecological concept of resiliency, however, may help us approach environmental protection from a new direction. Resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to perturbation or change. High resiliency is a function of both an ability to resist impacts and to recover quickly from disturbances. Importantly, a resilient system is not one that continues to look the same throughout the ages but one that responds and reorganizes while retaining function. Environmental protection should not be an effort to retain ecosystems and amenities in their current state but should promote resiliency. Healthy functioning systems are not wedded to a specific external appearance. Working towards resiliency means assessing what the thresholds of a system are and how close we are to those thresholds. Thinking of adaptation in resiliency terms goes beyond assessing whether humans will be able to respond to the coming climatic changes and considers our capacity to manage resistance and influence resilience. This shift towards resiliency thinking is a fundamental component in updating our principles of sustainability in an era of climate change.
-- Jessica Owley