Quick Study: Counterinsurgency, Anyone? How Conservation Can Better Prepare for ‘Wicked’ Problems


Image: 1939 English cartoon about warfare and various defenses in nature (detail). Image credit: Smabs Sputzer/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

The Study: Game, E.T., E.Meijaard, D. Sheil, & E. McDonald-Madden. 2013. Conservation in a wicked complex world; challenges and solutions. Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/conl.12050.

The Big Question(s): What can conservation learn from counter-insurgency? At a glance, not much. Some people in both conservation and the military might even consider the question vaguely insulting.

But practitioners in those realms — as well as in others like business management, psychology and knowledge management — face the complexity, uncertainty and incomplete information that characterize so-called “wicked problems.”

Nature Conservancy scientist Eddie Game and his colleagues wanted to know: Which of the lessons from those diverse fields can be translated to conservation?

Study Nuts and Bolts: Answering that question, say the authors, requires a nuanced understanding of the nature of complexity and conservationists’ responses to it.

Only once we recognize that typical conservation approaches are better suited to far simpler conditions than those we actually face can we make progress. Game et al.’s paper, an essay on conservation strategy rather than a quantitative study, lays out the problem and offers insights from a variety of fields.

The Findings: Conservationists are not ignorant of the complexity of the systems they are working in. Yet many still approach conservation problems as if they were engineering problems, with clear cause and effect relationships, and the ability to determine an optimal intervention.

The mismatch between the kind of problems we face and the kinds of solutions we rely on has significant consequences, according to Game and his colleagues. First, it makes using an adaptive management approach tricky. Second, it creates tension between promoting “best practices” — long the touchstone of conservation strategy — and the creativity needed to craft solutions to fit unique circumstance.

Wicked problems rarely have solutions easily labelled “right” and “wrong.” Instead, conservationists and their allies must choose among various trade-offs — say, increased biodiversity vs. decreased economic security or vice versa. Adaptive management depends fundamentally on the willingness to change strategy given clear evidence that the current strategy has failed, but such evidence is rare in complex systems.

Adaptive management also depends on iteration, using learning from past experience to alter future decisions. But any proposed solution to a wicked problem changes the nature of the problem itself, so clear-cut iterative decisions are hard to come by.

Wicked problems not only frustrate many attempts to use adaptive management principles, they also thwart a favored approach among conservationists — the idea of “best practices.”

Replicating standard, proven methods works in well-understood and predictable systems, few of which are the socioecological systems of conservation. Better, say the authors, to emphasize a willingness to disrupt existing behaviors and to be open and responsive to competing and creative options.

What it All Means: In its counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan, the U.S. military had a hard time defining success, a problem that will be familiar to conservationists.

The response by the military should be instructive: commanders realized the problem was not just about funding, nor was it amenable to centralized decisions and best practices. The military, not often known as the most nimble of institutions, fundamentally altered its structure and tactics in the face of complexity. Conservationists should take note.

It is comforting to imagine that spending more money can simplify conservation or military challenges. But such is not the case. We cannot spend our way to a solution in Afghanistan any more than we can in Borneo or the Great Barrier Reef or Namibia or the Amazon. A lesson, say Game and colleagues, is that working effectively in complex systems requires a redesign of how we interact with them.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military changed one of its most fundamental characteristics: its hierarchical structure. The point was to get more distributed decision-making and hence more rapid responses to events in the field. Distributed leadership can be facilitated through a clear set of objectives and principles, which provides local leaders the confidence to explore novel solutions rather than worry about compliance with best practice.

The authors don’t argue for the success of the Afghanistan strategy, nor for the proposition that borrowing concepts from the military and other fields will solve all of conservation’s problems. But they do say that studying the way those fields respond to wicked problems could broaden the range of options available to conservation practitioners.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
Jonathan Adams is a science writer and conservation biologist. He is the author most recently, with Mark Tercek, of "Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive By Investing in Nature" (Basic Books 2013). He is also the author of "The Future of the Wild: Radical Conservation for a Crowded World" (Beacon Press 2004), and co-author, with Thomas McShane, of "The Myth of Wild Africa: Conservation Without Illusion" (Norton 1992). Jonathan received an MS in Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development from the University of Maryland, an MA in Writing About Science from Johns Hopkins University. Visit him online at www.pangolinwords.com

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