In the last week of September Eve McDonald-Madden and Brendan Wintle brought together a couple dozen EDG researchers and friends to discuss adaptive management. The theory presented by Carl Walters and C.S. Holling in the late 1970s is eminently appealing to scientists and many decision-makers. How can we best manage (eco-)systems in the face of uncertainty? What’s our capacity to learn and reduce uncertainty as we manage? Are the risks of experimenting with our system outweighed by the long-term benefits of learning? (For a primer on adaptive management, you can check out these two articles that I wrote for Decision Point back in 2008.)
We split into several groups, rearranging ourselves every half-day or so, knocking heads over different issues. Some of us focused on new analytical techniques for specific scenarios, others worked on simple and accessible representations of adaptive management principles, the malleefowl team developed strategies for an upcoming workshop, and on Friday morning we all reflected on the philosophy of adaptive management and why we so often fail to implement it.
I’m an avowed puzzle-solver, always attracted to a mathematically-framed problem, but I got a lot out of the broader-picture discussions that picked apart the assumptions underlying the adaptive management paradigm. There are clearly some (even many or most!) circumstances where it’s not the most suitable approach for environmental management, and we do it a disservice if we try to force every management issue into this framework. On the other hand, the process of framing a problem using adaptive management structures can make many of the conflicts, uncertainties and trade-offs at hand explicit. This can (I hope!) lead to better informed and more transparent decision-making even without fancy models and fully fledged adaptive management.