Instituting Change

Canadian Water Politics: Conflicts and Institutions
Mark Sproule-Jones, Carolyn Johns, B. Timothy Heinmiller (eds.)
Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press
2008, 360 pages.

AND

Institutions and Environmental Change: Principal Findings, Applications, and Research Frontiers
Oran R. Young, Leslie A. King and Heike Schroeder (eds.)
Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press
2008, 400 pages.

Admitting a keen interest in policy reform won’t make you popular at cocktail parties. Trust me. But policy is simply shorthand for decisions that determine our collective action, and those have a way of exciting people. The rights, rules and procedures that we use to make decisions and take action are woven together by the machinery of institutions. While confirming that institutions are important, both Canadian Water Politics and Institutions and Environmental Change describe how we might tinker with, or even renovate, institutions so that they make better decisions – particularly environmental ones.

Canadian Water Politics addresses a fundamental problem in managing water: the incompatibility between the fluid properties of the resource and the seemingly immutable characteristics of its management. Institutions give rise to social practices and guide social interactions, and in this context, Canadian Water Politics examines how institutions mediate, amplify, reduce or exacerbate disputes over water.

Disputes over water? In Canada? You’d be forgiven for thinking that this concern is misplaced in a country with nine per cent of the world’s renewable freshwater and only 0.5 per cent of its population. But the book’s contributors cover a surprisingly wide range of very real and legitimate water conflicts in Canada.

Also surprising, but pleasantly so, is that for a volume written entirely by academics, the anchoring theory of Canadian Water Politics doesn’t burden the stories. It’s accessible to the informed general reader and a jumping-off point for policy analysts. The case studies are underscored by an analytical framework that centres on the multiple uses of water, placing the governance of its uses in the context of management institutions, the broader political economy, and the transient nature of the resource itself. The editors’ conclusions encapsulate the difficulties in designing institutions to cope with intensifying water conflicts, and draw lessons that speak to our reform of those institutions in the future.

Most insightfully, Canadian Water Politics explains how the historical path dependency of current water allocation privileges – “first in time, first in right” – continues to favour entrenched agricultural, industrial, and commercial interests who had their water claims institutionalized in law well before the value of “sustainability” was recognized. This reality inhibits institutional change, especially the adaptation of institutions to evolving water conflicts and other shifting social-ecological realities.

Institutions and Environmental Change – the culmination of a 10-year research project on how environmental management institutions both cause and address large-scale environmental problems – is intended for a more academic audience. Also an edited volume, it calls institutions “critical forces in shaping ‘real world’ environmental governance systems.” This volume digs deeper than Canadian Water Politics, but in a way that will impress only specialists in the field. The three research themes (institutional causality, performance and design) and three analytic themes investigated (institutional fit, interplay and scale) are technical and dense.

Both texts, mind you, are significant accomplishments and tidy sources for those engaged in reshaping our resource management institutions. And most importantly, both volumes bring current scholarship to bear on the critical interface between science and policy, and on our attempts to reconcile the often inharmonious nature of resources and the institutions that manage them. As noted in Canadian Water Politics, we have inherited “a fractured regulatory system focused on the parts rather than the whole, while an embedded decision- making process [remains] insulated from reflective review.”

These realities make learning and adaptability essential characteristics of future institutional reform, but both volumes warn that these traits are not inherently compatible with policy creation. “It is extremely difficult,” caution the editors in Canadian Water Politics, “to build effective organizational and cultural firewalls between political policy processes and apolitical learning processes.” But the urgency to address current and emerging social-ecological threats makes this an essential task nonetheless. And for this, both these books will be useful.

Chris McLaughlin is the CEO of the Niagara Escarpment Foundation and a PhD candidate at McMaster University.

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