Adaptive management, also called collaborative adaptive management (CAM), has deep roots in the sustainabilty professions reaching back at least to Aldo Leopold’s emphasis on community, ecology, and prudence. CAM reflects a shift in worldview from arrogance, control, and technocracy to humility, learning, and collaboration. It asks us to accept that ecological and social systems are so complex and dynamic that our knowledge of them will always be partial. It expects to be surprised by an unpredictable future. It asks us to view every action as an opportunity to learn. And it helps us refine our visions of a desired future to something constructed collaboratively, deliberately, and adaptively over time as we learn from experience.
In principle, CAM is as simple as it is powerful. Sustainability professionals work collaboratively with stakeholders to define desired future conditions and identify the actions most likely to produce those conditions. Each of these actions provides an opportunity to learn how ecological systems function and respond to human intervention. The actions are carefully monitored as they are implemented and progress toward agreed-upon goals, yielding feedback that leads to adjustments in both goals and management. Failures lead to a reevaluation of both the means and the ends. CAM, therefore, provides a platform for scientific and social learning that gradually but deliberately builds the capacity to create resilient, thriving, and sustainable bio-cultural systems.
As importantly, it is a process for moving forward rather than idling in analysis-paralysis or political-deadlock, increasingly problematic by-products of an uncertain and skeptical world: We can and most move forward, incrementally and deliberately: negotiating and planning action, implementing it, living with it, testing it, examining how it works, and reevaluating what we should do next based on what we learned about ourselves and about the world the action created. That is, CAM is a process of doing and then asking whether we got what we wanted and whether we wanted what we got.
Context and History
Contemporary sustainability theories integrate the thinking of chaos and systems theories that gained prominence in the later half of the twentieth century. Ecologists, economists, and social scientists now accept the idea that disturbance and change are normal characteristics of bio-cultural systems. These systems are arranged hierarchically, with smaller systems nested within larger ones, and larger units exhibiting “emergent” properties that could not have been anticipated from the sum of the parts. Changes in smaller units can sometimes induce changes in the larger, and some of these changes can be nonlinear, abrupt, and dramatic because whole systems “flip” to a new state, perhaps irreversibly, when enough change in the smaller levels accumulate to affect functions at larger levels. A celebrated example is the change from grass savannas to brushy fields in the southwest United States. This shift alarmed Aldo Leopold, who contended that this abrupt ecological revolution was caused by suppression of the region’s fire regime and the introduction of domestic livestock (other famous examples include the collapsed North Atlantic Cod fishery and the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage real-estate/finance/insurance system). Contemporary sustainability science acknowledges that humans likely will never possess sufficient understanding and technical capacity to control the bio-cultural system that is constantly evolving in response to both natural and cultural disturbances and evolving human desires—hence the need for humility, experimentation, deliberation, and CAM.
CAM also evolved in response to the failures of rational comprehensive environmental planning, a style of decision making that dominated the twentieth-century, positivist, Progressive-Era business and government agency management strategies. Rational planning failed, in part, because sustainabilty planning problems are “wicked.” They involve competing goals, divergent values, little scientific agreement on cause–effect relationships, imperfect information, and inequitable distribution of political power in implementing and influencing planning. These wicked problems defy rational planning solutions, with their reliance on experts, predictions of alternative futures, and full and informed stakeholder participation in decision making. The “tell us what you want, and leave it to the expert to find the optimal solution” planning strategy bred contempt and conflict between Sustainability Professionals and their constituents. This “rational” approach did not (and could not) deal with deep-seated value-conflicts among stakeholders.
CAM is a process that expects and respects pluralism and learning. It is a strategy that accepts and respects pluralism of values and expects that preferences and perceptions will change as people engage in problem formation and planning. Sustainable development involves learning, and learning means change.
Social learning is perhaps the most important outcome of CAM. Building on the adage that it is easier to create a future than to predict it, CAM provides a powerful opportunity for stakeholders to learn about cultural, economic, and ecological systems, respect and influence one another’s values, and collaboratively craft scenarios and motivate actions that lead society toward a sustainable future.
CAM is as much about managing learning as it is about managing the environment. Learning occurs at two levels. Mundane but essential learning results from the success and failure from action. Each intervention is an experiment that improves understanding of the bio-cultural systems being managed and refines the techniques used to manipulate these systems.
Social learning, the second level of learning enabled by CAM, is more important. It occurs by engaging and motivating society in the task of sustainability. The planning process situates people in the unfolding trajectory of history, giving them roles, defining settings, and giving direction. It thereby motivates and engages people in creating that future. By articulating desired future conditions, people identify and refine their values. As plans for the future become realized—as today becomes tomorrow—people learn about whether their values and hopes were appropriate. With a view toward the future and achieving the good life, people can understand the changes and sacrifices being asked of them today.
Sustainable development goals are hypotheses about values that are just as refutable as hypotheses about ecological functions and resource scarcity. Sustainability development planning efforts can, and often should, change goals. For example, a community may seek to maximize wealth and freedom through real estate development. After years of pursuing this goal, residents may become frustrated by traffic congestion, fossil fuel dependence, and the loss of local foods, open space, and ecosystem services. Another goal might emerge, one that concentrates real estate development into pedestrian-oriented clusters containing shopping and employment opportunities and connected to other clusters by mass transit and surrounded by working farms and forests that, in addition to providing food and fiber, offer scenery, solace, and biodiversity.
Adaptive management can facilitate such social learning. It is forward-looking, believing that truth lies in the future, as the outcome of countless experiments that reveal which conditions are desirable and resilient and thus sustainable. It attempts to balance visions of the good life, practices of earning and living, and the environmental capacity to sustain these visions and practices.
CAM, like any sustainable development process, requires investing significant resources. Sustainability Professionals must be trained and employed to nurture collaborative relationships among vested stakeholders with diverse backgrounds and values, embedded in diverse sectors, including business, religion, civil society, local and international government. Sustainability Professionals must encourage a common language and develop and share knowledge relevant to the social and environmental dimensions of the problem. They must build trust among parties by encouraging evidence of commitment and understanding. Such efforts can be exhausting. Sustainability Professionals and planning participants may need to be replaced if they become overtaxed by this process, potentially negating established trust, learning, and momentum.
CAM requires full participation by business managers, government authorities and sustainability scientists; but these leaders may be reluctant to offer or consent to such participation. Scientists may lack the incentives to invest the time needed to monitor ecological change, which can often take years to effect. Business managers and government authorities are understandably cautious about losing control to a stakeholder-driven process. They also face real budgetary limitations and may feel pressure to deliver goods and services to clients and constituents who may not appreciate the purpose and process of CAM. The timeframe of votes and profit reports is shorter than sustainable development planning.
CAM has also been criticized as compromising sustainability goals because too much emphasis gets placed on stakeholder participation, development, and equity. CAM occurs locally, and it respects the nuances and idiosyncrasies of local conditions, which include ecological as well as social systems. Thus, efforts to conserve flora, fauna, and ecosystem services get balanced against local community and economic-development needs. Local interests need not dominate the process, but they typically are significant.
A major premise of CAM is that collaborative, multi-stakeholder direction of sustainable development trajectories will produce greater justice and sustainability. This may be true in principle; in practice, the degree of justice and sustainability achieved depends upon who participates and has power to influence the goals set by CAM. Centering CAM locally does not ensure equity and justice. CAM could end up empowering stakeholders who benefit from social oppression and environmental exploitation. Individuals and organizations can strategically attempt to manipulate collaborative efforts in ways that do not serve the public good or any conservation goal.
CAM also may fail because institutional barriers and inertia resist the adaptations CAM reveals and recommends. CAM requires tolerance of failure and the flexibility to adapt—two things business, government institutions and professionals do not do well. Professional identities and agency budgets may be threatened by admitting failure or discontinuing established practices. Institutional change—change in goals and practices—is critical to the success of adaptive management, and that may not be possible without considerable political will and power. This challenge is particularly problematic for business and government agencies that lack a mandate admit failure and adapt.
CAM is a humble, experimental, and deliberative method of action and learning that attempts to grope toward sustainability under variable and unpredictable circumstances. In theory, CAM seems noble and straightforward. It encourages leaders, managers, scientists, businesses, local experts, and other stakeholders to negotiate an outcome that is acceptable to all parties. It requires crafting an action plan using the best available information. The plan gets implemented with the expectation that it will fail in two important ways: First, it will fail to produce the intended outcomes because the complexity of the bio-cultural system thwarts efforts at understanding and prediction, and because there are usually insufficient resources to perfectly control and implement even the best-laid plans. Second, the plan will fail because society will reevaluate its goals and refine its vision of a desired future.
Because failure is anticipated, CAM develops and deploys monitoring strategies that track progress toward desired conditions. Tracking progress offers lessons in how to manipulate the bio-cultural system, encouraging flexibility in techniques, the clarification of goals, and the adaptation of expectations to experience. Implementing CAM presents considerable challenges that require vigilance, political power, different accounting practices, and perhaps new legislation.