Another Top-Down Disaster

Another water crisis is making national headlines. This time ground zero is in the mid-west. More than 400,000 people in and around Toledo, Ohio cannot drink water from their taps due to high levels of the dangerous toxin microcystin in the public drinking supply. The cause of this disaster is particularly concerning, however, as it is not the result of a tanker spill or any other large-scale industrial disaster, but rather a tried and failed approach to environmental management — top-down decree.

The spike of microcystin results from a massive eutrophication event on Lake Erie. Eutrophication is not a unique phenomenon. It occurs readily in nature — but there has been a noted increase in the past few decades as a result of anthropogenic influence. For this particular Great Lake (as well as many other freshwater systems) the current crisis is exacerbated by a rapid influx of nitrogen and phosphorous from urban areas, waste water and industrial agriculture. Simply put, eutrophication occurs when algae experiences a rapid spike in population deemed an “algae bloom.” As reported by Think Progress, exposure to polluted water of this nature can cause “abnormal liver function, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, numbness, and dizziness.”

In the short term, our current institutions will work with residents to try to ameliorate the crisis, but what about the long term? How can we work to ensure these 400,000 are not left without potable water again? There will be a lot of dialogue and debate over how to move forward and protect the public good. All too often, however, we look for simple, top-down direction to alleviate and mitigate environmental concerns.

This is understandable. The simple solution and the “decide, announce, defend” mentality is an easy way out. The problem is, no matter how simple an ecological concept, the natural system behind it is incredibly complex. Simple solutions cannot mitigate complex systems — but evolving, dynamic systems can continually shift policy to meet public and environmental health demands. This is why there is a need for greater community involvement, free association and a stakeholder approach that allows equal participation among all.

Lucky for us, Adaptive Collaborative Management (ACM) is already a growing trend in resource governance. ACM is a model of conflict resolution developed to resolve complex problems requiring collective action. Going beyond personal points of view, this management style implores science, politics and underlying interests to come together and confront conflict. Adaptive collaboration is a more democratic approach to natural resource conflict resolution, as opposed to the traditional top down, bureaucratic approach. Simply put, it is a step toward relief from the state, empowering voices as opposed to silencing them.

The goal of such collaboration is resilience — for both communities and ecosystems. In ecology, resilience is a property that reflects the ability of a system to withstand perturbations or shocks, of course we want this for our social systems as well. Resilience theory suggests that managed ecological systems are dynamic and unpredictable. Moreover, strategic top down management tends to erode resilience, making the system vulnerable to dramatic and surprising change.

To move forward in Ohio, and everywhere else, horizontal themes such as ACM need to be championed. To solve the problems created by top-down decision making, we must become dynamic. Decentralized policy making allows us to manage for change, rather than against change. Human interactions are complex, ecosystems are complex and there is beauty in complexity. To move forward we must empower the collective, amplify the voice of the individual and continue to build the decentralized society.

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