Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Adaptive muddling

Summary - Understanding the need for localization is not the same as knowing what steps to take and how to take them. To respond well to an energy and resource descent, climate disruption and soil depletion, a great many small experiments must be conducted, and very quickly. Adaptive muddling is a process that innovates rapidly yet carefully. It emphasizes small experiments, not the small steps common in more formal procedures. The difference is subtle but important for a successful transition. This paper, focused on averting the tragedy of the commons, introduces adaptive muddling as a psychologically compatible decision-making strategy.
In Garret Hardin's 1968 parable of the tragedy of the commons we were given a warning of what the future may hold. The response to date has been ambiguous. While there have been small scale advances and losses, no overall strategy for dealing with serious environmental problems has emerged. This paper will outline previously proposed strategies and their weaknesses, and offer a new strategy based on what has been learned.

Garret Hardin proposed "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" to make us force ourselved to behave responsibly. Others have suggested authoritarian solutions, in which environmental planning and enforcement are centralized. One problem with both of these approaches is the natural resistance humans have to the elimination of choice. We don't like to do what we are forced to do. Both also lead to grim images of the future, and such images are already part of our motivation problem. Another approach suggested by Warren Johnson is called "muddling through," has many things to recommend it, but also some serious weaknesses, including slowness and a tendency to compromise.

A new approach which builds upon the last 20 years of environmental experience and new findings about human cognitive functioning and behavior can be called "adaptive muddling." It draws heavily on muddling, with the difference that the slowness, tendency to compromise and lack of direction of muddling are overcome.

Current studies of human behavior show that people desperately need to be needed, to have a voice in their destiny, to take action to help themselves and others. People need hope a vision of a future that is worth striving for, ideas on how to create such a future, and the support to test out those ideas, and the confidence that good ideas will be used. Adaptive muddling takes all of these factors into consideration.

Features of adaptive muddling are exploration, stability, and distributed leadership. Stability and support from the larger context, the state or nation or other insitutions, encourage multiple small scale explorations of appropriate responses to environmental challenges. Distributed leadership is based on ths skills of leaders at local and state levels, and in many disciplines.. These leaders, many of whom will appear at the grassroots level, will have three functions. First, they will provide the vision to create a shared understanding of our urgent situation, the possibility of a solution, and the challenge it offers to everyone. They will show that a decent lifestyle can be salvaged, and that there is the possibility of improving our quality of life in the process. They will create and support the complex process for meeting environmental challenges, clarify the role of exploration and stability, and show that the failure of explorations is an acceptable, and even necessary, outcome of the process.

Adaptive muddling is not utopian, and not a panacea. It cannot deal with multi national issues such as acid rain or atmospheric pollutant buildup, nor does it offer quick and easy answers. What it does is offer an orginized way for individuals in all areas and at all levels of expertise to make significant contributions to ensure our survival and hope for a livable future.

Read full paper at: De Young, R. & S. Kaplan (1988) On averting the tragedy of the commons. Environmental Management, 12(3): 273-283.

Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Archived version: September 10, 2006 at: