Lecture 22: Reading:


Princen, “Ecological Rationality”

Emphasis on one
form of rationality – that which derives from legalistic and economistic thought. This conventional rationality emphasizes efficiency, maximizing social welfare, responds to consumer demands, respect property rights, follow the rules of law, etc. These operate on an “empty world” basis.

People use different rationalities depending on the context and no single rationality is superior, just better suited to a particular purpose and decision-making setting.

To promote ecological integrity an appropriate rationality is one attuned to the dynamics of ecological systems, looking for long-term ecological integrity. Princen calls this “ecological rationality”
An ecologically rational society conditions individual decisions so as to be attentive to ecosystem fragility and to enhance ecosystem resilience

New way of thinking. Need language, stories, analytic concepts, organizing principles,

Three approaches to environmental problems
1. Frontier
a. Environment is a set of resources available for immediate exploitation. Central environmental problem is how to extract the resource in the most profitable manner, including when to cease extraction and move on to the next frontier.
b. There is always another frontier to move to when the resource is exhausted
c. Lure of the frontier hasn’t disappeared, but the ability of ecosystems and social systems to withstand such use has changed.
2. Environmental Protection
a. The environment is taken as something out there that either provides amenities or is the source of inputs for industrial production.
b. Central environmental problem: How much impact society will accept to obtain the benefits of economic prosperity
c. Dealing with problems is viewed as a trade-off against other benefits, particularly economic outputs
d. Benefits of environmental protection are construed as luxuries.
3. Sustainability
a. Big idea that has arisen from the global ecological crisis
b. Purpose isn’t to define but to refine definition over time. Four distinctive aspects of sustainability
i. Not mining
1. Unsustainable: irreversibly change ecosystems, extinguish species, erode soil beyond regeneration, and pump groundwater beyond recharge)
2. In sustainable society we would mine minerals, not renewables
ii. Long-term decision-making orientation
1. Ecologically relevant timeframes – several generations of key species (e.g., 7 generations for humans)
2. Goes beyond a specified time scale and orients to the indefinite future
3. Thus, avoids risk with respect to the underpinnings of life
iii. Decision-making that aims at the intersection of biophysical and social systems.
1. Conservation, preservation, and pollution control have typically treated the environment as out there with humans set apart from natural systems
2. This framework brings the environment back in, when decision making is as much about managing human behavior as it is about managing biophysical dynamics. Thus, questions of excess become legitimate.
iv. Sufficiency principles (covered in other chapters – not in this reading)

Complexity Perspective
When the world is seen as a complex, adaptive system that has multiple interconnections and many equilibrium states, that changes discontinuously, predictability is highly limited, sometimes impossible.
These predictions are especially difficult when working on long spatial and temporal dimensions, which are the scales we care about for sustainability

4 Dimensions of Complex Adaptive Systems that assure a system’s maintenance and adaptiveness:
1. Space
2. Time
3. Energy
• Energy dissipates. Open system with high-quality energy inputs resists this tendency; it self-organizes. As more high quality energy is pumped into a system, more organization emerges to dissipate the energy. Thus, you want just the right amount of energy – not too much, not too little.
• To have integrity , to be self-sustaining, systems need to find that middle ground. Don’t maximize or minimize their functioning.
• A system has integrity, resilience, and adaptiveness when each factor varies within a comfortable range, only rarely exceeding that range.
• Systems must allow for occasional activity at the extremes yet they need mechanisms that keep activity mostly within the safe range.
4. Information, especially in the form of feedback loops
• Systems must have built-in mechanisms of restraint to keep in the safe range, to operate in the middle ground. Such mechanisms depend on a system’s ability to store and channel information
• Biodiversity is an information database
• Culture (skills, history, morals) is inherently long-term information base
• Positive feedback loops are self-reinforcing mechanisms. Unchecked, they destroy a system. Slowing them, reducing their positive gains allows negative feedback loops to kick in.
• In complex adaptive systems, self-correcting loops may be inactive much of the time. Likewise, managers/interveners may ignore them
• Eliminating “inefficiencies” may be dangerous because it mean taking away emergency response mechanisms

The Experiential
• The complexity view is an abstract construction, but its derived notions of limited predictability and limited manipulability parallels knowledge bases derived from experiences.
• Focuses on experiential knowledge developed by farmer of diverse crops and lobster fishermen (as examples)
• Outcome: both this experiential knowledge and the abstract theories of complexity overlap with respect to worldview about the land and living systems, material world, and energy.
• Humility and respect (limited predictability and control, accepting the limitations of complex systems
• Husbandry (managing one’s interactions with an eye on the distant past and far future, respecting the resilience and vulnerability of the system
• “we don’t manage ecosystems, we manage our interactions with them” (Kay and Schneider)

Problem Absorption
• Mechanism of restraint that’s part of self-management
• When everything is connected and the planet is finite, seemingly local activities cannot depend on an infinite supply of “other places” not an “away” to throw wastes. To truly solve an environmental problem is to absorb the problem, not displace it. Ex: when fishery declines, don’t move to an new bay, change practices.

• Buffers stabilize systems even as interventions push variables toward their extremes.
• Big stock
• Cushion
Buffers aren’t inefficient, waste, excess capacity or extravagance – it’s insurance. Prevents overshoot, reduces the possibility of irreversible decline, enhances stability when interventions are unavoidably destabilizing.
Implies that we shouldn’t “maximize” or push to the limits for efficiency – leaving in the buffers is important

A rationality ultimately makes trade-offs between competing values. Values are determined by the policy goals and one’s worldview.
• Economistic reasoning aims at economic growth and efficient allocation
• Legalistic reasoning aims at justice and due process.
• Ecological reasoning aims at long-term resource use, the integrity of ever-changing biophysical systems over periods of time that span many human generations

Ecological focus is on the material, the biophysical basis of social organization. Value isn’t determined by markets (prices) or judgments rendered (damages).

From an economistic perspective, value attaches to wood once humans apply labor, capital, technology to make it lumber or pulp.
From a thermodynamic perspective, value inheres in an in an item when high quality energy enters a system and that system resists dissipation by self-organizing. Tree growth and maintenance is the value. This value is dependent on the integrity of the forest ecosystem.

Sustainability is achieved only when managers explicitly account for interactions of social and biophysical systems. Sustainability is advanced when negative feedback from the biophysical system crosses to the social system and elicits an appropriate response.

Decision Criteria
• Long-term orientation – intergenerational, multiple cycles, indefinite future
• Resource primacy
• Middle ground operation
• Information preservation
• Negative feedback
• Problem absorption
• Buffering