Wicked And Messy Environmental Problems

Some environmental problems have taken on a new nature; they have become wicked. These wicked problems defy classification and have no clear-cut solutions. They are associated with a high degree of uncertainty and deep disagreement of values. They have become immune to the conventional approach to problem solving and pose a major challenge to effective natural resource management. This essay examines four challenges that wicked problems present: complexity, conflict, change and uncertainty. It suggests that to develop effective policies and management responses, a combination of adaptive management, carefully designed participatory processes and the precautionary principle must be used in a way that enhances social learning. A case study of Canada’s Model Forest program is used to illustrate how the adaptive and participatory processes have been effective in dealing with uncertainty and complexity in Forest Management.

Human activities over the decades have undoubtedly affected the environment. Industrialization and technological progress is one such activity that has been argued as the cause of great damage to the natural environment. Coupled to the increasing need to provide for the growing populations around the world, this has led to a myriad of environmental problems some of which have been described as “messy” or “wicked”. Rittel and Webber (1973) describe wicked environmental problems as defying classification and devoid of clear cut solutions. They have also been associated with “radical uncertainty” and “plurality of legitimate perspectives” (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1991).They pose a great challenge to governance structures, knowledge and skills base as well as our organizational capacity. Amidst the vast technological advancements, these wicked problems still remain unraveled and elusive. What does this mean for natural resource management?

This suggests that natural resource management has been plunged into an era of turbulence with diminishing effects of the conventional approach to problem solving. Policymakers and environmental managers will need to realize that there are no quick fixes or simple solutions as is the experience in dealing with “tame” problems. There is no single correct formulation of a particular problem since the definition of a wicked problem is subject to the beholder (Allen and Gould, 1986).In view of that, decision makers will have to implement policy without exploring all the feasible or possible options. “Learning” must become a central theme policymakers and natural resource managers may need to incorporate into their daily administration. Quite imperative also, is the realization that management approaches for dealing with wicked problems can only be optimal but never true or false.

This essay attempts to suggest ways by which policymakers and natural resource managers can deal with the challenges that wicked and messy problems pose to natural resource managers. It begins by discussing four challenges that wicked problems present: change, conflict, complexity and uncertainty. It argues that since no single approach or model is sufficient for dealing with these problems, a combination of approaches that have proven to be helpful in mitigating the wickedness of these problems in the past must be used. Thus, a social learning network that combines the adaptive, participatory and precautionary approach is proposed. Its applicability is illustrated using Canada’s Model Forest Program as a case study.

One challenge that has been associated with wicked problems is complexity; a trait Gunderson (1999) suggests is inherent in natural resource problems. Complexity implies a difficulty in establishing cause and effect patterns due to the presence of interdependencies and multiple variables and is determined by the degree of uncertainty and social disagreement on a particular issue (Patton, 2011). For example, the condition and trend exhibited by wildlife populations are as a result of the interactions between factors such as prior population, weather, predators, habitat, disease, off-site factors and chance events. If there is species decline in a population, which of these factors can be blamed for this outcome? The answer is not as simple as solving a mathematical problem since the problem may be caused by one or many of the factors acting in concert.

Complexity is seen to exist in two forms: technical and social complexity. The former is linked to limitations in quality of information and a deficiency in knowledge systems. This makes problem-diagnosis very hectic and introduces high levels of uncertainty. The social aspect on the other hand, emanates from difficulties in the coordination of information, activities and stakeholders across several disciplines. The differences in views, values, perception and beliefs of various stakeholders introduce conflict: another challenge in resolving wicked environmental problems.

The diversity and range of stakeholder values is normally a recipe for conflict in decision-making. There is often little consensus on what the problem is, let alone a general solution (Ritchey, 2005).This brings into sharp focus the issue of problem-framing. Disagreements on what the problem may be is often commonplace and arguably a major contributor to conflicts. For example, a water resource controversy in Colorado started over a proposed dam (Bingham, 1986).Some parties declined to participate in the discussion until the question of whether or not a dam was needed was answered. Others thought, a dam was the only way to solve the water shortage problem. However, asking the question ” how much water do we need?” is crucial to understanding the problem at hand. The assumption of knowing the solution before exploring the problem further has mainly been associated with experts who may see new problems as exactly as old ones (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1982).

Also, the difficulties in reconciling the different values and perception of stakeholders have left most environmental management issues engulfed in appeals and litigation. For example, Cape plc. and RTZ have been sued in British courts for environmental damage and for breach of employment rights in Africa. The growing disputes and litigation in environmental issues has made conflict resolution quite an important concept in environmental management. However, the presence of conflicting values, risk and uncertainty does not mean a definite decision cannot be taken. It only stresses the manager’s need to think beyond the traditional approach to problem framing and problem solving.

As discussed earlier, the various interdependencies and multiple variables in wicked environmental problem makes change an inevitable phenomenon. Horst Rittel in his paper “Dilemmas in General Theory of Planning” explains that when dealing with wicked problems one must recognize that every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem. Considering the fact that ecosystems, societies, knowledge, technologies and public attitudes are so dynamic it is reasonable for management strategies and practices to be dynamic as well. Policies must continually be adapted to change as well as constructed for local application.Lindbloom (1979) suggests that the only way to ensure consistent progress in dynamic and uncertain situations is to take incremental steps that are bold enough to leave room for possible errors that enhance learning.

Contributing to more wickedness is the challenge of uncertainty. Unfortunately, the complexity encountered in environmental and resource management leaves little or no choice than to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. In a complex open system like the environment, knowledge has limits and certainty is far-fetched. Wynne (1992) differentiates among four types of uncertainty: risk, uncertainty, ignorance and indeterminacy. Uncertainty plays outs in situations when the odds are not known. For instance, the contribution of greenhouse gases to global warming has been established however, the precise relationships and potential feedback mechanisms between parameters such as clouds, global air circulation, heat absorption by water, land and so on remain uncertain due to complexity. In essence, the recognition of the kinds of uncertainty may help to identify which plans or approaches are most appropriate.

In view of the challenges wicked problems present, environmental management and policymaking must build resilience if it must be effective in mitigating the impact of wicked problems. Policymaking and practice must be adaptive to keep up with their ever changing nature. The complexity, uncertainty and conflict component must be catered for by carefully designing participatory processes that enhance learning. The next section of this essay will shed light on the management responses that must be considered to make policymaking and natural resource management effective for dealing with wicked problems.

Adaptive management is one management strategy that can deal with scientific uncertainty and real world examples of its applicability are evident. The adaptive approach has been described as a learning approach that continually improves policy and practice in the face of uncertainty and a tool to frame philosophical, methodological and practical challenges that come with natural resource management (Holling, 1978). This approach has been recognized by international interdisciplinary efforts such as the sustainability science program (Clark and Dixon, 2003), the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) and the Equator Initiative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 2005) as having the potential to deal with the complexity of socio – ecological processes while enhancing learning. The effectiveness of adaptive management in some cases is not fully realized due to short term project frames, rigid targets and a focus on success prompt managers who use conventional methods though encouraged by government rhetoric to make use of adaptive approaches (Allan and Curtis, 2005).

To enhance the practicality of adaptive management, co- management has been brought in to cater for the social uncertainties and institutional barriers that may rise. This has led to adaptive co-management, an approach that combines adaptive and collaborative management. Here, rights and responsibilities are jointly shared to better combat the challenges that wicked problems may bring. Collaboration in essence, demonstrates the need for carefully designed public participation.

Public participation has become an entrenched concept in the formulation, implementation and management of environmental issues owing to its suitability for addressing the interests of multiple stakeholders and reducing conflict. It is quite common to see National and subnational governments require the input of the public in managing and developing of environmental policy. An example being the US National Environmental Policy Act and the US Federal Advisory Committee Act. Thus, participation in decision-making is increasingly being regarded as a democratic right (Reed, 2008). Increasing calls for public participation rests on many factors including growing distrust of public institutions and officials, increasing legislative requirements for public participation, the complexity and uncertainty of contemporary problems, different risk perceptions and a growing recognition that decisions are not entirely scientific but social values and politics are inherent in all administrative decisions.

Participatory processes also have a challenge of identifying groups of stakeholders and bringing these interests together in an environment conducive for learning (Gray, 1989).It has also been associated with intensive resource commitments (money, time and human capital), prolonged decision making, reduced decision quality, increased conflict and diminished likelihood of a successful outcome (Steelman, 2001). However on the whole, participatory processes are assets rather than liabilities.

A case study that demonstrates the ongoing success of adaptive management and participatory approach in Forest Management is Canada’s Model Forest Program. To reduce uncertainty and complexity while promoting the development of innovative ideas and sustainability, the Federal government initiated Canada’s model Forest Program in 1992. The Program consists of eleven model forests across Canada, selected to reflect the diversity of ecosystems and social systems present in Canada’s Forest environment. Each model forest is designed to function as a living laboratory where novel integrated forest management techniques are researched, developed, applied and monitored in a transparent forum that engages and partners with stakeholders from environmental organizations, industry, native groups, educational and research institutions, community – based associations, recreationists and landowners as well as all levels of government The success from this adaptive approach have been many and includes the development of voluntary wetland conservation programs for private lands; establishment of protocols for reporting on socio economic indicators based on Statistics Canada’s census data; developing an ecosystem-integrated resource management plan for the Province of Saskatchewan, production of a code of forestry practice to help landowners understand and apply the principles of sustainable forest management; establishment of the Grand River Reserve to protect three eco-regions and habitat for the endangered Newfoundland pine marten.

The Precautionary approach is one possible response that proves very essential for dealing with wicked problems in the face of uncertainty and risk. Some scholars assert that it is a powerful tool for protecting human health and the environment under uncertain conditions (Cameron and Aboucher, 1991) whiles other think it is ill- defined, unscientific and of little value to policymaking (Manson, 2002). Still many nations have some form of precautionary principle in place when confronted with uncertain health risks though they may not explicitly refer to it (Zander, 2010).

Under the precautionary principle, the absence or lack of evidence concerning the harmful nature of a substance or practice cannot serve as a justification for delaying action to regulate them (Raffensperger and Tickner, 1999). For example, the issue of global warming usually includes arguments that either favour business-as-usual or the precautionary principle. Opponents against the principle base their arguments on scientific uncertainty regarding how humans have contributed to climate change and the severity of effects that may occur. They generally advocate for further research to reduce the uncertainties before costly emission-reduction policies are implemented. Advocates of the precautionary approach on the other hand argue that the likely adverse effects of the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are serious enough to justify potentially costly regulation despite remaining uncertainties. Today, based on the precautionary principle various moves are being made to reduce the carbon footprint by investing in green technology. Though we do not know the outcome of these actions, it is prudent to try to mitigate its impact on future climatic conditions than do nothing at all.

Indeed, the challenges wicked environmental problems present may seem overwhelming and daunting. However to combat these challenges, environmental managers must first realize that wicked problems have no single correct formulation and hence quit searching for one. They must also develop long term learning networks through adaptive management and carefully designed participatory processes that are truly flexible. Lastly, precaution must be utilized in planning processes to avoid creating more wicked problems in the future.