Robert T. Lackey

Many of today’s ecological policy issues are politically contentious, socially wrenching, and replete with scientific uncertainty.  They are often described as wicked, messy policy problems (e.g., reversing the decline of salmon;  deciding on the proper role of wildfire on public lands;  what to do, if anything, about climate change;  worries about the consequences of declining biological diversity;  making sense about the confusing policy choices surrounding notions of sustainability).

Wicked, messy ecological policy problems share several qualities:  (1) complexity —  innumerable options and trade-offs;  (2) polarization — clashes between competing values;  (3) winners and losers — for each policy choice, some will clearly benefit, some will be harmed, and the consequences for others is uncertain;  (4) delayed consequences — no immediate “fix” and the benefits, if any, of painful concessions will often not be evident for decades;  (5) decision distortion — advocates often appeal to strongly held values and distort or hide the real policy choices and their consequences;  (6) national vs. regional conflict — national (or international) priorities often differ substantially from those at the local or regional level;  and (7) ambiguous role for science — science is often not pivotal in evaluating policy options, but science often ends up serving inappropriately as a surrogate for debates over values and preferences.

As if they are not messy enough, ecological policy issues may become further clouded by skepticism about the independence of scientists and scientific information.  Much of the available science is tendered by government agencies, companies and corporations, and public and private organizations, as well as myriad public and private interest and advocacy groups.  Each arguably has a vested interest in the outcome of the debate and often promulgates “science” that supports its favored position.

All ecological policy problems have unique features, thus there are exceptions to every generality, but are there lessons learned that can be broadly applied?  Like all axioms, mine are not universally true, but are applicable in most situations.

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 1 — The policy and political dynamic is a zero-sum game

Probably the most sobering reality for the uninitiated is that selecting any proposed policy choice results in winners and losers.  The search for a “win-win” choice, which sounds so tantalizing to decision makers, is hopeless with even superficial policy analysis.  There are always winners and losers even though people running for office may try to convince the voters otherwise.  This axiom is why policy making is sometimes described as “the political process of picking winners and losers.”

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 2 — The distribution of benefits and costs is more important than the ratio of total benefits to total costs

Benefits are the consequences of a policy option or decision that are categorized as good outcomes.  Benefits are sometimes measured solely in terms of money, but are more broadly encompassed by all the desirable things that are most likely to happen.  Conversely, the costs are the undesirable outcomes that are likely to happen (often, but not always, measured in monetary terms).

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 3 — The most politically viable policy choice spreads the benefits to a broad majority with the costs limited to a narrow minority of the population

Democracies operate on delegated compromise validated by periodic voting.  To gain sufficient political support (votes) for a proposed policy, it is prudent for the decision maker to spread the benefits across a sufficiently large number of people to garner majority support.  The corollary is that those (including future generations) who bear the costs should be a minority and the smaller the better.

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 4 — Potential losers are usually more assertive and vocal than potential winners and are, therefore, disproportionately important in decision making

With many ecological policy questions, those who bear the costs, the losers, have a disproportionately greater influence on the decision making process.  While policy analysis tends to evaluate the rationality of competing policy arguments, the political process tends to weigh breath and vigor in support of each competing policy option.  Issues of perceived fairness are important in the political process, but difficult to quantify in policy analysis.

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 5 — Many advocates will cloak their arguments as science to mask their personal policy preferences

Technocrats, as I apply the label, are individuals with scientific training who are responsible for implementing law or ecological policy.  There is an understandable impulse by technocrats to insert what they think is or should be the appropriate public policy goal or option.  For example, should ecological restoration be aimed at recreating the ecological condition that existed at the beginning of the Holocene, just prior to 1492, or at the end of last week?  The answer requires making a value judgment — a policy choice that is necessarily a political judgment — and it is not a scientifically derived decision.  Ecologists and other scientists should assess the feasibility and ecological consequences of achieving each possible restoration target.  Selecting from among the choices, however, is a societal enterprise.

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 6 — Even with complete and accurate scientific information, most policy issues remain divisive

The lament that “if we just had some better science, we could resolve this policy question” is common among both scientists and decision makers.  Calls for more research are ubiquitous in ecological policy debates.  In most policy cases, even if we had complete scientific knowledge about all aspects of an issue, the same rancorous debate would emerge.  Root policy differences are invariably over values and preferences, not science and facts.

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 7 — Demonizing policy advocates supporting competing policy options is often more effective than presenting rigorous analytical arguments

Scientists and policy analysts become frustrated when they fail to recognize that political debates are partly logical argument and partly image.  Negative images are often considered more effective in swaying people than positive ones.  In fractious ecological policy debates, proponents often spend more energy demonizing their opponents than sticking to rational policy analysis.  My experience is that such tactics are often effective in policy debates;  many people are moved by negative arguments.

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 8 — If something can be measured accurately and with confidence, it is probably not particularly relevant in decision making

In my experience, most scientists prefer to talk about things that they can measure with some degree of confidence.  Fish population abundance, recruitment rates, optimal habitat, toxicity levels, and field surveys are within our comfort zone.  We can put confidence limits on these numbers;  we can duplicate the data gathering year after year;  we can often forecast future conditions with some degree of confidence.

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 9 — The meaning of words matters greatly and arguments over their precise meaning are often surrogates for debates over values

In my experience, many citizens get frustrated in ecological policy debates because the advocates of various competing choices often seem to argue over semantic nuances rather than getting on with making decisions.  The precise meaning ascribed to key words is important and is often the battleground over what policy option is ultimately selected.  The debate over definitions is really a policy debate.  How should pivotal words such as “ecosystem health,” “sustainability,” “degraded,” “biological integrity,” “endangered,” “wild,” and “impaired” be defined?  Definitions chosen will lead (at least in the mind of the uninformed) to a particular policy option.  Thus, the debate over what might appear to be semantic nuances is really a surrogate debate over values and policy preferences.


Many of today’s ecological policy issues are contentious, socially divisive, and full of conundrums.  They are, however, typical of those that professional natural resource and environmental scientists will confront, both now and for the foreseeable future.  Those of us who provide information to help inform the participants involved in ecological policy debates need to be cognizant of and appreciate the importance of scientific information, but we also must recognize the reality that scientific information is just one element in complex political deliberations in a democracy.


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