Wednesday, 21 February 2007

AAAS DAY 3: IN PURSUIT OF SUSTAINABLE SOCIO-ECOLOGICAL SYSTEMS


BY JOHN THOMPSON, STEPS Centre member
AAAS Day 3: Saturday 17 Feb 2007

Another interesting topical lecture was given by Elinor Ostrom (pictured left) Co-Director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University and Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University on “Sustainable Socio-Ecological Systems – An Impossibility?” A political economist, Ostrom has challenged common economic assumptions by demonstrating how small communities are capable of developing cooperative, self-governing institutions that prevent the overuse of grazing pastures, irrigation systems and other communal resources. Her field research has focused on the type of monitoring, sanctions and other governing structures needed to ensure the effective and equitable management of common resources.

In her lecture, Ostrom argued that contemporary scientific efforts are not well organised to achieve effective responses to change. We need disciplines that can “put people and ecosystems together,” but this can be difficult to achieve, she noted.

Using the example of critically testing Garrett Hardin’s well-known “Tragedy of the Commons” thesis, Ostrom set out six challenges for analysing and understanding Socio-Ecological Systems (SES):
1. Overcoming the “panacea trap” – getting beyond single best solutions to complex ecological problems
2. Accepting complexity – digging into complex systems that are “partially decomposable” to examine dynamics at different levels
3. Developing a “multidisciplinary, multi-tier framework” – encompassing 4 large variables: the resource system; governing system; resource unit; and the users; and how these influence key interactions and outcomes at different scales or “tiers”
4. Devising “nested theories” – building theories of SES that can be tested empirically within the framework at different tiers
5. Producing comparable longitudinal data for testing these theories – requiring a common taxonomy of core variables for comparing and contrasting interactions and outcomes over space and time
6. Recognising the value of institutional diversity – emphasising that achieving sustainability in SES requires understanding and “embracing institutional diversity” rather than eliminating or dismissing it as “too confusing”.

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