Those pesky “cascading ecological crises”

Have just read a really interesting article from the June 2011 issue of the journal “Public Administration.”

It’s called Institutional and Political Leadership Dimensions of Cascading Ecological Crises, and it’s by a bunch of scientists/policy wonks at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Swedish Defence College, namely Victor Galaz, Fredrik Moberg Eva-Karin Olsson, Eric Paglia and Charles Parker

The abstract is thus –

While some of the future impacts of global environmental change such as some aspects of climate change can be projected and prepared for in advance, other effects are likely to surface as surprises – that is situations in which the behaviour in a system, or across systems, differs qualitatively from expectations. Here we analyse a set of institutional and political leadership challenges posed by ‘cascading’ ecological crises: abrupt ecological changes that propagate into societal crises that move through systems and spatial scales. We illustrate their underlying social and ecological drivers, and a range of institutional and political leadership challenges, which have been insufficiently elaborated by either crisis management researchers or institutional scholars. We conclude that even though these sorts of crises have parallels to other contingencies, there are a number of major differences resulting from the combination of a lack of early warnings, abrupt ecological change, and the mismatch between decision-making capabilities and the cross-scale dynamics of social-ecological change.

The article (and anything indented is a direct lift)

elaborates and reviews a number of previously unexplored institutional and political leadership challenges posed by the combined impacts of rapid ecological degradation. It integrates two until now separate but complementary streams of research:
(1) crisis management studies with a strong emphasis on organizational theory and political decision making (for example, Boin et al. 2005; Smith and Elliot 2006); and

(2) interdisciplinary studies of crises and change in complex and interacting social and ecological systems (henceforth social-ecological systems (for example, Folke et al. 1998; Ostrom 2007). The purpose is to bring to light a wide set of institutional and political leadership challenges created by the cross-scale, temporal and unpredictable dynamics of coupled social and ecological change.

And the authors are trying to answer 2 questions –

1. What is the difference between cascading ecological crises, and other well-known types of crises, such as social unrest, natural disasters, and infrastructure collapse?

2. Which institutional and political leadership challenges are posed by the features of these complex human-environmental crises?

They have, as relatively junior academics are wont to do, spotted a gap in the literature

Theories evolving around concepts such as ‘anticipatory surprise management’ (Farazmand 2007) and ‘emergency and disaster management’ (Gibbons 2007) also provide a fine-grained understanding of the decision-making processes that seem to secure good performance, despite constantly changing circumstances as well as surprise events. However, none of these fields explore the features of ecological crises, and their implications for existing institutions and decision-making.
The absence of theory development on these features and the crisis management dimensions of ecological crises is troublesome for both practical and theoretical reasons.
page 363

Troublesome? And those reasons are (drumroll, please)

In the former case, if rapidly unfolding ecological crises are poorly handled or considered unresolved by policy-makers, there is a risk that social tension could escalate and undermine the legitimacy of government organizations, states and international institutions (see Rosenthal et al. 1989; Boin et al. 2005). In the latter case, the gap is troublesome because abrupt ecological change requires a different theoretical analysis than incremental ecological change.Page 364

What are cecs? I’m glad you asked…

Cascading ecological crises (CECs): abrupt shifts in ecological systems that trigger crises that cascade through sectoral and geographical boundaries.
page 364

And how aren’t they Exxon Valdez and Deep Water Horizon and Seveso and so on?

What makes CEC different from other well-studied environmental crises such as oil spills, nuclear accidents and chemical hazards? We suggest four features that could be seen as common for systemic risk in complex systems in general (Perrow 1984; Kambhu et al. 2007; Duit and Galaz 2008) but that distinguish CEC from the previous definitions and empirical studies of ‘ecological crises’ discussed above. As will be outlined below, these include: (1) complex causality; (2) nonlinear change; (3) recombination potential; and (4) cascading dynamics.
page 365

Recombination potential? They mean

“the possibility of ecological crises merging with other social, economic or political stresses.”
page 366

Cascading dynamics? They mean

the capability of ecological change to trigger changes that move across ecological and geographical boundaries (local, regional, national, and international) and/or societal sectors (for example, environmental, health, economic, foreign policy) (Kasperson and Kasperson 2001; Kinzig et al. 2006).

and then they indulge in delicious understatement;

Such cross-scale dynamics create serious challenges for organizational ‘silos’, standard operating procedures, and public institutions often designed to cope with slow and isolated ecological change within clearly defined administrative borders (Holling and Meffe 1996; LaPorte 2007; Galaz et al. 2008).
page 366

They want us (as academics always do) to be smarter than we are (smarter than we can be?)

An additional early warning challenge is posed by the fact that CEC often stem from the combination of changes in multiple systems, at various speeds, and in different levels. Hence improved preparedness would require a shift from simpler monitoring systems able to track changes in discrete events (say, the number of reported avian influenza cases) to systems able to integrate information about changes in underlying drivers embedded in different scientific communities, societal sectors, and government organizations (that is, integration of changes in social, ecological and economical drivers – see Carpenter et al. 2006). page 368

Clausewitz’s “fog of war”, much? Only hindsight is 20/20, and not even then…

And as well as the unprecedented nature of these challenges (endocrine-disrupters, anyone?), there’s the institutional (read “bureaucratic) barriers to contend with as well… (Peter Principle, Parkinson’s Law etc etc)

Information integration has, however, proven to be a difficult institutional challenge in the creation of early warning systems in general. Differences in organizational goals, approach, culture, and structure account for the reluctance of agencies to share information with each other and with non-governmental actors (Parker and Stern 2002; Boin et al. 2005).
page 370

and it all happens way too quick for us. Which, translated into academese, comes out as –

even with perfect integration, early warnings concerning the temporal dimension of abrupt catastrophic shifts in most ecosystems – compared to for example cholera outbreaks(Colwell 1996) – is at present unattainable.
page 370

Why do sudden shocks happen? Well, non-linearity yadder yadder yadder. And us hairless apes klutzing around – forgive us father, sometimes we don’t quite know what we do…

Moreover, gradual human induced disturbances of ecosystems often do not dramatically impact the generation of resources and ecosystem services until a critical threshold is exceeded (Scheffer et al. 2001; Biggs et al. 2008). This can give credence to the view that the ecosystem is not in dramatic danger and means that actors such as government agencies have few incentives to investigate incipient crises embedded in ecosystems before they reach critical levels. The collapse of the Newfoundland cod fisheries is an illustration of this tendency (Harremo ̈ s et al. 2001). page 371

And we perturb a system, measure a part of its response and then say “plenty of fish left in the sea.”

Ironically, the approaching collapse was masked by the fact that monitoring measures systematically misinterpreted the actual abundance of cod due to so-called hyper-aggregation, which is the tendency of fish to cluster in greater densities when their environment is under pressure (Rose and Kulka 1999).
page 371

And there’s a youtoob video to be made out of THIS;

There is a rich scholarly literature on risk management and warning-response problems. It reveals three major potential sources of response failures: psychological factors, bureau-organizational factors, and political factors (Boin et al. 2005).
The relevant psychological factors that can impact decision makers include insensitivity to new information and changing circumstances, cognitive overload, wait and see tendencies, and wishful thinking.
The bureau-organizational sources of failure include: cooperation, communication, and coordination breakdowns; bureaucratic conflict; and inadequate standard operating procedures or protocols to handle novel and/or complex problems (LaPorte 2007; Moynihan 2008).
The key political factors that contribute to policy problems, unpreparedness, and a lack of adequate response include: overcrowded agendas, framing failures by key actors, perverse political incentives, and misplaced priorities (Boin et al. 2005).
page 372

The article then gets even more interesting (and that is not sarcasm – this stuff is really really important and well-written), talking about ‘tragic choices’ (“shitty option A or shitty option B”) and the 2008 Food Crisis.

Then we get to the “can he make a picture and get them all to fit” question…

One of the most important tasks for political leaders in a crisis, in parallel with sense making, is meaning making. Meaning making is the ability to communicate what the crisis is actually all about to others (such as the public and media). CEC pose a range of poorly understood challenges for crisis communication in a turbulent media environment (see McKie and Galloway 2007; Olsson 2009).
page 373

There’s a

credibility gap in crisis communication. The common perception is that contingencies can be traced back to human errors in action and decision-making. Consequently, the very same actors who are thought of as crisis managers (say, national politicians) are also likely to be framed as responsible for the origin of the crisis. page 373

Rupert Murdoch is finding out that hardly anyone thinks he’s the man to sort out the crisis at News International, f’rinstance…

The second challenge is…

consistent crisis communication. In order for crisis communicators to be seen as trustworthy, they need to be consistent in their communication (Massey 2001; Seeger 2006). The ability of CEC to tie into broader policy areas implies that they transcend the crisis at hand. For example, the fact that the Australian media framed the long-term Australian drought as a global warming issue posed serious problems for climate change sceptical Prime Minister John Howard’s trustworthiness in dealing with the situation.
page 373

Asides from “framing”, they write that an

additional challenge for effective meaning making is the fact that ‘blame games’ are endemic to communication and post-crisis processes (Boin et al. 2009). ‘Blame games’ imply the politicized allocation of blame after perceived policy failures. In essence, they entail the need for actors to protect their interests rather than support a post-crisis learning process.
page 374

So, when everyone is busy covering their ass, you get recovery without learning…

And you should ALWAYS blame the victim (unless the victims are the rich and powerful; in which case it’s either Mother Nature, or terrorists, or the Unreasonable Demands of the Poor.)


the fact that ecosystems embed threshold dynamics forces decision makers to address whether blame or liability should be assigned to those responsible for the last increment that tipped an ecosystem across a threshold, or those involved in slowly reducing the resilience of the same system. This has clear similarities with the ongoing international discussions about the distribution of costs associated with the mitigation of greenhouse gases and adaptation to climate change between countries with vastly different emission histories. page 374

The proverbial frog is proverbially boiled…

But, in a final note of optimism, they write that the blame games don’t HAVE to be played…

As argued by Longstaff and Yang (2008), however, there are ways to reduce the possibility of emergent blame games. According to their analysis of 82 crisis cases, the key challenge lies in making sure that actors responding to a crisis have immediate access to a credible source of information. Likewise, scholars such as Gunderson et al.(2006) and Olsson et al. (2008) have shown how actors such as government agencies, stakeholders, associations, and private interests are able to steer away from blame games and even use crises as an opportunity for institutional change (see Keeler 1993). This is done by coordinating information flows, initiating collaborative projects, and stimulating small-scale experimentation as leverages for systemic changes in governance. Hence, blame games should not be viewed as a deterministic outcome of cascading ecological crises.
page 374-5

And in conclusion, the authors advocate the whole Buddhist thing about the crucial thing being the response to a stimulus, not the stimulus itself

Nonetheless, cascading ecological crises are not predestined to lead to failed responses. An increasing body of literature explores the role played by societal responses that build on collaboration between multiple actors at multiple administrative levels. This includes not only work on ecosystem management and governance, but also on responses to cascading crises such as epidemics, large-scale fires, and ruptures in critical infrastructure. At best, these responses build the trust and communication patterns necessary to support prompt coordination despite uncertainty, limited time to act, and potentially catastrophic outcomes.
page 375

This article was fab, and I eagerly await more from the same folks…

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2 Responses to Those pesky “cascading ecological crises”

  1. Antonio Dias says:

    The problem with translating into and out of academese, or bureaucratese, is that in the end a false sense of “knowing” or “understanding” is created. Everything – including these fossilized remains of insights you’ve uncovered – points to the maladaptive nature of this entire framework. The inherent conclusion of this exercise is to leave these “lost souls” behind and focus on stumbling into another framework. Another case of the power of the original “Poseidon Adventure” as a seminal work!

    Finding, looking AND finding, confirmation of this among the varied tomb-scrawls of academia may be hard to resist, but it continues to reinforce the deluded notion that there is anything of value in that way of looking at the world. It’s the equivalent, in a slow CEC sort of way, of reading a book on how dangerous Lions are while strolling the Savannah. In the meantime, you’re likely to get mauled just as you get to the part about always paying attention to your surroundings….

    To switch metaphors at a paragraph break, you hit what you aim at.

  2. vera says:

    Crash the bloody sucker. There is no hope for it.

    What they really are saying is that the only way it can all add up to adaptive change is if everything is radically decentralized and well coordinated. The system will never do that voluntarily even if it means self-destruction.

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