Managing nature? Bromley on the problems of FIT between institutions and ecology

Daniel Bromley has an excellent new article out in Ecology and Society. It is entitled “Environmental Governance as Stochastic Belief Updating: Crafting Rules to Live by” and it challenges the basic tenets underlying the idea that we can “manage” nature. It doesn’t question the tenets of “nature” itself with the same enthusiasm. Rather, it attempts to give a pragmatist explanation of how we should try to reason with respect to human-environment interactions. Bromley leans heavily on C.S. Peirce and is highly critical of Oran Young’s arguments in his 2008 essay in Global Environmental Politics, “The architecture of global environmental governance: bringing science to bear on policy.”

Since Ecology and Society is an open access journal I will post Bromley’s opening volley below, but the entire article is in this pdf. Or you can read it in HTML on your web browser here.

Environmental Governance as Stochastic Belief Updating: Crafting Rules to Live by

Daniel Bromley


I wish to focus attention on how beliefs about knowing influence beliefs about doing. My enquiry is motivated—stimulated—by the appearance of what may turn out to be the early stages of a new “settled belief” about the very great difficulties humans face in our long-running attempt to live with nature. It has not been a happy relationship, after all. But reconciliation may be on the way. To borrow only slightly from Winston Churchill, we may be approaching the end of the beginning. And that would be, I submit, a marvelous thing indeed.

Humans did not always imagine themselves to be in control of much of anything. In fact, if we follow convention, the emergence of “sapience” (as in Homo sapiens) occurred approximately 50,000 years ago. By implication, humans have spent approximately 49,600 years firmly in the grip of the “other.” Then we became modern, and reason liberated us from the tyranny of imposed ideas. Quite soon we came to imagine we were in control. From the idea of control comes the idea of management. Now we “manage” nature.

The prospect that this conceit of management is a spent force in environmental governance is an encouraging omen. Holling and Meffe (1996) write of the “pathology of natural resource management.” Ludwig (2001) claims that “the era of management is over.” Finally, Anderies et al. (2006) write that social-ecological systems are so complex that understanding them is still a faint hope. If you cannot understand something, “managing” it is problematic. Notice that the precautionary principle is of little value in complex systems that we do not understand. What, exactly, ought we to be careful about—exercise precaution—in a system whose operational characteristics are obscure to us? Which, of a large number of instrumental properties, must be approached with caution? How do we know?

Into this emerging view of just how hard it is to live with nature—and for us moderns “living with” generally means “managing”—comes yet another promising management prescription. It is called Fit (hereafter FIT). In exploring issues in global environmental governance, Oran Young writes:

    • To be effective, institutional arrangements need to be well matched to the defining features of the problems they address. This makes it essential to recognize from the outset that environmental problems differ from one another in ways that have fundamental implications for the nature of the arrangements required to solve or at least ameliorate them (Young 2008:20).


    • The point of introducing these distinctions is not to argue that some environmental problems are harder to solve than others in some generic sense. Rather, the lesson to learn is that successful governance systems must be based on a recognition of the character of the problems at hand and feature the introduction of behavioral mechanisms crafted to address these problems (Young 2008:21).


  • The essential step is to reach agreement on an appropriate structure of rights, rules, and decision-making procedures. Once that is done, it becomes timely to consider the nature of the organizations needed to administer these institutional arrangements (Young 2008:21).

Young’s insights, intuitively obvious on their face, entail the following presumptions: (1) the ideal institutional design (a management regime) must fit the problem; (2) behavioral mechanisms must pay attention to incentives; and (3) the necessary institutions (rules) must be embedded in (fit) the proper organizational structure. The clarity of Young’s prescriptions is commendable, and their pertinence for environmental governance seems obvious. Unfortunately, it is harder than it appears. In keeping with the growing sense that the pursuit of scientific “management” is problematic, I argue here that the apparent clarity on offer by the idea of FIT is illusory. My doubts arise because the specific prescriptions advanced by Young require the ability to specify a priori the precise functional attributes of particular ecological problems that can then be meliorated if only we would apply the appropriate institutional arrangements that have been purposefully crafted to fit the environmental problems under consideration. Much of what follows will address our inability to specify these functional attributes.

A second concern arises because a specific constellation of institutions (rules) and governance structures, intended to address a particular ecological problem, necessarily sets in motion a new ecological trajectory whose salient properties are unknown until it is too late to craft new appropriate and incentive-compatible institutional remedies. This point has been elaborated in the literature (Holling and Meffe 1996, Anderies et al. 2006). We may think of this problem as a variation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. If the concept of FIT is to do the required work, then it presumes simultaneous feedback and re-calibration to jointly engage two emerging systems—the ecological and the social—whose idiosyncratic adjustments cannot be known and assessed until it is too late to “fit them back together.”

Finally, the concept of FIT introduces the sterile shadow of scientism into a realm in which FIT does not fit. In its narrow version, scientism claims that the natural sciences have epistemology right and the other sciences ought to follow their lead. An obvious entailment of scientism is that of positivism—that we can only know what we can observe and record. Some would add “and prove.” The consistent quest of scientism is to get ever closer to the way the world really is—as opposed to how it merely seems to appear to us. As I will elaborate below, scientism is the modernist project that deluded us into supposing that environmental management was possible. Donald Ludwig (2001) offers compelling arguments in support of my doubts.

The appealing aspect of Young’s prescriptions about FIT is that they are coincident with our acquired habits of mind concerning what rational science consists in, and therefore what rational scientists ought to do. Our beliefs about knowing preordain our beliefs about doing. But of course the essential question is what, exactly, is this ecological system to which an equally obscure social system is to be creatively joined? What, exactly, is the social system that is amenable to perpetual redesign in order to bring it in line—to make it cohere—with this unknown natural system?

For the concept of FIT to do the necessary work, we must be willing to assume that the natural systems and social systems have the potential to work in harmony—if only we can get the institutions right. It is also necessary to assume that the natural system has a knowable evolutionary dynamic which can be harnessed to the concepts central to the social sciences in such a way that decision makers are capable of crafting the evolutionary architecture of social systems—institutions—in a way that will ensure that the two systems continue to cohere. The point seems to be that while humans are unable to design the natural system to suit our taste, we can design the social system so that it will “communicate with” the pertinent natural system. If successful, this process of artful design will yield timely and appropriate signaling that will preserve the integrity of both subsystems, and it will therefore ensure connectivity and associated long-run dynamic coherence between the two systems…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: