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1 October 2007 WICKED PROBLEMS
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Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management is simultaneously brilliant and highly frustrating. Bryan G. Norton brilliantly integrates insights from economics, environmental ethics, pragmatist philosophy, postnormal science, discourse ethics, decision theory, valuation, and more to help readers understand the problem of sustainability and to propose an adaptive management process to address the problem. But Norton couches his arguments in highly academic prose, which is bound to frustrate the nonspecialist reader, and is in direct contradiction to his assertion that to address the problem of sustainability, we must discuss it in ordinary language that anyone can understand. Ultimately, this is a philosophy text, when what the world really needs is a functional guide to adaptive management.

Norton recognizes that sustainability is a wicked problem: It is difficult to formulate, the way we formulate it influences how we try to solve it, different stakeholders understand and formulate it in different ways, the problem changes over time, and it can never be definitively solved. Facts are uncertain, decisions are urgent, stakes are high, and values matter. A multiplicity of values and goals means that sustainability must be judged by multiple criteria. Though most scientists strive to separate facts from values, this approach fails for wicked problems. How can we know what is important, what facts to gather, if we do not integrate our discussion of facts and values, as is done in everyday discourse and in policy discussions? We must accept that there is no one clear “solution” to sustainability—it is instead a process in which steps forward must be judged as better or worse, not right or wrong.

Unfortunately, most formulations of the sustainability problem are driven by ideology. For example, environmental ethicists focus on the intrinsic value of nature, and welfare economists on the instrumental value of nature in sustaining human welfare over time. Both disciplines bring nonnegotiable assumptions and values to the table, couched in academic jargon. Both attempt to evaluate a complex array of values by a single criterion and frame the problem in a way that predetermines solution paths. These assumptions and values conflict, so no cooperation emerges and no progress is made toward sustainability.

To address these problems, Norton offers a philosophy of adaptive management that builds from three basic principles. First is experimentalism: all knowledge, both facts and values, must be tested by experience, ruling out non-negotiable ideological assertions. Second is multiscalar analysis: sustainability concerns changes that occur across different spatial and temporal scales, with different value systems emerging at these different scales. In particular, Norton distinguishes between (a) communal values relevant to intergenerational bequests and species survival and (b) economic values appropriate for short-term individual impacts. Third is place sensitivity: the starting point for adaptive management must be locally grounded values about what is important to sustain for a given community. This emphasis on place sensitivity keeps Norton's discussion fairly abstract, as one cannot specify, independent of a specific community, precisely what needs to be sustained.

Norton defines sustainability as “a relationship between generations such that the earlier generations fulfill their individual wants and needs so as not to destroy, or close off, important and valued options for future generations” (p. 363). Preserving valued options demands that we leave concrete physical resources for future generations (i.e., strong sustainability), which goes beyond the utilitarian requirement of simply ensuring a nondiminishing level of welfare (weak sustainability). This requires a hybrid approach to sustainability, in which the decision of what resources to leave takes precedence over economic reasoning and analysis. As ecological economists (wrongly accused by Norton of belonging to the weak-sustainability camp) put it, a sustainable scale must be price determining, not price determined (Daly and Farley 2004).

Adaptive management is the active process required to achieve this goal. The need to assess multiple criteria and to integrate facts and values demands the participation of multiple disciplines along with representative community stakeholders. Everyone from a given community who is interested in sustainability must come to the table to discuss precisely what that community needs to sustain, abandoning beforehand all a priori assumptions and bringing with them a commitment to experimentalism. A major challenge is to overcome the barriers to communication, achieved by abandoning academic jargon (facilitated by discussing real problems) and communicating in plain language, in which there are no artificial distinctions between facts and values. Even if participants fail to agree on ultimate goals, they can agree on initial actions that contribute to a variety of different goals. Action tests both facts and values and provides new information. Reflection on the outcomes of action through continued debate leads to new actions. It is this iterative process of action and reflection, empirical testing of both facts and values in a process of social learning, that constitutes adaptive management.

I strongly agree with Norton's analysis of the problem and the democratic adaptive management process he proposes, but some serious issues remain unresolved. First, his proposed process will be hard to implement, and once implemented may move too slowly to address problems that demand urgent action, such as global climate change and biodiversity collapse. Second, the process relies on social learning, which in turn depends on a willingness to empirically test all convictions. Will this approach work in societies (such as the United States) where faith-based beliefs in religion, markets, and economic growth often trump empirical evidence? Nor-ton himself seems to assume that economic growth enhances individual welfare, ignoring empirical evidence that in wealthier countries, at least, growth fails to improve health, education, or subjective well-being (Costanza et al. 2007).

Perhaps more serious, Norton's principle of multiscalar analysis appears to conflict with his principle of place sensitivity. Efforts to sustain one hierarchical scale for too long may suppress the renewal cycle found in nature, and thus threaten the sustainability of systems at higher scales. If this is true, then efforts to sustain local communities for too long may threaten the larger system, the global community (Voinov and Farley 2007). If sustainability at higher hierarchical scales does not automatically arise from sustainability at lower scales, then Norton's philosophy may be dangerously incomplete.

My major criticism of Sustainability, however, lies in the highly academic language. I make my point using Norton's own words: “Building on Peirce's ideas of a science of semiotics, and incorporating breakthroughs by positivist and other philosophers of language, this group has offered a strong emphasis on public discourse, embedding this discourse in social praxis by focusing attention on the preconditions of intelligible language and discourse” (p. 279). Intelligible language is a precondition of public discourse, and Norton's frequent failure to meet this standard makes Sustainability much less accessible and less rewarding than it could have been. Perhaps the real culprit here is the perversity of the academic system, which forces scholars to write in disciplinary jargon if they wish to be taken seriously. I wish that Norton, who is already a highly respected scholar, had shown the courage of his convictions and written this book in ordinary language. Had he done so, this review would have given a wholehearted recommendation for an excellent book.

References cited


R. Costanza, et al 2007. Quality of life: An approach integrating opportunities, human needs, and subjective well-being. Ecological Economics 61:267–276. Google Scholar


H. E. Daly and J. Farley . 2004. Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications Washington (DC) Island Press. Google Scholar


A. Voinov and J. Farley . 2007. Reconciling sustainability, systems theory and discounting. Ecological Economics 63:104–113. Google Scholar
JOSHUA FARLEY "WICKED PROBLEMS," BioScience 57(9), 797-798, (1 October 2007).
Published: 1 October 2007

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