The Ecosystem Approach

The Ecosystem Approach: Complexity, Uncertainty, and Managing for Sustainability

David Waltner-Toews
James J. Kay
Nina-Marie E. Lister
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 408
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Ecosystem Approach
    Book Description:

    Is sustainable development a workable solution for today's environmental problems? Is it scientifically defensible? Best known for applying ecological theory to the engineering problems of everyday life, the late scholar James J. Kay was a leader in the study of social and ecological complexity and the thermodynamics of ecosystems. Drawing from his immensely important work, as well as the research of his students and colleagues, The Ecosystem Approach is a guide to the aspects of complex systems theories relevant to social-ecological management.

    Advancing a methodology that is rooted in good theory and practice, this book features case studies conducted in the Arctic and Africa, in Canada and Kathmandu, and in the Peruvian Amazon, Chesapeake Bay, and Chennai, India. Applying a systems approach to concrete environmental issues, this volume is geared toward scientists, engineers, and sustainable development scholars and practitioners who are attuned to the ideas of the Resilience Alliance-an international group of scientists who take a more holistic view of ecology and environmental problem-solving. Chapters cover the origins and rebirth of the ecosystem approach in ecology; the bridging of science and values; the challenge of governance in complex systems; systemic and participatory approaches to management; and the place for cultural diversity in the quest for global sustainability.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50720-2
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. A Preface
    (pp. ix-xviii)
    David Waltner-Toews, Nina-Marie E. Lister and Stephen Bocking
  4. Part I Some Theoretical Bases for a New Ecosystem Approach
    • 1 An Introduction to Systems Thinking
      (pp. 3-14)
      James J. Kay

      Environmental issues and sustainability have thwarted our society’s scientific approach to dealing with the world. One need only contemplate global climate change to experience the frustration and confusion. In this book, we are using the term complexity as a concept that covers problematic situations that have eluded traditional scientific solutions. Complex situations involve uncertainty and surprise. They give the impression that there is no right way of looking at them and no right answer to the problems they raise. The problem is really the singularity of our concept of the “right answer.” Complexity defies linear logic as it brings with...

    • 2 Framing the Situation: Developing a System Description
      (pp. 15-36)
      James J. Kay

      Framing the situation, that is, identifying the key elements of the situation and the relationships between them, seems like the obvious starting point for any investigation. However, it is my observation that this is rarely done in a systematic way. In our experience, this phase alone is often sufficient to dramatically affect the problem situation. People’s understanding can be significantly altered through the exercise of explicitly framing the situation; the resulting fresh perspective can make the path to a resolution quite clear. Three examples of the difficulties one may run into if one proceeds to intervene in a situation without...

    • 3 Scale and Type: A Requirement for Addressing Complexity with Dynamical Quality
      (pp. 37-50)
      T. F. H. Allen

      It is humbling for students of complexity to realize that their main issue turns merely on whether or not the observer has a paradigm. One might have hoped for something grander to circumscribe a life’s work on complexity. Kuhn (1962) defines a paradigm as a normative framework that is characterized by shared tools, vocabulary, protocols, and questions. In a simple system, that normative framework defines the entities of interest. There is a variety of case studies in this book, and the different directions from which authors have approached the subject (health, planning, and governance). The upshot is: what is of...

    • 4 Self-Organizing, Holarchic, Open Systems (SOHOs)
      (pp. 51-78)
      James J. Kay and Michelle Boyle

      In the preceding chapters of this section, we have introduced some basic concepts of systems thinking and explored in more detail some problems of framing the situation and the role of the observer. We introduced the idea of self-organization, primarily through empirical examples, as a way of understanding the limits of normal science in dealing with true complexity. In chapter 3, Allen explored the importance of scale and type in how we conceptualize and manage ourselves and our environments. We now turn to look at self-organization in more detail and the nature of Self-Organizing, Holarchic, Open systems (SOHOs).

      The law...

    • 5 So, What Changes in a Complex World?
      (pp. 79-82)
      James J. Kay

      In this first section of the book, we have focused on ecosystems primarily as biophysical systems and have begun to explore the ambiguous role of the observer in characterizing those systems. Complexity is characterized by irreducible uncertainty, multiple attractors, and nested hierarchical scales viewed from multiple perspectives. We have established that complexity is qualitatively different from complicatedness, the terrain explored by normal science. In this brief summary chapter for this section, I wish to ask a question from the point of view of researchers and managers: so what?

      In fact, viewing the biophysical world through the lenses of complexity changes...

    • 6 Bridging Science and Values: The Challenge of Biodiversity Conservation
      (pp. 83-108)
      Nina-Marie E. Lister

      Each day, on my way to work in the heart of Canada’s largest city, I cycle past a large construction site—another office tower and condominium development, a stone’s throw from the city’s bustling financial district. While waiting for the light to change, I noticed a group of construction workers taking a morning break. One of the laborers caught my attention. He was a big man with his shirtsleeves rolled up, revealing an artfully tattooed bicep. He was chuckling softly, bent to the ground, sandwich in one hand, coffee beside him on the ground. His other hand was outstretched, his...

    • 7 The Cultural Basis for an Ecosystem Approach: Sharing Across Systems of Knowledge
      (pp. 109-124)
      Fikret Berkes and Iain Davidson-Hunt

      As this book and a series of others make it clear, the science of ecology is in the midst of two conceptual shifts that are central to a new ecosystem approach. One is the shift reflecting some of the more complex questions being asked and the recognition that simplifications that work well to answer “all other things being equal” questions in laboratory experiments are not successful in answering questions that embrace multiple interactions in space and time. The second shift reflects the inclusion of people inside ecosystems; this, in turn, involves a recognition that people have evolved as species inside...

    • 8 A Family of Origin for an Ecosystem Approach to Managing for Sustainability
      (pp. 125-138)
      Martin Bunch, Dan McCarthy and David Waltner-Toews

      The ecosystem approach that we articulate in Part III draws on several schools of thought and practice in both the natural and social sciences. The intent of this chapter is not to provide an in-depth examination of these various schools of scholarship; that task would require several libraries. Our intent here is to acknowledge the intellectual parentage of the ecosystem approach. The roots of this approach in ecology and environmental management have been well-reviewed by Bocking (2004). In this chapter, we review some of the origins of our approach in the social science and management literature. In psychosocial terms, we...

  5. Part II Case Studies:: Learning by Doing
    • 9 Linking Hard and Soft Systems in Local Development
      (pp. 141-156)
      Reg Noble, Ricardo Ramirez and Clive Lightfoot

      Environmental crises due to habitat degradation caused by human activity seem to be ever increasing as people seek to expand their control and exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources. Although new concepts of social-ecological complexity and post-normal science are changing how we see the world, in many cases the default option still seems to be the pursuit of natural-science-based, narrowly focused technical solutions to problems seen in isolation from context rather than dealing with underlying social and cultural issues (Woodhill and Röling 1998).

      In part, this reflects the disciplinary structure and outputs of scholarly inquiry over the past century (Adams...

    • 10 Human Activity and the Ecosystem Approach: The Contribution of Soft Systems Methodology to Management and Rehabilitation of the Cooum River in Chennai, India
      (pp. 157-174)
      Martin Bunch

      Soft systems methodology (SSM) was one of the major influences on our development of the ecosystem approach at the close of the twentieth century (Checkland 1979, 1981; Checkland and Scholes 1990). We introduced SSM in chapter 8. In this chapter, I describe the adaptation of SSM to the understanding and management of a problematic social-ecological situation in Chennai, India, and explore the methodology in more detail. The term “soft systems” is used here to denote use of systems thinking in an interpretive mode (using systems thinking to make sense of messy situations) as opposed to the functionalist “hard systems” approach...

    • 11 Landscape Perspectives on Agroecosystem Health in the Great Lakes Basin
      (pp. 175-190)
      Dominique Charron and David Waltner-Toews

      Over about two centuries, the Great Lakes Basin (GLB) has changed from oldgrowth forest systems and areas of prairie supporting hunter-gatherer societies and a diversity of other life to a densely populated, urbanized, industrial, and richly agricultural system supporting very affluent, technological societies. There remain only vestigial remnants of the old forest and eastern prairie ecosystems.

      This profound and rapid change of the landscape has meant that all levels of ecosystem are deeply affected by human activity and that human activity is, in turn, affected by those changes. The shift in Lake Erie from a turbid-water pelagic system to a...

    • 12 An Agroecosystem Health Case Study in the Central Highlands of Kenya
      (pp. 191-212)
      Thomas Gitau, David Waltner-Toews and John McDermott

      While the Guelph Agroecosystem Health project described in chapter 11 was nearing its completion, several new initiatives, involving some of the same researchers, were started in different parts of the world. The project described in this chapter was one of those initiatives.

      The central highlands of Kenya have a moderate climate and highly productive agricultural lands. Kiambu District is one of the four districts in the central highlands. Since Kenyan independence, the human population of Kiambu District has increased dramatically. Although there are considerable human and natural resources in the area, these are increasingly under pressure. Agricultural plots are sequentially...

    • 13 Food, Floods, and Farming: An Ecosystem Approach to Human Health on the Peruvian Amazon Frontier
      (pp. 213-236)
      Tamsyn P. Murray, David Waltner-Toews, José Sanchez-Choy and Felix Sanchez-Zavala

      Beginning at about the same time as the Kenyan project described in the previous chapter, a team of Canadian and Peruvian researchers began working on an ecosystem approach to understanding agriculturally altered landscapes in the neotropics of South America. We began by developing a research process and conceptual framework that brought together the most recent understanding of ecosystems as complex systems with secondary data and exploratory field work in the Ucayali region of Peru (Rowley et al. 1997). Equipped with this process and framework, we revisited the region to specifically investigate the key determinants of, and linkages between, ecosystem and...

  6. Part III Managing for Sustainability:: Meeting the Challenges
    • 14 Implementing the Ecosystem Approach: The Diamond, AMESH, and Their Siblings
      (pp. 239-256)
      David Waltner-Toews and James J. Kay

      Over the decade of the 1990s, we engaged in a wide-ranging series of discussions on complexity and sustainability with the authors in this book, as well as with several other distinguished members of the Dirk Gently Gang not represented here. With our colleagues in various parts of the world, we implemented practical strategies to achieve sustainable health, agricultural, and/or environmental management goals based on the best theory we had. Some of those case studies are described in previous chapters of this book. We then reviewed the case studies and searched for basic principles and guidelines that would carry us forward...

    • 15 Return to Kathmandu: A Post Hoc Application of AMESH
      (pp. 257-288)
      R. Cynthia Neudoerffer, David Waltner-Toews and James J. Kay

      The adaptive methodology for ecosystem sustainability and health (AMESH), described in chapter 14 and elsewhere (Waltner-Toews 2004; Waltner-Toews et al. 2004), emerged from ongoing practical and theoretical debates within an extended peer community. One particular series of projects, lasting over a decade, served as a source and a testing ground for many of its components.

      Between 1991 and 2001, we collaborated with Nepalese researchers, first, to investigate a parasite that cycles between dogs, livestock, and people (Baronet et al. 1994), and, second, to generate a community-based initiative that used an ecosystem approach to human health (Waltner-Toews et al. 2005).


    • 16 Tools for Learning: Monitoring Design and Indicator Development
      (pp. 289-306)
      Michelle Boyle and James J. Kay

      The themes presented in chapter 15 of sustainable livelihoods, health, and integrity pose a challenge for monitoring and learning. A substantial portion of this book is devoted to determining exactly what these management objectives mean and how we get “there” from here. We raised the issue of monitoring in chapter 14, when we discussed the overall ecosystem approach process. Many of the case studies have had to wrestle with issues of who measures what and how to characterize and assess “progress.” In many of these cases (Kenya, Peru, Nepal, India, etc.) the indicators were determined experientially; what did people value...

  7. Part IV Where to from Here?: Some Challenges for a New Science in an Uncertain World
    • 17 Beyond Complex Systems: Emergent Complexity and Social Solidarity
      (pp. 309-322)
      Silvio Funtowicz and Jerry Ravetz

      In response to the new leading problems for science, characterized by high levels of uncertainty (both measurable and unmeasurable), epistemological conflicts (whose knowledge counts), arguments over facts (which facts are relevant) and values (which goals are legitimate), and a sense of urgency that decisions with possibly major consequences need to be made quickly (e.g., climate change), complex systems have become the focus of important innovative research and application in many areas (Costanza et al. 1993). This development, described in some detail with regard to ecosystems studies in various chapters in this book, reflects the progressive displacement of classical physics as...

    • 18 Third World Inequity, Critical Political Economy, and the Ecosystem Approach
      (pp. 323-334)
      Ernesto F. Ráez-Luna

      Funtowicz and Ravetz (chapter 17) have argued that “emergent complexity requires something like solidarity to maintain its own sort of dynamic stability.” I wish to pursue this discussion further to determine what solidarity might mean in the realm of everyday inequities and political conflicts within which most people in the world struggle to make a living and what the implications are for the ecosystem approach proposed in this book.

      If we agree that one key condition of sustainable development is intergenerational equity, it logically follows that intragenerational equity is a key accompanying condition. We cannot deny our present fellows the...

    • 19 An Ecosystem Approach for Sustaining Ecological Integrity—But Which Ecological Integrity?
      (pp. 335-344)
      David Manuel-Navarrete, Dan Dolderman and James J. Kay

      Ecological integrity (EI) has become a central concept in environmental management and conservation policy in North America and other parts of the world (Manuel-Navarrete et al. 2007). The ecosystem approach has been invoked as a tool for sustaining EI, but EI can be defined and interpreted in different ways. This chapter discusses the implications for society and for individuals stemming from three discourses to EI identified elsewhere (Manuel-Navarrete et al. 2004): (1) normative, (2) ecosystemic-pluralistic, and (3) transpersonal-collaborative. Each discourse implies a different interpretation of the concept and has deep implications for the design and application of an ecosystem approach....

    • 20 The Water or the Wave? Toward an Ecosystem Approach for Cross-Cultural Dialogue on the Whanganui River, New Zealand
      (pp. 345-362)
      Charlotte Helen Šunde

      July 18, 2001, was a crisp winter’s day in Aotearoa, New Zealand. I awoke at Papakai Marae, under the shadow of the snow-cloaked mountains. By midmorning a full bus, followed by an ensemble of several other vehicles, pulled off the state highway and onto a minor road marked by the small signpost: “Whanganui River Intake.” The bus occupants assembled on the concrete platform that is the intake structure of the Whanganui River headwaters. The group comprised several generations of an indigenous people united by bloodline and by river, and me—the only one not of Whanganui River Māori relation. The...

  8. A Tribute to James J. Kay
    (pp. 363-366)

    James Kay died, at 11:00 p.m. on May 30 of this year, 2004, just a few weeks short of his fiftieth birthday. He died with his eyes open, both literally and figuratively.

    For many, James was an exquisite physicist, theoretician on complexity and thermodynamics. In his early work with Eric Schneider, he reinterpreted the second law of thermodynamics, applying it to understand how exergy gradients induce self-organizing structures and how living systems organize so as to destroy exergy gradients at the fastest rates possible. His work was featured as a cover story in the New Scientist. His 1994 paper with...

  9. Appendix: Hierarchy and Holonocracy
    (pp. 367-368)
    Henry Regier
  10. Contributors
    (pp. 369-372)
  11. Index
    (pp. 373-383)