Beating the bean counters

13th February 2012


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Mark Everard calls on practitioners to fight back against environment management by numbers

In the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, sustainability professionals must remain optimistic about their ability to help create an ecologically, socially and economically robust future.

While there have been some positive developments over the past two decades, including increased tree cover, improved river quality and better air quality, there is an overwhelming body of evidence that tells another story.

Negative outcomes include escalating, and in some cases apparently runaway, growth in greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions and climate instability, increasing per capita resource intensity and disparities in resource access, and higher levels of food, water and energy poverty. At the same time, there has been a dramatic loss of biodiversity and the resilience of fisheries and ecosystems, burgeoning marine litter, and the erosion, salinisation and eutrophication of soils.

Perversely, these overwhelmingly negative trends over past decades have been concurrent with both the proliferation and increasing stringency of environmental legislation, and a massive switch in organisational approaches to the management of environmental pressures that is founded on the truism that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

Shifting management systems

Over the past 25 years, there has been an imposition of measurable metrics recorded on spreadsheets, for which targets managing organisations’ environmental impacts are then set. Consequently, experience, tacit knowledge and other non-statistical forms of information have been squeezed out of management systems. This has led to the erosion of specialist skills, experiential knowledge and local context.

Yes, we have tighter management, or perhaps more accurately we have tighter accountancy, of disparate facets of the environment. But, despite all these targets and more comprehensive controls, making a transition towards sustainability continues to elude us.

The models we run on the basis of spreadsheet aspirations and targets may sometimes yield us a theoretically “nicer world”, but objective facts and trends tell us quite a different tale. We have, in fact, come to manage spreadsheets and the models that support them, while in so doing divorcing ourselves from the real world and the human actors who are intimately embroiled in both its problems and its pragmatic solutions.

A central tenet of systems thinking is that the relationships between the elements of the system are at least as important as the elements themselves.

It is here that a chasm has formed between management and understanding. The instinct of hierarchical management structures when exposed to a systems approach is to measure the state of elements of the system in a rather reductionist way, overseen by a generalist management community increasingly starved of direct environmental experience.

The management structure subdivides lower strata of organisations to address discreet “elements” – river levels, macroinvertebrate scores, air-quality metrics, data production and analysis, and a range of other discipline-specific management goals – generally without the all-important linkages to address how these different facets interact.

The inherent assumption is that the intelligence to “see” the whole system that is being managed is centralised at the highest tiers of the organisation, effectively treating the lower orders as unintelligent drones. Yet context, interdependence and the wider ramifications of decisions and actions are all too often most apparent to these lower levels through their interactions with the real world of the environment.

A clash of cultures

Today, we are at a crossroads. The stiffly hierarchical culture of (spreadsheet-based) target-setting currently remains in the ascendancy. Take, for example, the first round of implementation of the aspirational and inherently systematic EU Water Framework Directive (WFD (2000/60/EC)). In the UK, early implementation was turned into a “tick list” of compliance, for small water bodies, against some 50 sets of standards.

This approach is insufficient, as the Directive itself is inherently about the vitality of water systems, their ecology and their long-term value to humanity. The fragmentation effect of “systems” on WFD implementation to date has obscured the broader focus on sustainable outcomes.

Under this initial spreadsheet-based model of implementation and management, insight and innovation into realising multidisciplinary, win–win benefits is mostly perceived as a challenge to corporate dogma and management authority, rather than as an opportunity to make step changes towards sustainability and the long-term wellbeing of all. The current approach is manifestly holding back progress towards integrated solutions to inherently interconnected problems, ranging from food security to water-quality management, and from controlling GHG emissions to minimising flood risk.

Unleashing institutional intelligence

The reality is that relatively junior staff in organisations, who are in touch with local catchments and others (including customers) who benefit from and influence ecosystems, are far better placed to know what’s going on: they are more directly exposed to the often perverse outcomes of, for example, poorly targeted agri-environment subsidies, and better informed about how the funds could be best directed to achieve WFD, flood risk, biodiversity and other connected goals, and to work across constituencies capable of identifying and achieving socially beneficial, win-win outcomes.

The explosion of stakeholder-led river trusts across the UK has been hugely successful in addressing these complex issues in connected ways and highlights “grass roots” mobilisation to fill a democratic gap left by fragmented top-down management systems.

Taking account of the complex interactions between ecosystems, people, technology, land use and the economy, river trusts are, in fact, living practitioners of the kinds of progressive accords – the Aarhus Convention, WFD, ecosystem approach, integrated water resources management and so forth – that science and international politics are highlighting as necessary for making progress on sustainable development.

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