Blog #8 The Ethics of Ecosystem Governance

Many years ago, when I was deeply immersed in leading a particularly difficult attempt to establish a national coastal management program in Thailand, a colleague observed “Steve, one of things that is unusual about you is that you care more about the process of what we are doing than the outcomes.”  I agreed that this was the case.  To me how we defined and prioritized the issues a coastal management program would address; how we outsiders and our Thai partners would select the places in which we would initially engage; how we designed the process of engagement in those places; how we interacted with our senior policy committee – these were my key concerns.  What we might realistically achieve in a five year period, be it to reduce the proliferation of development “mistakes” so obvious along many stretches of Thailand’s coastline, reduce bomb fishing, or stem the flows of pollutants into estuaries, would all be shaped by how we conveyed our purpose and engaged with our allies and our detractors.  If the purposes of our program were misinterpreted, or if the process of engagement and trust-building misfired, we would accomplish very little in our five year window - no matter how lavish the funding and how strong the support in the high level governmental agency to which our project had been assigned.  Our ability to build interest, credibility and win the trust of our partners would determine whether we would together be able to make tangible progress on such complex issues.  This would determine the ultimate impacts and significance of our program.  Yes, without a doubt, communicating and expressing our intentions and engaging in a coastal management process were my top concerns at this initial stage of our program.  

I remembered this incident when I recently re-read the penultimate chapter of the book “Ecosystem Based Management for the Oceans.”  The chapter, written by Kathleen Dean Moore and Roly Russell, and entitled “Toward a New Ethic for the Oceans” presents “the ethical landscape” of  ecosystem-based management (EBM).  The authors offer a three phase framework for assessing the ethical and moral dimensions of what I prefer to callecosystem governance.  These are: (1) the intentions that give rise to, and shape a policy or plan of action, (2) the process by which the intention is made manifest and (3) theconsequences that result from a course of action.  

A central message of this chapter is that EBM has thus far been concerned almost exclusively with #3, the consequences of the practice:  “EBM is profoundly consequentialist, policies are judged almost solely by their outcomes.”  It is concerned almost exclusively with the value and worthiness of the anticipated future outcomes of a course of action.  This is the “results-based” approach that has been embraced by many US and international institutions, including USAID, the principle sponsor of the coastal management program in Thailand.  Moore and Russell emphasize that science can contribute little to the first two phases of their ethical framework.  Science takes center stage when the outcomes, expressed as desired ecosystem conditions, are selected.  Science is objective and value neutral.  How science is applied is an ethical question.  Science, these authors argue, is therefore of little help when defining the intentions and processes of an EBM initiative.  Let us now examine the three phases, as they are described by the authors of this chapter, more carefully.

Intention concerns issues of human character and purpose.  This, we are told, is the realm of virtue.  A simple definition of virtue is “to do the right thing, for the right reason, because you want to.”  Virtue is concerned with the origin of the action and the motivations of the actors rather than the nature of the act itself or its consequences.  Key questions that reveal intention when practicing ecosystem governance are: How should we distribute the benefits of utilizing this resource? How should our concern for future generations influence what we do over the short term?  And how do our actions at this scale impact ecosystem conditions at larger and smaller scales? 

The process by which a course of action is developed raises issues of rightness and justice.  Is a selected course of action seen as fair?  To what degree is the planning and decision-making process inclusive and transparent?  Is the enforcement of the policy even handed - do punishments for non-compliance fit the crime?  The achievement of desired ecosystem conditions should not justify how a project or program behaves.  We do not control bomb fishing by executing all those who have engaged in this practice.  From an ethical perspective the focus is instead upon such questions as: Is it just?  Was it fairly chosen?  Were the interests and rights of the groups and individuals affected appropriately considered?

The consequences of an ecosystem governance initiative concern issues that are expressed in terms of the societal and environmental qualities and conditions that define the outcomes we desire.  What are we managing a coastline or an area of ocean for?  Consequentialist moral theories weigh the morality of a plan, policy or decision by the effect they have on the future.  The right plan is the one that maximizes what the initiators value the most.  According to the authors of this chapter, the consequences that we desire as the outcomes of a management process are the dominant concern of EBM.  

The similarities between this ethical framework and the Orders of Outcomes are striking.  The intentions of an ecosystem governance project or program should be made explicit as the goals of a planning and policy formulation process - the keystone of the 1st Order.  How the purpose is communicated and the process by which an initiative is carried out determines its success in building the other 1st Order enabling conditions - a supportive constituency, governmental endorsement and the capacity to successfully implement policies and plans over the long term.  The 2nd Order outcomes are the evidence that implementing the resulting policies and plans are catalyzing the collaborative behaviors and the changes in how the ecosystem concerned is being altered by human activities.  If sustained over time, such 2nd Order outcomes can produce the environmental and societal 3rd Order conditions, and the consequences, that the initiative was undertaken to achieve.  If the intensions and specific goals of the initiative were both virtuous and informed by the best available science, then such 3rd Order outcomes should contribute to the long-term 4th Order conditions that improve and sustain the wellbeing of both people and their environment. 

For me, the Moore and Russell chapter underscores that the practice of EBM - and ecosystem governance  - cannot and should not be only science based.  The ethical and moral dimensions are paramount.  When we respond to ecosystem change, why we act and how we act is as important - sometimes more important - than the specific future outcomes that may emerge.  We know that ecosystem change on this planet is accelerating at every scale.  We know that surprises abound.  In this context, pinning everything on the anticipated future consequences of our attempts to practice ecosystem governance is a profound mistake.  When we strive to influence how institutions and human populations comport themselves, the ethical and moral dimensions of what we do and how we do it will be at the center of whether an initiative will succeed or fail.