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Articles detail why conservation efforts often fail

October 25, 2007

Modern conservation techniques have led to the resurgence of American bald eagles, sustainable forest harvests, improved river water quality and the rescue of prized lobster fisheries. So how can these strategies also have wrought such failures, from the catastrophic loss of Sumatra’s forests, disappearance of the Aral Sea to the economy-crippling Klamath River salmon kill in 2006?

In a special feature of nine articles in the Sept. 25 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, coordinated by ASU professors Elinor Ostrom, Marco Janssen and John Anderies, a group of distinguished social scientists argue that while many basic conservation strategies are sound, their use often is flawed.

The strategies are applied too generally, they say, as an inflexible, regulatory “blueprint” that foolishly ignores local customs, economics and politics.

“We now ridicule the doctors who, long ago, used to tell us to ‘take two aspirin and call me in the morning’ as a treatment for every single illness,” says Ostrom, a research professor in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change. “Resource management is just as complex as the human body. It needs to be approached differently in different situations.”

In her article, “A Diagnostic Approach for Going Beyond Panaceas,” Ostrom proposes a flexible framework for determining what factors will influence resource management, whether that resource is forest, fish or even air.

“What we are learning is that you shouldn’t ignore what’s going on at the local level,” says Ostrom, a member of the National Academy of Sciences. “It may even be beneficial to work with local people, including the resource exploiters, to create effective regulation.”
Modern conservation theory relies on well-established mathematical models that predict what will happen to a species or habitat over time.

One thing these models can’t account for is the unpredictable behavior of human beings whose lives influence – and are influenced by –conservation efforts.

Ostrom’s framework is divided into tiers that allow conservationists and policy-makers to delineate those factors most likely to affect the protection or management of a given resource.

The first tier imposes four broad variables: the resource system, the resource units, the governance system and the resource users. The second tier examines each of these variables in greater detail, such as the government and non-government entities that already could be regulating the resource, the innate productivity of a resource system, the size and placement of the system, the system’s economic value and what sorts of people use the resource – from indigenous people to heads of state. The third tier digs even deeper into each of the basic variables.

“It’s ambitious,” Ostrom says. “It lays out a research program for the next 15 to 20 years that will be central to the new Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at ASU.”

Anderies and Janssen worked together with ASU colleagues Armando Rodriguez and Oguzhan Cifdaloz from electrical engineering on the article “Panaceas, Uncertainty and the Robust Control Framework in Sustainability Science,” which illustrates the use of methods developed to engineer systems to function in uncertain environments. Engineers have developed sophisticated techniques to design airplanes, bridges and space shuttles to meet high-performance criteria while being robust to disturbances and unanticipated events. There is a cost to being robust, and robust control systems are used to trade off performance and robustness.

“To increase the financial robustness of your family, you might buy life insurance,” Anderies says. “Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to buy insurance against the ‘death’ of ecosystems and the critical services they provide.”

The ASU team applied their approach to a standard problem in fishery management and showed that no robust strategies can be developed when there is uncertainty surrounding several key parameters relevant to the management problem. Strikingly, the ability to reduce sensitivity of the performance of the fishery was partitioned among two groups of parameters. That is, policies designed to reduce sensitivity to parameters in one group lead to increased sensitivity to parameters in the other group. In this way, the robust control approach outlined in the paper can help to inform where to invest research efforts and learning to reduce particular classes of uncertainty in order to design robust management strategies.

School of Life Sciences professor Charles Perrings discusses “Future Challenges” of going beyond panaceas in his article. The challenges include overcoming strong disciplinary boundaries, understanding the impact of globalization, and capturing uncertainty and learning into studies of human-environmental interactions.

“The principal challenge in building a science of sustainability is the development of predictive models of systems change that enable society to evaluate mitigation options alongside adaptation,” Perrings says.

He cites the role that economics, uncertainty, globalization, species dispersal and markets, including the “homogenization” of world trade, can impose on decision-making, and which “threaten resilience or robustness, and hence the sustainability of both individual communities and the meta-community.”

“Sustainability depends on our capacity to understand the future impacts of today’s decisions, and in a complex interconnected world that is way beyond the reach of traditional disciplines,” Perrings says.

Ostrom, Janssen and Anderies are with the Center of Institutional Diversity in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Ostrom also is co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. Their research is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. Perrings’ research is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Science Foundation of Arizona.