Posts Tagged ‘social-ecological systems’

What do we mean by Common-Pool Resource Theory?

I have frequently seen people use the term common-pool resource (CPR) theory, and I’ve often been  confused by what they mean beyond that they are concerned with the tragedy of the commons and related ideas.  However, some add in a great deal of collective action theory, concepts from resilience, and ideas about social-ecological systems.  In this text, I won’t try to defend a particular set of hypotheses, theories, or other constructs about what should be counted and what shouldn’t.  Instead, I’d like to talk about a nice public good regarding our understanding of CPRs that springs from the Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database (SESMAD) project that I’ve written about before.

At the end of October, ASU hosted the most recent SESMAD meeting.  We met to put the culminating touches on a coding manual for the project database, an attempt to make sure that all project contributors would take a similar approach to diagnosing and coding a case for the database (and appeasing our concerns with inter-coder reliability).



Our first thought was that this would be a painful (soul-sucking, perhaps) but necessary activity that would help further the project and improve the internal validity of the project.  We began with all project members taking on a sub-set of the 200+ variables in the database and defining them, discuss their importance in the CPR literature, and providing relevant citations and sources.  The database, itself, could then be used to provide examples of how we coded these variables across a number of cases.  We then used our time together in Arizona to edit these variable write-ups and create our coding manual.  It turned out to be much more enjoyable than we initially thought.

This brings me to the creation of a public good.  I have personally always struggled with the idea of a single coherent and unifying theory of CPRs. However, this manual represents a nearly exhaustive listing of the variables seen to influence the sustainable governance of CPRs according to the current literature.  As our database goes online in January, scholars will have access to a thorough list of key CPR variables with definitions, an understanding of their importance, with relevant examples and citations.  This can serve as a one-stop source for students and scholars in the study of the commons.  It lacks the structure of a theory, but it enables the construction of a multitude of well-defined hypotheses and theories and provides clarity and consistency for its users.  I hope that its use goes far beyond our project.

Social-Ecological Systems and the Concept of Territoire

Over the past 10 days, I had the good fortune of participating in two Workshops – one on transboundary conservation and the other on social-ecological systems.  For the moment, I’d like to discuss a bit of the conversation at the latter.  I had the honor of serving as a keynote speaker to one of the warm-up events for the Resilience 2014 conference in Montpellier, France next year (May 4-8, see  The workshop title was “Confronting “socio-ecological systems” and “territoire” as suitable lenses to tackle resilience issues”.  It attempted to combine the work of resilience scholars, such as myself, and our work on complex adaptive systems/resilience/coupled human-environment systems with the work of (predominantly) French geographers and anthropologists using territoire to analyze a similar set of problems.

I learned a great deal about territoire and how this guides analysis and understanding.  What surprised me the most was the amount that the two approaches had in common – the importance of scale, of socio-spatial relations, and the linking of people and their environment.  I had expected a great deal more discussion coming from a post-structural, post-modern, Foucaultian analysis, which I must say that I’m not smart enough to truly understand.  Instead, the discussion revolved around all of the similarities in approaches.

A number of points emerged, however, that warrant further discussion, points that will hopefully come out of the proceedings from the workshop.  At least these were the five main take-aways for me.

  • Both social-ecological systems and territoire approaches share a number of important commonalities (as related above).
  • The drawing of boundaries for analysis is critical to enable understanding in either approach.
  • Many social-ecological system analyses seem to favor one aspect of the system over the other – often heavily SOCIAL-ecological or social-ECOLOGICAL.  Balanced approaches are far less common.
  • The theme for the Resilience 2014 conference – Resilience and Development – fits well with key traits implicit in the territoire scholarship, notably poverty, inequality, and the need for development.
  • Resilience scholars need to do a better job at more explicitly acknowledging the normative aspects of their work.

I had initially intended to write about this final discussion point, given other recent research projects, but I’d like to revisit this in more detail in the coming weeks.  For now, here’s my introduction to French geography.

Thoughts on Sustainable Development Goals

In 2000, the UN established the Millennium Development Goals to set aspirational targets for international development across a range of issue areas including poverty alleviation, education, gender equality, child and maternal health, environmental sustainability, reducing HIV/AIDS and communicable diseases, and building a global partnership for development.  With a target date of 2015, many of these goals remain both unattained and unattainable.  As a result, at last year’s Rio+20 sustainable development summit UN member states agreed to start a process of designing a new set of “sustainable development” goals to replace the MDGs. The working group proposing the new list of goals is tasked to select goals over the next year that are “action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number, aspirational, global in nature and universally applicable to all countries while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities”.

Since Rio+20 a huge number of potential goals have been generated by development experts, agencies, NGOs, government bureaucracies, and researchers.  One prominent example that integrates the SDGs into research on the planetary boundaries literature is Griggs et al’s piece last month in Nature (Griggs, D., Stafford-Smith, M., Gaffney, O., Rockström, J., Öhman, M. C., Shyamsundar, P., … & Noble, I. (2013). Policy: Sustainable development goals for people and planet. Nature495(7441), 305-307.).  In this piece, the authors propose viewing the goals for a system whereby the economy services society that is itself nested within the Earth’s life-support system.  From here, they elicit a number of potential SDGs.

In response to this piece (see our comments in the 20 June 2013 edition of Nature) and to the broader set of literature, the Beijer Young Scholars highlight the necessity to incorporate a scientific understanding of social change into goal formulation at scales ranging from the individual to that of the international community.  Without a view of what change is feasible, how goals interact with each other, and means of overcoming negative institutional inertia, the international community will once again be left with a list of noble, yet unachieved, goals similar to the MDGs.  It is our hope that we can use our knowledge to improve upon past outcomes.

Mini Discussion on Sustainability in Africa

Over the holidays, I had a chance to give a talk to the Mastercard-sponsored Scholars group of ASU students from sub-Saharan Africa.  This helped to launch a class on sustainability in Africa.  It got me thinking about what to cover, given a broad range of topics.  If we agree that sustainability isn’t an “environmental” problem, but a more broadly defined societal problem, then we have a host of issues to choose from – disease, natural resource management, human rights, and so on.

Given my personal predilections, I tend to see poor governance as the common thread through all of these.  My own work and experience in Africa is clearly limited, and the undergrads that I spoke with came from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Senegal, Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya.  I’ve only been to a few of these countries and have only spent more than a couple weeks in Moz, so I can hardly claim to be an expert.  But as we started talking about sustainability and the need to foster more resilient social-ecological relations, as a group we found that we had a lot to share, to teach, and to discover.  My own work is about collaboration across some kind of boundary (international, public-private, between individuals or tribes, between states or municipalities) for the collective governance of natural resources.  My African work focused on transboundary protected areas.  In the discussion with the Mastercard Scholars, we kept returning to the same questions:

  • Where can we or should we collaborate?
  • When does it make more sense for groups to “go it alone”?
  • How can we overcome the transaction costs of collaboration to reap collective benefits?
  • How can we make collaborations work better?

There are no silver bullets in response to these questions.  My hope is that my ongoing research can help to guide policymakers and practitioners in their quest for a more sustainable future.

Cross-scale Governance of Environmental Dilemmas – Part 1

I have been fortunate enough to be active in three separate endeavors to better understand the governance of natural resources across multiple scales and their interactions.  The project furthest along is the SES-MAD group (Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database).  This project started as an idea with Michael Cox (the lead and database developer) to write a paper that would scale up the main principles of common-pool resource management.  It would take concepts developed in the study of small-scale projects and see if the same variables necessary for sustainability at the local level were still appropriate at larger spatial scales.  So much for a paper.  The project team now has 14 members and has been working over the past 18 months to develop a database, train team members, and begin the coding of cases across a number of resource areas (protected areas, fisheries, forests, international rivers, and pollution).  The training, reliability checks, and database building efforts are complete, and we are actively researching cases to populate our study.

We have recently submitted a grant proposal and are working on a special feature for publication in the August issue of International Journal of the Commons.  We plan to add members to our research team in the coming year.  Please let me know if you’re interested.  We plan to work on this project for the foreseeable future.  

Over the next couple months, I’ll share some of the key findings already emerging from the early stages of the project.  I’ll also share some of the interesting findings on a few of the cases that I’ve been working on personally – notably the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.  Stay tuned…