On a couple of occasions I’ve discussed Emma Marris’s important book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (e.g. link). I highly recommend reading it: you may not agree with all her arguments, but you will find it challenges and informs your thinking in ways that any book of the type ought to do. In this post, my aim is to draw on her book to consider the institutional dynamics shaping contemporary ecological and conservation thinking.
I’ve been reading lots of literature on institutional theory (e.g. sociological institutionalist theory, discursive institutionalism, etc) – as per my previous past – and lots of it is rather abstract and challenging to wrap one’s head around. In a book like Rambunctious Garden we encounter arguments and ideas that help to bring such theories to life.
One of Marris’s core arguments is that “we must temper our romantic notion of untrammelled wilderness” (p.2) and, related to this, she critiques the “cult of pristine wilderness” which she argues is a recent “cultural construction” (p.15). This language is interesting and also fairly representative of the book’s tone. Throughout the book Marris suggests that many commonly-held ideas (about nature and environmental action) are subjective social constructs that, in many cases, are inconsistent with emerging science and emerging conservation challenges. Such social constructs are argued to constrain policy-making and action in ways that hamper conservation efforts.
Related to these core arguments, Marris argues that conservation and ecological thinking is shaped by many unquestioned assumptions. An example is the idea that native ecosystems and unchanged ecosystems are inherently (or automatically) better than humanly-changed ecosystems. She argues that humanly-caused ecological change is almost unthinkingly classified as “degradation” (p.14) and critiques related normative ideas about “what ought to count as nature” (p.56) and is deserving of our care.
If institutions are simply “conventions and the meanings they have for people” as sociologist Frank Dobbin (2005, p.27) from Harvard University contends, then Marris is seeking to bring to our attention to key institutions that she thinks are problematically constraining environmental action.
Frank Dobbin further argues that an institutionalist perspective should consider the meaningful institutionalised scripts that guide actors. According to this social theory a core way that institutions shape human action is by providing actors with socially legitimated “behavioural scripts” regarding “how to behave in order to achieve particular ends” (Dobbin, 2007). Moreover, Dobbin argues that new practices emerge “via the institutionalization of scripts”. We can further consider such theories in relation to some practices and issues discussed in Rambunctious Garden.
Marris discusses the use of historical baselines and efforts to manage or restore landscapes and ecosystems according to such baselines. A related common policy measure is prescribing actions that achieve a pre-development state or seek to restore an ecosystem to prehuman conditions. Though this is straightforward to understand there are challenges. Setting such a “baseline” can be difficult and, to some extent, arbitrary. It implies one ecosystem state is the correct one. Moreover, factors like climate change can generate “overwhelming threats to the historical condition” (p.35). Marris asserts in an interview (link) that “getting rid of our obsession with the past” (e.g. an idealised pre-development condition) can “help us have a relationship with the nature of the present”.
Institutional theory suggests that we can interpret such practices (e.g. the setting of historical baselines and evaluating change against them) as being grounded in institutionalised scripts which “actors enact as much as they act [in a conscious or intentional way]” (Meyer et al 1987). Moreover, such activities are typically meaningful to those enacting them and institutions consequently can “provide ‘frames of meaning’ guiding action” (Hay & Taylor, 1996, p.947). However, as discussed in many chapters of Rambunctious Garden, actors typically encounter greater uncertainty and challenges when ‘script-guided’ action becomes less viable or less effective.
Another example is exotic plant management such as the removal or management of “invasive species” (Chapter 6). Marris discusses the “war on invasive species” (p.100) and the related scientific research field of “invasion biology”. Marris discusses recent research that challenges the belief that invasive species are typically an ecological hazard (e.g. by driving extinctions) – and which indicates they are often an ecological good and/or useful – but argues that ecologists tend to be wedded to other ideas and the rigid vision of “native species … [kept] in their place” (p.100).
Or consider the field of restoration ecology. Marris discusses key questions like: should our goal be “to restore [a particular ecosystem] to some notional and incompletely understood past” or should we “design or engineer for specific, measurable goals… [such as] nitrogen reduction, sediment capture, or the maintenance of one or a small number of named species” (p.125)? Restoration ecology practices focus on restoring ecosystems to a more ‘natural’ state (link) but are, in Marris’s view, “trapped by the seductive vision of healing wounded nature” (p.126). Rather than seeking to return nature “to a stable “natural” state” (p.126) she calls for consideration of a large menu of different goals.
We can clearly see how this plays out in relation to issues like climate change. Many climate activists call for dramatic efforts to restore the global climate system to “a stable “natural” state”, i.e. a state prior to human-caused warming, whereas others argue that, in a fundamental sense, there is no going back. The latter position is epitomised by a short essay by Mike Hulme entitled “Learning to live with recreated climates” (link), in which he critiques the aspiration “to recover some mythical benign stable state”.
However, perhaps there’s no better issue or example to consider than efforts to protect and restore the Great Barrier Reef (though this isn’t discussed in Rambunctious Garden). Should our goal be to restore this incredibly complex ecosystem to a ‘pre-climate change’ state? Is this even possible, and how would we know if it is? Or should scientists and marine park managers engage in experimental efforts that seek to foster new “designer ecosystems” (Marris, 2011) which are better able to adapt to climate change? Given the likelihood of additional global warming over the coming decades (regardless of emissions reductions efforts to due to “climate lags”), bold thinking and polices may be essential.
The key point is this: innovative reef conservation policies and interventions are unlikely to be possible unless key institutional dynamics are considered and reflected upon. Indeed, some of these issues are evident in the ABC Catalyst special “Can we save the reef?” (link), such as regarding selective breeding and “assisted evolution” strategies (also see this article).
This can also be considered in relation to actors’ goals and their visions of the future. For instance, in the chapter on “designer ecosystems” Marris discusses an ecologist whose sense of options expanded “when the historical ecosystem ceases to be the ideal”. Put in institutional theory terms, relaxing institutional constraints can influence what options are considered legitimate and are conceivable. Institutional theorists argue that institutions strongly constraints on available options.
The notion of institution developed in the ‘new institutionalism’ (in organisational analysis) also seems relevant. In this field “institutions” are defined as “rationalised myths and routines, conformity to which confirms legitimacy” (Nee, 2005, p.63). Not only does this convey a further aspect of some institutions – such as what can underpin such behavioural patterns – but it also highlights risks to innovating actors whose nonconformity may be a risk to their legitimacy. As discussed in a previous blogpost, actors whose have greater social status and strongly established legitimacy are often in a better position to champion perspectives and approaches that conflict with prevailing institutions.
Some of the basic points discussed above can be summarised as follows:
- Adopting a sociological institutional perspective encourages us to interpret (and analyse) behaviour as practices enacting institutionalised scripts;
- Related studies of “institutionalisation” (as a social process) highlights the processes through which such patterns of group behaviour become normatively and cognitively held in place “and practically taken for granted as lawful” (Meyer et at 1987); and
- Associated institutional dynamics both constrain and strongly shape the innovation efforts which are often required to address novel issues and policy problems.
Additionally, the sociological institutionalists make two important underpinning arguments:
- They “insist that, when faced with a situation, the individual must find a way of recognizing it as well as of responding to it, and the scripts or templates implicit in the institutional world provide the means for accomplishing both of these tasks” (Hall & Taylor, 1996, p.948). This view of human action assumes it “is tightly bound up with interpretation”; and
- They argue that “the relationship between the individual and the institution … is built on a kind of ‘practical reasoning’ whereby the individual works with and reworks the available institutional templates to devise a course of action” Hall & Taylor, 1996, p.949).
The latter argument is one that Marris doesn’t really engage with in Rambunctious Garden. That is, she doesn’t investigate in much detail the ways that actors work with and rework such “institutional templates”, for example when devising an innovative course of action. Marris points to dominant institutional templates and to contrasting examples of innovative action but doesn’t investigate how actors get from ‘A’ to ‘B’.
Dobbin, F. 2005, ‘Comparative and Historical Approaches to Economic Sociology’, in N.J. Smelser & R. Swedberg (eds), The Handbook of Economic Sociology, Princeton University Press.
Dobbin, F. 2007, ‘Economic Sociology’, in C.D. Bryant & D.L. Peck (eds), 21st Century Sociology, SAGE Publications.
Hall, P.A. & Taylor, R.C.R. 1996, ‘Political Science and the Three New Institutionalisms’, Political Studies, vol. 44, no. 5, pp. 936-57.
Marris, E. 2011, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature is a Post-Wild World, Bloomsbury, New York, USA.
Meyer, J.W., Boli, J. & Thomas, G.M. 1987, ‘Ontology and Rationalization in the Western Cultural Account’, in G.M. Thomas, J.W. Meyer, F.O. Ramirez & J. Boli (eds), Institutional Structure: Constituting State, Society, and the Individual, SAGE Publications.
Nee, V. 2005, ‘The New Institutionalisms in Economics and Sociology ‘, in N.J. Smelser & R. Swedberg (eds), The Handbook of Economic Sociology, Princeton University Press.