The Ecosystem Approach: Complexity, Uncertainty, and Managing for Sustainability

The Ecosystem Approach: Complexity, Uncertainty, and Managing for Sustainability
David Waltner-Toews, James J. Kay and Nina-Marie E. Lister  (eds.)
New York: Columbia University Pressds
2008, 383 pages.

A copy of The Ecosystem Approach should be placed on the desk of every engineer, manager, environmentalist, politician and teacher. It is one of the first comprehensive efforts to discuss environmental management and sustainability in the interrelated fields of complexity and post-normal science (science where the facts are uncertain, the values are in dispute, the stakes are high and there is a sense of urgency – think climate change).

The basic unit of study explored by the book’s authors is the SOHO (Self- Organizing, Holarchic, Open) system. For the uninitiated, SOHO refers to systems that do not respond in a linear fashion, are autocatalytic (where an effect is its own cause), holarchic (most systems are constrained by larger systems and provide context for smaller systems) and open (systems exchange energy, material and information with their environments).

Lest we think they are something weird, it’s important to realize that SOHO systems are all around us. They include cities, human bodies, ecosystems, the biosphere and almost everything else. In short, we live in a world of complexity and post-normal science, and any successful approach to sustainability and environmental management must be rooted within both overlapping fields.

An important theme underlined by the authors is that the way we frame a problem determines the course of action we then take to address it. Environmental issues, for example, are frequently positioned as technological problems, when they are in fact human problems. The authors recount the case of the severely polluted Cooum River in India, which did not respond to several technological clean-up solutions. Once the root of the problem was viewed as being social, however, significant improvements took place.

To improve the way that we describe systems and define problems, the ecosystem approach relies heavily on Soft Systems Methodology. It teaches participants to draw pictures that “portray actors and elements in a situation, and indicate relationships among them,” while encouraging them to envision a desirable system in the future.

A second theme of The Ecosystem Approach is the importance of participatory engagement. As the authors emphasize, no single perspective can capture and represent a complex situation or system. For environmental management to succeed, stakeholders must be involved in an equitable manner. Despite this emphasis on participation, chapter-author Ernesto Ra?ez-Luna reminds readers that the ecosystem approach has still not found a way to deal with the power dynamics and inequity found in the Third World.

Complementing theory with practice, the authors provide case studies from around the world. The story of the way the Amazon River’s cyclic flooding dictates food availability and disease vectors within the Ucayali region of Peru is a fantastic illustration of why communities must be considered within their larger biophysical systems. Closer to home, a systems analysis of the Great Lakes basin reveals unique relationships between corn, cattle and stream health.

If there is one weakness in the case studies, it is that they focus primarily on the relationship between water and health. A look at different themes, community relationships to energy supply for example, would have been more instructive. To be fair, however, this shortcoming is likely due to the novelty of the approach and the resulting paucity of case studies.

Integrating the diverse perspectives – biophysical, epidemiological and social – in this volume was, no doubt, a challenge for the editors, and this tension is evident. That a book about a post-normal participatory approach to managing complex systems has trouble finding unity should, however, be neither surprising nor disappointing.

Let us hope that The Ecosystem Approach will not be the only one of its kind, but rather the first of many. The limited scope of the case studies and the contradictions between different perspectives of the ecosystem approach serve mainly to highlight the novelty of the method, the vast potential and need for further research, and the magnitude of our current ignorance.

Kyrke Gaudreau is a master’s student in Environment and Resource Studies at the University of Waterloo. He researches how thermodynamics may be used to assign value to systems based on their functions as opposed to their form

`Originally published in Alternatives Journal’s Subscribe to Alternatives Today!

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