November 3, 2008, I attended the S.R. Carpenter seminar entitled, ‘Imagination for transformation.’ I have decided to focus on the article, ‘Uncertainty and the management of multistate ecosystems: an apparently ration route to collapse,’ written by S.R. Carpenter et al. Overall I enjoyed and learned from the article; I believe it is well written and gave a clear example of the detrimental cycle of collapse and renewal or recovery that human managed ecosystems are subject. The example of lakes switching between oligotrophic and eutrophic states as a result of Phosphorus loading, removing and recycling, and under the authority of the ‘lake manager’ gave an enclosed model of multistate ecosystem management failures. I especially liked the description of reactionary management (where policy and management approach changes is reaction to changes in lake state) opposed to informed management (policy and management developed according to scientific understanding of the multistate ecosystem). Carpenter et al. acknowledge that complete scientific understanding of environmental systems influenced by society is difficult to come by, but stresses how constant fluctuation in policy and management causes ecological instability as natural ecological functions are consistently undermined. Examples of socio-environmental systems that despite management have behaved stochastically are given and include the cod fishery collapse, AIDS in Africa and the ozone hole.
Carpenter et al. recommend that effective institutional designs (essentially a restructuring of modern social, economic and political frameworks) are needed for ecosystem management. This massive suggestion is reminiscent of that made by James Gustave Speth in his book, ‘The bridge at the end of the world,’ who claims that ‘working within the system will, in the end, not succeed when what is needed is transformative change in the system itself (86).’ Similarly, Speth’s book/traveling seminar and Carpenter’s article fail to suggest how we, citizens of the modern world, would go about effectively transforming the overarching system which we live under.
There is one significant aspect of Carpenter et al.’s article that, I believe, remains largely unexplained. The lake example given offers generalized lessons about ecosystem management on a relatively small spatial scale, and is circumstances where policy and management decisions are governed by not only a single country but by a single ‘lake manager.’ There exists too many assumptions (environmental, social, economic and political) in this model to apply it to a multinational scale ecosystem or environmental issue. Worldwide socio-environmental issue such as biological diversity loss, climate change, desertification, declining fish stokes, etc, are not governed by a single set of policies, decisions are not made by a single ‘lake or fish or climate manager’ and the cultural, social and economic costs and benefits of ecosystem management will be felt differentially across the countries. Therefore, while I think Carpenter et al. present an informative and well researched model that is important for understanding ecological collapse and recovery cycles on a small, single-country scale, this model does little to advance policy and management of the large, interacting environmental issues currently facing the entire world.