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Science and Policy in Natural Resource Management: Understanding System Complexity

Allison, Helen and Hobbs, Richard
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2006
ISBN 0521858836 (pb)

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Reviewed by Nicholas M. Gotts
The Macaulay Institute, Aberdeen, Scotland, UK

Cover of book Allison and Hobbs aim to "develop an understanding of the dynamics of natural resource management in the WA [Western Australia] agricultural region". The WA agricultural region, which constitutes around 12% of WA itself, came into existence when the British government offered "land grants" to settlers in 1829. Allison and Hobbs present a socio-economic and ecological history of the region since 1829 but say nothing about Aboriginal land-use in the area, although in many parts of Australia, the environment had been transformed by the systematic use of fire (Flannery 1994). Perhaps little is known about this specific region, but if the region's pre-1829 ecology was in fact maintained by active human intervention, some of the subsequent changes may be due to the cessation of previous land-use practices rather than the introduction of new ones. The absence of any comment on this, or on what happened to the region's Aboriginal inhabitants, gives the unfortunate impression that the authors accept the "terra nullius" doctrine of colonialism (Reynolds 1981), that Australia before European settlement was empty, unused land.

The region has been through two major cycles of prosperity and economic troubles since 1889, when large-scale European settlement started. Large areas of native vegetation have been cleared, in many places resulting in hydrological changes causing increased soil salinity and agricultural decline. Since the 1970s there have been repeated, largely unsuccessful attempts to control this problem. Current assessments are that around a third of the region is seriously and irreversibly damaged.

The authors describe the explanatory framework used to understand the region's history since 1829 as constructed from five components, as follows:

However, some of these terms do not appear in the index or glossary, and numerous variants ("organisational analysis", "qualitative systems dynamics", "organisational ecology", "complex systems approaches") also appear in the text. Despite many points of interest in both the historical account of the WA agricultural region and the five-component explanatory framework, there is an odd disconnect between the two: the actual explanation of the course of events as it emerges in the book seems not to require such a complex, multi-layered structure. Moreover, the latter is presented rather uncritically. From the terminological cornucopia presented by this explanatory framework I will concentrate on two items to illustrate these points: resilience analysis, which has a chapter to itself, and post-normal science, which forms the philosophical underpinning of the authors' work.

Post-normal science [http://www.nusap.net/] is held to be suited to: "Situations in which facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, stakes are high and decisions are urgent" - primarily, when scientific research is deployed in the context of environmental policy-making, and multiple stakeholders' perspectives need to be considered. It is contrasted with "normal science", held to assume "that there is certainty in decisions and that decision-makers can predict, manage and control outcomes in the environment", a "mechanistic world ... in which equilibrium-centred thinking dominates", and that "natural resources can be controlled through the process of acquiring enough information". The application of science to environmental policy-making certainly demands a rethinking of the relationships between disciplines, between fact and value, and between science and society, but at least as Allison and Hobbs present it, "normal science" is a straw man: historically, most of science (even applied science) does not appear to require either the assumptions they attribute to normal science, or their negation. How far, for example, are they relevant to materials science or ophthalmology? The book fails to tease apart the distinctive aspects of science in the context of environmental policy - specifically, the properties of the objects of study (social-ecological systems) on the one hand, and the presence of interactions between scientists, policy-makers and stakeholders on the other. Consideration of how science can be applied to past social-ecological systems, and to current systems where the scientists concerned have no influence on policy-makers, might help to clarify the issues.

Allison and Hobbs suggest that the failure of successive attempts to resolve the problem of increasing salinity in the WA agricultural region are due largely to a failure to adopt an epistemology based on post-normal science; yet a single short quotation they give from an official report gives a much simpler explanation: "Degradation of natural systems occurs because our economy makes it cheaper to degrade Australia than to look after it". There seems no reason to believe that a different scientific epistemology would have made any difference: whatever the long-term results in terms of natural resource degradation (understood since the early 20th century), it has been profitable to clear native vegetation and grow wheat, so in a profit-dominated economic system, that is what has been done - despite official reports, commissions and regulatory schemes. Section 7.2, on the behaviour of commodity systems, is the part of the book that throws most light on the history of the WA agricultural region.

The central idea underlying resilience analysis (Gunderson and Holling 2002) is that most ecological and social-ecological systems go through a four-phase "adaptive cycle" of exploitation (r), conservation (K), release or collapse (α) and reorganisation (Ω), determined primarily by the system's internal dynamics, although collapse is often externally triggered. The first two phases derive from standard ecological succession theory: the r phase being dominated by fast-growing, "weedy" species, the K phase by slower-growing ones; the other phases are specific to resilience theory, and are much shorter. Systems following adaptive cycles form a hierarchy, with the larger systems' cycles being slower. Oddly, despite the stress on resilience analysis in the book, the WA agricultural region does not fit the theory particularly well: Allison and Hobbs note that the region's economic ups and downs appear to have been determined largely by commodity prices and imported technological innovations, in a rhythm that coincides with the 50-60 year "Kondratiev cycle" of the global economy, with "up" and "down" phases of roughly equal length. They also note that, contrary to the expectations of resilience theory, there have been no significant "surprises" in the development of the regional social-ecological system: the salinity problem and its relation to the clearing of native vegetation were noted in a 1924 report, and have remained fundamentally unchanged ever since. Resilience analysis has little or nothing to say about the global commodity system and long-term economic cycles which Allison and Hobbs identify as the main drivers of the regional system; nor about technological innovation (Gotts 2007), which (I believe correctly) they identify as the factor that has allowed that system to retain a degree of apparent stability.

In conclusion, neither the two strands of the explanatory framework I have described here, nor any of the other main components of that framework aside from the section on commodity systems, seem to contribute much to the understanding of the historical development of the WA agricultural region. This could have been both a shorter and a better book if it had concentrated on elucidating the way in which global-scale systems of commodity production and technological innovation have driven the strongly directional processes of natural resource degradation and concentration of land ownership in regional social-ecological systems - particularly those, such as the WA agricultural region, expropriated by European settlers from their previous inhabitants within the last few centuries.

* References

FLANNERY TF (1994) The future eaters: an ecological history of the Australasian lands and people, Reed, New Holland.

GOTTS NM (2007) Resilience, panarchy, and world-systems analysis. Ecology and Society, 12(1): 24. [URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol12/iss1/art24/]

GUNDERSON LH and HOLLING CS (2002) Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems, Island Press.

REYNOLDS H (1981) The other side of the frontier: Aboriginal resistance to the European invasion of Australia, James Cook University of North Queensland.


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