This project (2020-1-SE01-KA203-077872) has been funded with support from the European Commission. This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

A Complex Tool for a Complex Problem: Political Ecology in the Service of Ecosystem Recovery

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
Breslow, S., 2014. A Complex Tool for a Complex Problem: Political Ecology in the Service of Ecosystem Recovery. Coastal Management 42.
Thematic Area
Development studies
Salmon recovery has been described as a “wicked” problem in that it is so complex it is seemingly impossible to solve. Through a detailed case study, this article models how the field of political ecology can provide rich insight into such problems, and can help managers navigate the complex human dimensions of their work. Protracted disputes over salmon habitat restoration have earned the Skagit Valley of Washington State a reputation for being mired in intractable conflict. Goals of recovering salmon and protecting farmland are seemingly pitted against each other in competition for the same land. Using ethnographic methods and a political ecology framework, I argue that social hierarchies and mistrusts, conflicting senses of place, prevailing cultural narratives, and legal and institutional constraints contribute to the dispute over habitat restoration. Closer attention to sociocultural factors such as these may help managers identify and implement locally supported recovery opportunities, facilitate cooperation among stakeholders, improve agency approaches, and reframe management agendas to better address collective needs. I conclude that ecosystem recovery requires not only the renewal of ecological health, but also the renewal of social trust and cooperation, new cultural narratives, and a richer language that can capture its complex social realities.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
The article treats a wicked environmental problem , salmon recovery and shows how political ecology might help to address the complexity. It cover mainly social, cultural and political issues that have to be considered by managers of the salmon habitat. The study revealed that there were disagreement on the fundamental causes of salmon decline among different stakeholders. Disagreement also concerned responsibilities for the decline and for the recovery. The stakeholders also had distinct realms of knowledge and sources of legitimacy. In addition, there were general mistrust between groups, that coloured the views on the problem.

The author put these disagreements into a historical  perspective using stakeholder groups narratives. Doing so the author can find explanations to how the wicked problem has emerged. The conclusions are that it is not only the salmon habitat that needs restoration , but also the social relationships between the involved groups of people. For habitat managers this means that the problems cannot be addressed from a technical side only.
Point of Strength
The article shows a multi-method approach to understanding a wicked problem that shifts the emphasis from what originally was perceived as the root problem. This approach can be replicated in student exercises and projects.