WOW: Sustaining social-ecological systems

Post by Adena Rissman

In June I drove out of the Yahara and down to Bloomington, Indiana with Chloe (a WSC’er PhD student and recent Yahara In Situ author) to listen and speak at a unique kind of conference – the 5th Workshop on the Ostrom Workshop (WOW!). WOW happens every five years, and brings together interdisciplinary scholars working on sustaining and governing common pool resources.

I attended many fascinating talks about water, forests, fisheries, and rangelands that explored political theory and policy implementation. I talked about whether it makes sense to apply the principles for robust institutions, originally developed for common property regimes, to private land conservation. My answer – only partly. Chloe gave a great talk on polycentric water quality governance, based on our work mapping water quality policies in the Yahara watershed.

Madison's Lake Wingra. Photo by Adena Rissman.

Morning by the Yahara Watershed’s Lake Wingra. Photo by Adena Rissman.

Vincent and Elinor Ostrom led this group for several decades, and Lin (as Elinor was called) won the Nobel Prize for her work on commons management. I had the honor of being on a panel with Lin when she came to visit UW-Madison in 2011, the year before her death. On that panel, I asked:

You have emphasized the importance of fit between institutions and ecosystems, which is one thing I’ve been interested in studying related to forests, wildlife, rangelands, and water resources. It is interesting to see how both the social sciences and natural sciences have assumed, at some point in their development, that ideal systems are simple, predictable, centralized, stable and operate at equilibrium.   But now we’re very focused on complexity and actually measuring, rather than assuming, outcomes.

I’m curious to hear about what approaches to social organization and learning you found to be well suited—or a good fit—with ecosystems that are changing due to landscape or climate change, intensive disturbance, or nonequilibrium dynamics.

The answers to this question are complex, as we’re finding worldwide and here in the Yahara Watershed. For example, in the Yahara, we’re seeing trends toward larger storm events that create challenges for stormwater, agricultural runoff, and other systems. Formal structures are needed to sustain resources, but informal social connections and learning are important too.

At the conference this summer, the theme that emerged strongly for me was self-governance. Can groups of people come together to govern their own resources sustainably? What kind of people do we need to be, in order to be capable of self-governing? What scales are necessary for governing when we’re talking about problems of pollution, where some people benefit while others lose?

Political theory seemed strong among the older scholars, while many of the young scholars were more empirical – collecting data on variables to measure the effects of governance on behavior and the environment. The social-ecological systems framework suggests long lists of variables that might influence sustainable resource use. Now it’s the task of a new generation to go out and try to measure these and pull them together into statistical stories.

Although Lin Ostrom won the Nobel Prize, it turns out that several decades ago she was the tag-along spouse when her husband Vincent got a professorship at Indiana. Over time, she took on her own work and emerged as a leader for her abilities to synthesize and bridge across disciplines. I heard someone say that getting together an economist, political scientist, land manager, and anthropologist is like the beginning of a joke. But in this case, the interdisciplinary circle grew and expanded with an appreciation for contestation. Apparently Lin and Vincent were not shy about contestation with each other, and their approach to open dialogue grew to motivate a generation of scholars and practitioners.

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