Radical uncertainty and new environmental narratives

We live in a basically unpredictable world, featuring histories dominated by contingency—that is, actual patterns that make good sense and become subject to interesting and sensible explanations once they unfold as they did, but that could have proceeded along innumerable alternative routes that would have yielded just as sensible a history, but that did not gain the good fortune of actual occurrence. Stephan Jay Gould, paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science

If the challenge is to identify ways to manage chronic uncertainty for more effective environmental policy and management, it pays studying those whose jobs are to do just that. Three such groups who seek to do more than cope with waves of unpredictable contingencies are discussed below.


–One group is found in the control rooms and surrounding support staff of large critical infrastructures–the villains in many environmental crisis narratives. Yet these infrastructures, particularly water and energy, are based in ecosystem processes and services and many operate under the dual mandate of maintaining service reliability while at the same time safeguarding associated ecosystems.

The more I studied control room operators, the more I learned they are far from environment’s enemy. Turn to three neglected storylines based on the practices of reliability professionals in highly complex socio-technical systems:

Practice 1: Bring ecologists, biologists & renewable energy specialists directly onto the floor of the infrastructure control rooms. If environmental specialists cannot reliably advise on real-time infrastructure operations, whose services, like large water supplies, are founded upon ecosystem processes, how then can the very same specialists be expected to correct what are later seen as mistakes made in the absence of sound real-time advice?

Practice 2: Redefine system boundaries. Wetlands have been an iconic ecosystem in ecologists’ stories. Yet wetlands serve as “ecoinfrastructures” in other system definitions. Those that moderate the effects of wind and waves on the adjacent levee structures are part of the levee system definition just as the levees provide an ecosystem service by protecting these wetlands in other adverse events.

In a storm, a single stretch of road may become an essential part of repair access for electricity lines as well as the means of access for levee floodfighting crews. In this case, the stretch of roadway becomes part of the emergency response of two infrastructures. A roadway between wildlands and the electricity distribution lines on the other side of the road can serve as a firebreak in the emergency response system for the approaching wildland fire.

In other words, it need not be agricultural versus urban versus environmental. From one perspective, it looks like three separate systems in competition with each other: a forest next to grazing land next to arable fields, no one of which can expand without loss to the other. From a perspective that treats them as subsystems to one ecosystem, the grazing land serves as a firebreak between the forest and arable holdings.

So too the California Delta can be seen not just as its own system but also as a buffer against encroaching urbanization from the east (Sacramento and Stockton) and west (San Francisco Bay Area), much as agriculture in South Florida and Western Netherlands have buffered against urbanization moving into the region’s “green” areas. It follows that the key issue is where that extra investment would produce the greatest positive impact on the ecosystem and landscape: planting trees and greenscapes in Sacramento or Stockton (urban ecosystems); reducing chemical agriculture on Delta islands (agricultural ecosystem); and/or constructing more wetlands around Delta islands (the environmental ecosystem).

Like examples are easily multiplied, but the point remains: Multiple ecosystem services may be multiple only if more than one infrastructure (system definition) is connected. You then might want to ask of your own large systems: Where then are all those ecologists in control rooms making the real-time decisions on whether to open the gate now and save the manatee or shut it and put the other aquatic habitat at risk? Where are all those atmospheric scientists in control rooms making the real-time decisions about whether to use this generator or that generator in order to meet prevailing ozone standards on this day and this hour? For that matter, where are all those fish biologists in control rooms making the real-time decisions that generator temperatures can be adjusted within this or that bandwidth without jeopardizing nearby spawning populations?

Practice 3: Act on the full implications of the infrastructure control room as a key institutional & organizational formation for ensuring the high reliability mandate of improved ecosystem services & processes. Control rooms in large critical infrastructures are one of the few institutional formations that have evolved over time and across multiple contexts to promote high reliability repetitively in the management of complex socio-technical systems.

–The implications of these practices are considerable. We keep hearing that global problems must have global solutions. If true, those solutions will never be highly reliable at that scale. There is, for example, no global water infrastructure nor a cadre of its real-time managers in the foreseeable future.

All of which explains why the shift away from global climate change models to regional ones is so significant. (We’ve embarked on doing so in California.) It is far more plausible to imagine water and energy control rooms coordinating at the regional level than globally, when it comes to collaborating on shared narratives or overlapping discourses.


–Where the latter point holds—our models must become more granular with respect to time and scale for the systems—then we have a way of recasting the debate in ecosystem management and restoration between two ideal types, the carvers and the molders. In so doing, we identify another source of future environmental narratives–and one more fitting with contingency and radical uncertainty.

Ideally, carvers see their task is to release the true ecosystem from the surplusage around it. Chip away overpopulation, chisel off the built environment, get rid of the non-natives species and ban pollution—only then does the ecosystem as it really was meant to be have a chance of being revealed. In the carving orientation, the ecosystem manager or restorer assumes the landscape has within its remit the good form and function created for it as nature, not by us.

The second type are ecosystem managers and restorers who see themselves ideally as modelers of clay (sometimes, literally). They mold the landscape by trying to press onto it contemporary versions of complexities it once had. Here there is no prospect of repristinating nature. Ecosystems have to be designed and sustained, albeit their complexity may be little like the pre-disturbance or pre-settlement states. (Indeed, the grievance that ecosystems are continually degraded signals landscapes are moldable.)

–Now comes the important part. Unsurprisingly, really-existing ecosystem managers and restorers have been stuck between these two textbook orientations—they’re ideal types after all—making due with what’s at hand and with what is then possible. What is clearer now is that this good-enough improviser is itself a third ideal type for ecosystem management and restoration.

Improvisation has its own idealized and practical benchmarks and practices. You see such, most prominently, when cities are discussed as “urban ecosystems.” Cities are highly differentiated systems with their own improvised sets of species and processes that have in some cases considerably more biodiversity than commonly supposed.

What makes cities “better or worse” improvisations when it comes to their ecosystem management and restoration is the crux just as it is for the regional climate models mentioned earlier.

Not only will there be multiple benchmarks (which actual improvisation inevitably falls short of ideal improvisation), but the scenarios of success or failure (actually, effectiveness in kind and degree) will also be with respect to different real-time uncertainties than those that perplex carver and molder. We should expect from this crucible of granularity will come new, more case-specific environmental narratives.

–What might these case-specific narratives look like and why would they matter? The widely-identified pollution in China has been credited to its coal-powered electricity plants and other hazardous facilities. That may be true as far as it goes, but here this needs to be pushed further.

I, for one, want to know more about the real-time conditions under which middle-level operators and managers in China are operating these large-scale infrastructures. Are the reliability professionals not there or are they there but operating under ever more prolonged “just-for-now” conditions? We need to hear from Chinese scholars researching regional high reliability infrastructures (including its massively significant high-speed rail system).


And the third group from which we can expect new environmental narratives? Why, that’s you, the readers. You get to choose what to make of the contingencies that befall you–and in radical ways when it comes to “environment.”

–Start with what many would consider unexceptional, a point of Adam Phillips, the psychoanalyst and essayist: “Given the obvious contingency of much of our lives—we do not in any meaningful sense intend or choose our birth, our parents, our bodies, our language, our culture, our thoughts, our dreams…and so on—it might be worth considering not only our relationships to ourselves and our relationships to objects, but (as the third of the pair, so to speak) our relationship to accidents”.

Fair enough, were it not for Agnes Heller, the philosopher, concluding exactly the opposite and because of the same contingencies:

In choosing themselves, men and women choose exactly what they are, as they are. They choose their best talents as much as their physical handicaps, they choose their parents, their childhood, their country, their historical age. They choose their poverty if they happen to be born poor, and their riches if they happen to be born rich. They choose their accidental features. That which they are by accident they become by choice.

Putting it that radically, Heller stirs us to ask in what sense is her point also true. But in posititioning yourself somewhere between Phillips and Heller, you too become expert in recasting contingencies and their environments.

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