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Wicked Problems in Natural Resource Management: Biodiversity Loss and Species Extinction

ES-493 Problems in Land Management Individual Assignment


Dr. Chris Lemieux
Brendan Graham - 100418520

Wicked Problems in Natural Resource Management: Biodiversity Loss and Species Extinction
Brendan Graham - 100418520
Words: 1258
Natural resource managers are often forced to deal with complex, wicked, problems. Not only
are wicked problems difficult to define, but they are difficult to solve. These problems are large scale,
long term conflicts filled with uncertainty, risk and divergent public values (Balint, 2011). An example
of a wicked problem natural resource managers are forced to deal with is biodiversity loss and species
extinction. This paper will examine three different ways that biodiversity loss can be seen as a wicked
problem, as well as how the spectrum of stakeholder values leads to increased complexity for
managers. Scientific uncertainty, disagreement of values, complexity of causality and the wide
spectrum of stakeholder values make biodiversity loss a very wicked problem.
Biodiversity loss and species extinction are common problems faced by natural resource
professionals today. In Canada alone, 13 different species have already been driven to extinction
(Williston, 2012). Resource managers in Canada, and elsewhere, are faced with species loss at an ever
growing rate. Biodiversity loss is driven by humans, the rate of extinction since the arrival of Homosapiens is 1000 to 10000 times the rate before our arrival (Williston, 2012). While the management of
ecosystems can be seen as a problem for the natural sciences, the causes and potential solutions to
biodiversity loss are fundamentally social problems. The United Nations Environment Programme
states; while there are many threats, some of the major causes of biodiversity loss are habitat loss,
alterations in ecosystems, invasive species, pollution, over-exploitation and global climate change
(UNEP, 2002). Managing natural systems is more about managing people than it is about managing
ecosystems. Social problems differ from traditional problems of science and engineering as they are
inherently wicked (Rittel and Webber, 1973). Rittel and Webber list ten distinguishing properties of
wicked problems in their work 'Wicked Problems, three of these will be examined in greater detail
below.

The first way in which biodiversity loss is characterized as a wicked problem, is being a
symptom of a larger issue. Human superiority over nature is a value that conflicts with the needs of
plants and animals. Anthropocentrism and human development infringe on the diversity of ecosystems.
Human superiority complex puts us in a position to dominate nature (Taylor, 2012). We could make a
rather long list of human characteristics that seem to argue for why we are superior to other life forms,
as well as nature as a whole (Brant, 2006). This superiority is an example of a deep disagreement of
values. Biodiversity loss is a symptom of the belief that humans are superior to nature. This is what
makes it such a wicked problem. Biodiversity and species loss cannot be easily solved as it is a
symptom of a much deeper social values conflict. Wicked problems are characterized by not only a
deep disagreement of values, but the existence of scientific uncertainty (Balint, 2011).
Another characteristic of wicked problems provided by Rittel and Webber is the absence of a
stopping rule. When it comes to the extinction of species and the loss of biodiversity, results are
difficult to quantify. The criteria that tell managers a solution has been found is not always so clear.
(Rittel and Webber, 1973). Experts have shown that measures of error and uncertainties are missing
from most proposed indicators of biodiversity loss, even though they are critical to assessing the
significance of changes over a given time (Hui et al, 2008). As well, another study has shown that
species-area relationships can often overestimate the extinction rates caused from habitat loss (He and
Hubbell, 2011). Scientific uncertainty creates a very complex problem for managers. Inaccuracy or lack
of credibility of biodiversity data make it difficult for managers to define when their job is finished, or
when more work is needed. Similarly, scientific uncertainty promotes precautionary principles from
policy makers that can lead to lack of needed action. Absence of a stopping rule and uncertainty of
biodiversity data make biodiversity loss a wicked problem for resource management professionals.
The third and final characteristic of wicked problems seen in the issue of biodiversity loss is the
complexity of its causality. Wicked problems have no rule or procedure to ensure which management
strategy is the correct solution (Rittel and Webber, 1973). As mentioned above, UNEP acknowledges

that the threats to biodiversity are numerous (UNEP, 2002). Part of what makes biodiversity loss such a
wicked problem for managers is that each cause of biodiversity loss, such as climate change, pollution
and over-exploitation are very complex problems in their own right. Limiting human pollution in
ecosystems, lowering reliance on fossil fuels and consuming less resources are all solutions for
protecting biodiversity, however there is no way of telling which is the correct planning strategy. Rittel
and Webber believe lack of being able to tell which management strategy will lead to the problem's
resolution is a tell tale sign of a wicked problem. The complexity of the causes of biodiversity loss
make it hard for managers to decide what plan of action to take, and is what makes biodiversity loss
such a wicked problem.
Wicked problems such as biodiversity loss emerge from conflict over the prioritization of
economic and conservation goals (Balint, 2011). Different parties and stakeholders lobby for their
particular values and interests. Private corporations, First Nations and environmental NGO's are just
three examples of stakeholders that often have conflicting opinions on how the biodiversity of
ecosystems is managed. The spectrum of the values held by these three stakeholders is part of what
makes biodiversity loss such a wicked problem. First Nations groups and environmental NGO's often
disagree over preferred land usage with the extraction company. However, the place importance the
NGO has may not be as significant as the First Nations group. Environmental NGO's might be lenient
and be more open to some development, while First Nations groups might want to protect their local
species at all cost. While environmental NGO's and First Nations groups may both be opposed to
development, the type of conflict and its significance varies from stakeholder to stakeholder.
The loss of biodiversity represents interpersonal conflict between the extraction company and
First Nations groups.This interpersonal conflict is caused by the resource extraction company driving
biodiversity loss that impacts the traditional way of life of First Nations. In contrast, environmental
NGO's experiences more value based conflict. NGO's might not have their way of life threatened by the
companies, but the loss of species represents a conflict over values. Species extinction and biodiversity

loss is a problem that affects different stakeholders in different ways. In managing biodiversity loss,
natural resource professionals must prioritize the economic or conservation based goals of stakeholder
groups. Because the stakeholders in biodiversity loss represent complex and contrasting values, the
problem is most certainly a wicked one.
In conclusion, part of biodiversity loss' complexity is the scale and scope of the factors that
drive it. Species all over the world are put at risk from a wide range of threats. Virtually all of our
planet's ecosystems are currently subject to some degree of inimical disturbance (Robinson et al, 1984).
There is not one concrete cause of, or solution to biodiversity loss. The multitude of factors that drive it
are in themselves complex problems for natural resource professionals. Divergent values coupled with
scientific uncertainty, make biodiversity loss a difficult problem for managers. Biodiversity loss is a
symptom of a social problem that is large in scale. The stakeholders involved not only represent a wide
spectrum of values and interests, but the significance to which each concerns themselves can vary
greatly. It is the opinion of the author that scientific uncertainty, disagreement of values, complexity of
causality and the wide spectrum of stakeholder values make biodiversity loss a very wicked problem.

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