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Science and society in watersheds: why restoring a river is so hard

Prof. Graham Harris, Lancaster Environment Centre

Tuesday 09 November 2010, 1615-1715
Institute For Advanced Studies Meeting Room 2/3

Sociology Departmental Seminar

I use river restoration as a model of the kinds of issues that are becoming evident as we try to manage complex, large scale environmental problems. We are running into a severe problem of large financial investments and effort but lack of outcomes. Rivers are degraded, biodiversity is declining, and environmental quality is still poor in many places. The core of the problem lies in an unexpected amount of uncertainty: both informational uncertainty (limited knowledge) and normative uncertainty (decision uncertainty - what to do and how to do it). We have to address both aspects of the problem. So this is a talk in three connected parts. First, I reflect on the science of ecology and its role in river restoration, the uncertainties involved and the realist trap that many scientists fall into. We have severe problems with the ways in which we frame our knowledge and we continue to deny complexity in key areas. So there are problems in the relationship between science and society. Second, I argue that a vibrant 3rd sector is important for the development of a social dialogue centred on what to do and how to invest. Culture and values lie at the core of this. I compare the development of "environmental" social capital in UK and Australia; where many self organised local institutions have arisen to bring the "magic circle" of interested parties together in a neutral middle ground. Third, I reflect on the problems of investment to achieve environmental outcomes when uncertainties are large and there are many social, economic and environmental trade-offs to be considered. The present fashion in governance and policy is for market based instruments and payments for ecosystem services. These approaches can be confounded by complexity and uncertainty unless there is sufficient social and institutional capacity and the necessary deliberative fora are in place.