Wicked Environmental Problems by Peter Balint et al.

Dear Reader:

This review will focus on a book that I read related to my professional life, so it may seem somewhat different from what I talk about. I’m not counting books acquired for my job toward my total of 20 books max for the year.

Wicked Environmental Problems by Peter Balint et al.

I got this book via my kindle through Netgalleys which provides bloggers with free books – in exchange, we commit to reviewing them in our blogs and linking to our review.

Wicked Environmental Problems deals with agencies trying to come to grips with complex, controversial environmental problem-related decision making – called “wicked” in my field of natural resource policy.  Many things can lead to complexity.  When managers are worked with large systems, such as the Sierra Nevada foothill forest ecosystem or the Florida Everglades, these ecosystems cover hundreds, if not thousands of square miles, crossing myriad local political boundaries, and impacted by many different human activities.  People value these environmental systems for many things: economic production, recreational activities, biodiversity production, sense of place, etc. etc.  These values can seem almost infinite and many values conflict.  If I love a piece of land that I hike my dogs on, but our local developer sees it as a great place to build an apartment building, our values may conflict (although there are good arguments that they don’t HAVE to – that there can be ways to find common ground and acceptable compromise).

So, Balint et al. are writing for this audience of scholars and managers interested in thinking through how to solve wicked environmental problems.  They have been working closely the the USDA Forest Service in the Sierra Nevada where national forests have great recreational, ecological, and economic value, but are also prone to catastrophic forest fires exacerbated by human suppression of fire.  These systems historically burned periodically, but lightly, removing dead wood and small trees and shrubs, but not damaging bigger trees.  When we keep fire from occurring because people have built houses in or near the forest and/or the forest is economically valuable, we may prevent a smaller scale fire in the short run, but set the stage for a catastrophic fire that eliminates everything in the long run.  Making decisions about how to manage this kind of system where you have conflicting values, uncertain science, and limited ability to predict the outcomes of your decisions, if very challenging.

Balint et al. describe eight important “wicked” problems of many different types: the Sierra, Everglades, global climate change and EU policy to mitigate it, etc.  They then describe three common approaches to managing wicked problems: the precautionary principle (we don’t do something unless we are 100% certain it does no harm); adaptive management (acting, systematically collecting and assessing data on the outcomes of our actions, changing future actions based on what we learn); and public participation (involving people who care in agency decision making).  In the end, they argue that a combination of these three approaches, including systematic public participation that feeds back to the public what has been learned, can help managers work through wicked problems successfully.  They present the results of their testing of their approach in the Sierra Nevada where they found that it was particularly valuable.

Scholars will find the book interesting for its thorough discussion of the case studies, decision making tools, and their evaluation of their approach to solving wicked problems.  Faculty teaching environmental courses could find the book useful in an advanced undergraduate or graduate class focused on environmental decision making or human dimensions of natural resources.  It could be a useful tool to convey a lot of information about the related areas discussed in the book.  Managers might best be exposed to the idea in university courses.  I doubt too many ground level managers will find it readable or usable.  But higher level managers (forest supervisors, regional supervisors in federal or state agencies) would likely find the book useful, even if they don’t want to follow the fairly complex method proposed by the authors.

Happy Reading, Ruby!



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