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VC Course Complexity Policy problems in environment & sustainability. Steve Dovers Fenner School of Environment & Society 21 May 2013. Context & coverage. Many definitions of complexity, wicked problems … not repeating those -- you decide what’s complex or not.

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Vc course complexity policy problems in environment sustainability

VC Course ComplexityPolicy problems in environment & sustainability

Steve Dovers

Fenner School of Environment & Society

21 May 2013

Context coverage
Context & coverage

  • Many definitions of complexity, wicked problems … not repeating those -- you decide what’s complex or not.

  • Policy problems and institutional challenges as manifest in a particular policy domain:-- history and broad nature of the domain.-- problem attributes.-- the hard edge of policy and complex problem – choosing a policy instrument.

  • If time – an example and exercise.

Complexity Dovers 2013


  • Supplied (or will be…):- Dovers et al 2008 in Bammer & Smithson.- Dovers 2009 in Glob.Env Change.

  • Other:- Connor, R. and Dovers, S. 2004. Institutional change for sustainable development. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.- Dovers, S. 2005. Environment and sustainability policy. Sydney: Federation Press.- Handmer, J. and Dovers, S. 2013. Handbook of disaster policy and institutions. 2nd edition. London: Earthscan.

Complexity Dovers 2013

Environment resource management sustainability sustainable development
Environment & resource management  sustainability & sustainable development

A summary

-- familiar to some, others not --

Complexity Dovers 2013

Beyond end of pipe increasing complexity in problem framing and policy responses
Beyond end-of-pipe: Increasing complexity in problem-framing and policy responses

From: single environmental problems, point-source pollution control, nature conservation, single stock resource management.

Through: multiple, bigger, more complex environmental and resource management problems.

Toward: sustainability – environment and development, linked ecological, social & economic agenda.

Still struggling with enlarging environmental agenda, while grappling with emerging sust problems.


Complexity Dovers 2013

Examples …

From soil conservation integrated catchment management - regional governance

From point-source pollution regulation load-based licensing Env Management Systems, triple-bottom-line accounting managing multiple diffuse sources.

From tree preservation land clearance controls regional vegn plans stewardship payments.

From an EPA and a parks services  environment depts strategic assessment and sustainability policy units.

From scattered nature reserves patches and strips managing biodiversity across tenures and landscapes (connectivity conservation).

Complexity Dovers 2013

Defining sustainability rio 20
Defining sustainability (Rio +20)

Sustainability: a system property, or a long term goal.

Sustainable development: an evolving policy agenda.

Brundtland (WCED 1987): Sustainable development is development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: -- the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and-- the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.

Long time scales, local-global links, interconnected phenomena, significant uncertainty, high stakes= complex, wicked problems?

Complexity Dovers 2013

Constituent issue of sustainable development
Constituent issue of sustainable development:

  • Issues of resource depletion and degradation, over many centuries, esp C19-20th: -- loss of biological diversity; land and water resources; forests; energy; minerals; amenity.

  • Issues of pollution and wastes, from 17th century, but big from the 1960s:-- atmospheric, marine and water pollution;

  • Issues of ecological life support services, from 1980s:-- ecosystem integrity; nutrient cycles; climate change; integrity of evolutionary processes.

  • Issues of society and human condition, esp 1960-70s:-- population; development/poverty; food security; shelter; health; urbanization; human rights; education; trade; security.

  • Sustainability = 1 & 2, plus3 & 4 – 1987/92 – 2012 @ Rio.

Complexity Dovers 2013

The global discourse
The global discourse…

  • 1966: Boulding’s “Spaceship Earth” essay – modern idea of sustainability.

  • 1972: Stockholm conference on human environment, and Limits to Growth.

  • 1970-80s: Brandt and Palme UN commissions on development/poverty and human security/peace.

  • 1980: World Conservation Strategy.

  • 1983-87: Our Common Future – WCED/Brundtland – environment and development, security.

  • 1992 in Rio: UNCED – 2002 Rio+10 – 2012 Rio+20…

  • Sust development – the biggest agenda ever…

Complexity Dovers 2013

Rise and fall of sustainable development resisting complexity
Rise and fall of sustainable development: resisting complexity?

  • Too vague, messy, inherent tensions, not suited to specialised approaches, too far off (are we there yet…?)

  • Higher-order social goal – akin to democracy, justice, rule of law – a generational task for research, policy and institutional change.

  • Fragmented knowledge, institutional settings and policy responses caused the problems, and no other candidate for an integrative framework.

  • EG: Australia 1992 ESD Strategy (for Rio), versus Australia 2002 (at J’burg) focus on selected issues.

  • Huge agenda re-affirmed at Rio +20.

Complexity Dovers 2013

Resisting complexity other examples
Resisting complexity: other examples

  • Land degradation1980s (aka desertification) = multiple forms of soil erosion, irrigation and dryland salinity, rangeland vegetation decline, soil structural decline, soil acidification…-- almost total focus on dryland salinity in 1990s.

  • Instream water use(1980s) = ecological, geomorphic integrity, aesthetic, cultural, recreational..-- to strictly environmental (ecological) flows in 1990s.

  • Carbon pricing(2009-13) = a “great big new tax”. More focused, or resisting complexity? Can we only twiddle one knob at a time?

Complexity Dovers 2013

If these problems are complex… … ie need to understand and manage many, interconnecting factors and processes)…

… then the research and policy challenge is by definition different in kind, if not in degree, than many other domains?

… but, why?

Complexity Dovers 2013

Attributes of policy problems in sustainability
Attributes of policy problems in sustainability

1: extended spatial and temporal scales.

2: possible ecological limits to human activities.

3: irreversible and/or cumulative impacts.

4: cross-problem connectivity.

5: pervasive risk and uncertainty.

7: poor information base.

6: important assets not traded and thus not valued.

8: new ethical dimensions (other species, future).

9: systemic problem causes.

10: poorly developed theory, methods, techniques.

11: poorly defined policy and property rights.

12: non-existent or ill-fitting institutional settings.

13: demands for integration of knowledge silos.

14: novelty as a policy and institutional domain.Attributes = complexity?

Complexity Dovers 2013

Sustainability problems different in kind and degree
Sustainability problems: different in kind and degree?

Such attributes confronted more often, and more often in combination, with major sustainability problems, than in most other policy sectors.

… problems different in kind, and some would argue different in degree as well.

Traditional policy-oriented disciplines, and policy processes, unlikely to have purchase.

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  • Human behaviours and use of environments and resources are unsustainable.

  • How to change this?

Complexity Dovers 2013


  • Someone oughta do something about…-- over allocated water resources-- climate change-- degraded environments = degraded livelihoods-- decline of oceanic fisheries-- biodiversity conservation-- energy dependency and car reliance-- etc, etc…

  • That’s policy instrument choice – “don’t tell me the problem, tell me how to fix it with a policy response”. an exercise on this later.

Complexity Dovers 2013

The politics of instrument choice
The politics of instrument choice

A policy initiative involves specific tools to achieve its goals.

Policy interventions use policy instrumentsto drive behaviour change, of individuals, households, firms, communities, sectors, govts. social engineering?

Policy instrument choice = convenience, disciplinary bias, ease, swiftness, or familiarity

‘Policy fashions’ evident -- past experience, political preferences, dominant ideologies.

Often from a limited menu – sometimes inevitably, sometimes regrettably.

Complexity Dovers 2013

Beyond simplistic debates
Beyond simplistic debates:

Three commonly advocated approaches:- sticks – regulate with law- sermons – educate the public- carrots – create a market or price.

Often, policy debates focus on arguing which is ‘best’, in a general sense.

Complexity Dovers 2013

And limited choices
… and limited choices

3 problems with such arguments…

Almost always use a combination of instruments, hopefully coordinated.

There are more than just regulatory, educative and market mechanisms

Within such general classes, there are options. how to create a menu, and how to choose?

Complexity Dovers 2013

Instrument classes from 3 15
Instrument classes(from 3  15)

R&D, monitoring

Communication & information flow

Education & training

Consultation, mediation

Agreements, conventions

Statute law

Common law

Covenants on property

Assessment (eg. EIA)


Community involvement

Market mechanisms

Institutional change

Change other policies

Inaction (with cause)

Complexity Dovers 2013

But wait there s more
But wait, there’s more…

This menu is richer and more realistic, but still too simple - each classcontains a variety of specific instruments.

Not always possible to consider all, but important to recognise the range.

Some examples of more detail …

Complexity Dovers 2013

Instrument menu level 2
Instrument menu, level 2

Education and training:

Public education (“moral suasion”)

Targeted education (subset of popn)

Formal education (schools, tertiary)

Training (skills development)

Education about ‘the environment’, education about other instruments.

Complexity Dovers 2013

Level 2 continued
… level 2, continued

Statute law (legislation) - new law or regulations under existing statute, to:

Create institutions and organisations

Set out statutory objects and agency roles

Define decision making processes

Allow public participation

Set aside land; plan and control the use of land

Enforce standards, prohibit practices

Require product labeling

Enable other instruments.

Complexity Dovers 2013

Level 2 continued1
... level 2, continued

Market mechanisms (price instruments):

Input or output taxes or charges

Use charges

Subsidies, rebates

Tradable pollution permits, resource rights

Performance assurance bonds

Deposit-refund systems.

… general classes = different options

Complexity Dovers 2013

Selection criteria how to choose

Effectiveness criteria:

Information requirements



Corrective effect


Cost, efficiency

Cross-sectoral impacts.

Implementation criteria:

Equity impacts

Political feasibility

Legal feasibility

Institutional feasibility

Monitoring requirements



Selection criteria: how to choose?

Complexity Dovers 2013

Example exercise paddock trees

  • Scattered or paddock trees – icons of Australian art, landscape and identity, covering vast areas.

  • Much more significant than thought – stock shelter, water infiltration, pest control (predators), wildlife.

  • Previous focus on patches and strips for vegetation protection and restoration – another increase in scale/complexity of the biodiversity policy problem.

  • Demographic collapse – relicts of pre-clearing and grazing, low or nil recruitment – treeless in 50 years?

  • Across whole grazing landscape…

  • Complex as (i) a research problem, and (ii) a target for policy interventions? Variables– site variation, grazing regime, different species, financial viability of farm, owner demographic, information availability…

Complexity Dovers 2013


Complexity Dovers 2013

As a policy problem
As a policy problem…

  • A big problem (biodiversity loss over millions of hectares, long term), requiring a policy response to increase appropriate management practices over 1000s of different, individual properties and owners: policy choice for a complex problem.

Complexity Dovers 2013

As a research problem fenner cerf project
As a research problem: Fenner CERF project

Complexity Dovers 2013

Go to
Go to…

  • Sustainable Farms research project website, with details, publications, and cool 100 year landscape visualisation scenario download…


  • (Finalist, 2011 Eureka Science Prizes).

Complexity Dovers 2013

Further sources
Further sources

  • Fischer, J. et al. 2009. Reversing a tree regeneration crisis in an endangered ecoregion, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 106 (25): 10386-10391.

  • Schirmer, J., Dovers, S. and Clayton, H. 2012. Informing conservation policy through an examination of landholder preferences: a case study of scattered tree conservation in Australia. Biological Conservation. 153: 51-63.

Complexity Dovers 2013


  • Re-affirmed value of scattered trees (prodn, birds, bats..).

  • Recruitment under low fertiliser, fast-rotation grazing regimes, if seed stock available, but other strategies also needed.

  • Majority of landholders value scattered trees, but do not currently manage for recruitment or retention.

  • Demographics – superannuation farming, low succession.

  • Land use change – increased cropping (=removal of obstacles to tillage and irrigation).

  • Need to deal with varied biophysical situations, different financial situations, range of management regimes, attitudes to management, etc – farmer aren’t farmers.

  • Variable receptivity to policy instruments.

Complexity Dovers 2013

As a target for policy intervention
As a target for policy intervention

  • What are the policy options to change behaviours (management) of landholders? with scarce resources, fragmented responsibilities, information overload, diverse audiences, existing programs and focus – what priority ‘investments’, in what combination?

Complexity Dovers 2013


  • Four groups – policy instrument choice:1. Landholders/farmers (who value trees but need to survive financially).2. Cwlth govt (design and fund policy).3. State/CMA (advise and implement).4. Conservation NGO (priority = biodiversity).

  • 5-10min, then a proposal from each group.

Complexity Dovers 2013