A blog of Bridge Environment, updated weekly on Thursdays, travel permitting.
Bridge Environment seeks to catalyze a cultural shift in how our society addresses environmental issues. We provide relevant and unbiased advice to any interested party, and also work to educate scientists, policy makers, and the public on how to have a more informative dialog over environmental issues.
Last week, I
wrote about successful
and sustainable fisheries management as conducted by indigenous tribes in the
Lower Klamath River basin in northern California. The evidence suggests
that these groups maintained sustainable salmon catches and a stable human population
by limiting their consumption of salmon. From a societal perspective, there was
most likely a positive feedback loop at play. Stable catches led to predictable
food sources and trade goods, which in turn allowed people to plan for and
develop strong and stable institutions. At the same time, strong and stable
institutions must have been necessary to enforce fishing practices that to the
self-discipline that let so many salmon escape. I didn’t mention this last
week, but these tribes believed that the giant redwood trees in the area were
embodiments of their ancestors’ spirits and kept an eye on them to make sure
they behaved well. Enforcement was also severe. In the same way that stable catches promoted the
development of strong institutions, strong institutions promoted stable catches.
King Kamehameha of Hawaii
The situation was similar in pre-European-contact Hawaii. Complex
regulations were made by rulers and their spiritually-associated fisheries
managers, called konohiki.
Regulations limited catches in certain areas or closed certain fisheries based on
a wide range of rationales, including: early indications of a developing
shortage, an approaching feast and its food requirements, and access by the
powerful to rich fishing grounds. In concert, these regulations aided
sustainability through responsiveness to early signs of depletion and by
limiting consumption, the
two paths to sustainability discussed last week. Like the California tribes
and their salmon fishery, Hawaiians bolstered the fisheries rules through
regulations and strict enforcement (a common punishment for fisheries
violations was being thrown off a cliff to one’s death). Once again, stable
fisheries promoted strong social institutions and those strong institutions
promoted stable fisheries.
Cuba serves as a
modern example. Strong institutions there have led to unusually healthy marine
environments (although not without ongoing problems), a
phenomenon described by Jaws author
Peter Benchley. Religion is not a part of their system, but an
authoritarian government surely has contributed.
This brings up the fascinating question: do we need authoritarian
rule to have a sustainable environment? There are examples of people who
managed natural resources without social hierarchies. The San (Bushmen) of the
Kalahari Desert and aborigines of Australia both have classless societies
without the concepts of ownership, and have lived in balance with their natural
environments for millennia. However, they are not necessarily good examples for
us to follow. Both societies are severely limited by water supply and many of
their cultural practices are centered around finding and sharing water during
droughts. Their social systems, including clan-based matching for marriages,
promotes reliance on each other for support when scarcity hits one area but not
another. Trade already promotes the spread of risk across areas in our modern
society, plus our environmental issues are increasingly global and so not ones
we can address by making the world more interconnected.
I leave this
blog with a question to you, interested reader (or two): can we address the
environmental challenges of our time with our modern institutions? On a global
level, the United Nations lacks much authority. In an increasing number of
countries, governments are turning to democracy, which usually lacks the sort
of authoritarian structure that was used to good effect in northern California,
Hawaii, and Cuba. Nevertheless, I hold hopes in two somewhat conflicting
directions. I have faith in the ability for resource users to grasp the
challenges we face and embrace proactive solutions. This is a major emphasis of
our work at Bridge Environment.
I also believe we could move in a direction of stronger environmental
institutions. It seems to me there would be significant costs of doing so, but
that environmental crises may prompt us to move in this more authoritarian
direction. I would rather see us move towards co-management with involved
resource users, but recognize that the second would be preferable to
devastation. I hope to hear your thoughts on the matter.