Bridging the gap between ecology and law
Green, Olivia, O., et al. "Barriers and bridges to the integration of social–ecological resilience and law." Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 13.6 (2015): 332-337. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/140294
What are some gaps between ecology and law in environmental management? In a recent article, a team of researchers explores answers to this question and proposes ways to bridge the gaps. Writing in the journal Frontiers in the Ecology and Environment, the authors make the case that the different treatment within each discipline towards the question of uncertainty is at the core of the answer. Environmental scientists and ecologists welcome uncertainty because it presents an opportunity for further study and research. The law, on the other hand, is a tool for securing certainty, the authors argue.
Ecologists also understand that uncertainty is built into ecosystems, and resilience theory describes how ecosystems can exhibit different sets of processes and structures in different regimes. For example, a river ecosystem has certain resilience to changes. Chemical pollution may not pose serious a threat to the river ecosystem when the amount of pollution is within a particular threshold. However, once pollution levels exceed that threshold, the same amount of additional pollution will have a much more severe impact on the river ecosystem. Further, the crossing of that threshold may be irreversible, regardless of the amount of pollution removed from the system in future remediation attempts.
The legal system in the United States is built to promote stability and continuity by relying on precedents. The authors, led by Olivia Green at the Atlantic States Legal Foundation, point out that American environmental laws in 1970s were created based upon the assumption that ecosystems were sufficiently stable and future environmental problems were predictable and remediable. This is at odds with resilience theory that describes ecosystems as largely unpredictable and dynamic.
To bridge ecology and law, the authors propose legal reforms to better address the uncertainty and complexity associated with ecosystems. This approach is called "adaptive governance," a method of governance that takes into account resilience theory. The authors point out that adaptive governance has been discussed frequently in ecological, social science, and legal literature. But there is little collaboration between these fields on how to actually reform the law using the concept of adaptive governance.
To better integrate uncertainty into the decision-making process, adaptive governance will give agencies the flexibility to recalibrate their actions as data monitoring continues to better inform our understanding of ecosystems. Identifying the multiple thresholds existing within ecosystems is also critical to the integration of uncertainty into environmental laws. To better address the complexity of ecosystems, adaptive governance calls for a collaborative form of management that incorporates the ideas of a diverse range of institutions and stakeholders. One important aspect of collaborative management is to facilitate an effective information flow between the regulators and the public and encourage public participation in the decision-making process.
As society continues to understand more and more about the environment, it also needs to make changes to adapt to the uncertainty and complexity of the environment that science reveals. Adaptive governance provides a useful tool to promote the integration of ecology and law. This method could also be applied to other fields that require the integration of science and policy.