Bridging Scales and Knowledge Systems: Concepts and Applications in Ecosystem Assessment

Bridging Scales and Knowledge Systems: Concepts and Applications in Ecosystem Assessment

by Walter World Resources Institute

View All Available Formats & Editions

Bridging the gap between local knowledge and western science is essential to understanding the world's ecosystems and the ways in which humans interact with and shape those ecosystems. This book brings together a group of world-class scientists in an unprecedented effort to build a formal framework for linking local and indigenous knowledge with the global scientific


Bridging the gap between local knowledge and western science is essential to understanding the world's ecosystems and the ways in which humans interact with and shape those ecosystems. This book brings together a group of world-class scientists in an unprecedented effort to build a formal framework for linking local and indigenous knowledge with the global scientific enterprise. Contributors explore the challenges, costs, and benefits of bridging scales and knowledge systems in assessment processes and in resource management. Case studies look at a variety of efforts to bridge scales, providing important lessons concerning what has worked, what has not, and the costs and benefits associated with those efforts. Drawing on the groundbreaking work of the Millennium Eco-system Assessment, Bridging Scales and Knowledge Systems will be indispensable for future efforts to conduct ecosystem assessments around the world.

Product Details

Island Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
10 MB

Read an Excerpt

Bridging Scales and Knowledge Systems

Concepts and Applications in Ecosystem Assessment

By Walter V. Reid, Fikret Berkes, Thomas Wilbanks, Doris Capistrano


Copyright © 2006 World Resources Institute
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-840-0




Local communities, national governments, and international institutions all face difficult choices concerning goals, priorities, investments, policies, and institutions needed to effectively address interlinked challenges concerning development and the environment (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005a). They must make these choices in the face of substantial uncertainty about current conditions and the potential future consequences of actions taken, or not taken, today. One way to improve those decisions is to ensure that the best knowledge concerning the problem and potential solutions is available to decision makers and the public. Better knowledge does not guarantee that better choices will be made, but it does provide a sound basis for making better decisions and for holding decision makers accountable.

But how can knowledge concerning environment and development be best mobilized in support of decision making? Over the past thirty to forty years, many different mechanisms have been developed to assemble, assess, and synthesize information for use in decision processes, including environmental impact assessments, technology assessments, scientific advisory boards, national environmental reports, global environmental (or development or economic) reports, and global environmental assessments. Both the processes and scientific methods used for these types of "knowledge assessments" have evolved considerably during this time. Modern global assessments, for example, commonly make use of such tools as scenarios and integrated assessment models used infrequently in earlier assessments. And while the "product" (that is, the assessment report) was all that mattered in earlier assessments, more recent assessments increasingly generate a range of products to better respond to specific needs of diverse stakeholders and are often as heavily focused on the process of stakeholder engagement as they are on the product itself.

This book explores two issues at the cutting edge of the further development and evolution of knowledge assessments: how to address issues of scale and how to embrace different knowledge systems in assessments. More specifically, in the case of scale, there are many reasons to think that both the findings of an assessment and the use of those findings could be enhanced if the assessment incorporates information from multiple spatial and temporal scales and if "cross-scale" effects are examined. But what are the real costs and benefits of such multiscale assessments and, from a pragmatic standpoint, just how can they be implemented? In the case of knowledge systems, assessments traditionally have relied almost exclusively on scientific information, yet considerable knowledge relevant to decisions concerning the environment and development can be found outside of formal scientific disciplines. This includes knowledge held within businesses, knowledge held by local resource managers, and traditional knowledge passed down from one generation to the next. But how can a science assessment be transformed into a knowledge assessment? Scientific disciplines have well-developed means of validating information through peer review that would rule out incorporating many other forms of knowledge. How can multiple types of knowledge be incorporated in an assessment when each type of knowledge has its own mechanisms for determining validity and utility?

Although these issues of scale and knowledge systems could be dealt with separately and although the literature on the two issues tends to be distinct, in this book we expressly seek to examine the intersection of these issues for both pragmatic and heuristic reasons. From a pragmatic standpoint, while scientific knowledge dominates the considerations of global and long-term processes (such as climate change), local, traditional, and practitioner's knowledge often dominates the considerations of site- specific resource management issues, where detailed scientific studies may not exist. Thus, in order to deal with "multiple scales," an assessment cannot help but confront the need to deal with multiple types of knowledge, reflecting not only different paradigms but also, in some cases, different processes and phenomena. From a heuristic standpoint, the intersection of the issues of scale, knowledge systems, and assessment provides a rich opportunity for obtaining insights into not just how best to assess knowledge for the purposes of decision making but also how to further our understanding of basic socioecological processes.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

This book was catalyzed by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), a multiscale assessment of the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being that was carried out between 2001 and 2005 (MA 2003, MA 2005a). The MA was one of the first global assessments to attempt to incorporate multiple scales and multiple knowledge systems. Recognizing that the base of experience on which to develop these dimensions of the assessment was quite limited, the MA organized an international conference—Bridging Scales and Epistemologies: Linking Local Knowledge and Global Science in Multi-scale Assessments—at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt, in March 2004. The conference provided an opportunity for assessment practitioners, academic researchers, indigenous peoples, and individuals directly involved in the MA process to discuss theory, learn from case studies and practical experiences, and debate the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches. The following chapters are drawn from papers presented at that conference. We briefly describe the MA here to provide context and to help introduce the themes of the book, but most of the chapters address the issues of scale and knowledge systems more broadly.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was called for by United Nations (UN) secretary-general Kofi Annan in 2000 in his report to the UN General Assembly We the Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century (Annan 2000). Governments subsequently supported establishing the assessment through decisions taken by three international conventions, and the MA was initiated in 2001. The MA was conducted under the auspices of the United Nations, with the secretariat coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme. It was governed by a multistakeholder board that included representatives of international institutions, governments, business, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and indigenous peoples.

The MA was established in response to demands from both policy makers and scientists for an authoritative assessment of the state of the world's ecosystems and of the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being. By the mid-1990s, many individuals involved in the work of international conventions, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD), had come to realize that the extensive needs for scientific assessments within the conventions were not being met through the mechanisms then in place. In contrast, such other international environmental conventions as the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer did have effective assessment mechanisms—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Ozone Assessment, respectively—that were proving valuable to these treaties.

The scientific community was also encouraging the establishment of an IPCC-like process to establish scientific consensus on issues related to biodiversity and ecosystems in the belief that the urgency of the problem of ecosystem degradation demanded such an assessment. The major advances that had been made in ecological sciences, resource economics, and other fields during the 1980s and 1990s were poorly reflected in policy discussions concerning ecosystems (Reid 2000; Ayensu et al. 2000; J. C. Clark et al. 2002). Moreover, the scientific community was concerned that existing sectoral assessments (focused on climate, ozone, forests, agriculture, and so forth) were insufficient to address the interlinkages among different environmental problems and among their solutions (Watson et al. 1998).

The design of the MA sought to meet three criteria identified by the Harvard Global Environmental Assessment Project that generally underlie successful global scientific assessments (Clark and Dickson 1999):

First, they are scientifically credible. To meet this criterion, the MA followed the basic procedures used in the IPCC. A team of highly regarded social and natural scientists cochaired the four MA working groups, and prominent scientists from around the world served as coordinating lead authors and lead authors. An independent Peer Review Board oversaw the review process. In the end, more than two thousand authors and expert reviewers were involved in preparing and reviewing the MA.

Second, they are politically legitimate. An assessment is far more likely to be used by its intended audience if that audience has fully "bought in" to the process. In other words, if the intended users request the assessment, have a role in governing the assessment, are involved in its design, and are able to review and comment on draft findings, then they will be far more likely to use the results. To ensure the legitimacy of the process, the decision to establish the MA was not taken until formal requests for the assessment had been made by international conventions. And, like the IPCC, all of the MA working groups were cochaired by developed and developing country experts and involved a geographically balanced group of authors.

Finally, successful assessments respond to decision makers' needs. This is not to say that scientists do not have an opportunity to introduce new issues and findings that decision makers need to be aware of—they do. But the priority for the assessment is to inform decisions that are being faced or soon will be faced by decision makers. To meet the standard of utility, extensive consultations were made with intended MA users in governments, the private sector, and civil society.

When the idea for the MA first arose in early 1988, it could have been accurately described to be an "IPCC for ecosystems and human well-being." The assessment that was finally launched in 2001, however, differed in several important ways from the IPCC, in particular in relation to scale and knowledge systems. First, the MA was a multiscale assessment—that is, it included analyses at various levels of organization from local to national to international. By contrast, the IPCC was a global assessment, although it increasingly included regional analyses. In addition to the global component, the MA included thirty-three subglobal assessments carried out at the scale of individual communities, watersheds, countries, and regions. The subglobal assessments were not intended to serve as representative samples of all ecosystems; rather, they were designed to meet the needs of decision makers at the scales at which they were undertaken. At the same time, it was anticipated that the global assessment could be informed by findings of the subglobal assessments and vice versa.

Second, the MA included a mechanism allowing use of both published scientific information and traditional, indigenous, and practitioner's knowledge, while the IPCC uses only published scientific information. Much local and traditional knowledge was incorporated into many of the local MA subglobal assessments using this mechanism. While the mechanism allowed, in principle, for local, traditional, and practitioner's knowledge to also be incorporated into the global assessment products, this was quite rare in practice and only occurred to any significant extent in the global report prepared by the MA SubGlobal Working Group.

The primary reasons the MA adopted this multiscale approach and sought to incorporate multiple types of knowledge relate to the nature of ecological process and to the locus of authority for decisions affecting ecosystems. Compare the issues addressed in the MA, for example, with those addressed by the IPCC. Climate change is the classic example of a global environmental change. Although considerable local specificity exists as to the causes of emissions of greenhouse gases, once those gases are emitted they quickly mix in the atmosphere. The increased greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere will have a global impact in that all countries are affected by this change (although, again, the local impacts differ from region to region). Also, decisions taken to address the problem must have a strong global component, although many decisions for emission reduction and—in particular—adaptation will be local (Kates and Wilbanks 2003; Wilbanks et al. 2003).

While ecosystem change and biodiversity loss are of global environmental concern, and although the problem and its solutions have global dimensions, the subglobal dimensions are often much more significant. Factors affecting ecosystems include drivers with global impacts such as climate change and species introductions, regional impacts such as regional trade or agricultural policies, and local impacts such as land use practices and the construction of irrigation systems. Changes to ecosystems can have global consequences, such as the contribution of deforestation to climate change; regional consequences, such as the impact of nutrient loading in agricultural ecosystems on coastal fisheries production; and local consequences, such as the impact of overharvesting or land degradation on local food security. Policy, institutional, technological, and behavioral responses to ecosystem-related issues can involve global actions, such as the creation of global financial mechanisms; regional actions, such as regional agreements for wetlands conservation for migratory bird protection; and local responses, such as a decision by a farmer to alter land management practices to conserve topsoil.

In light of this multiscale nature of both the issues involved and the decisions being made, it was clear that a strictly global assessment would be insufficient. Assessments at subglobal scales are needed because ecosystems are highly differentiated in space and time and because sound management requires careful local planning and action. Local assessments alone are insufficient, however, because some processes are global and because local goods, services, matter, and energy are often transferred across regions (Ayensu et al. 2000). These same considerations also caused the MA organizers to rethink the question of what type of knowledge should "count" in an ecosystem assessment.

For example, at the scale of an individual village, much of the knowledge concerning trends in ecosystems, impacts of ecosystem change on people, and potential responses to ecosystem change will often be held by the members of that community. Such information is unlikely to have been published in a scientific journal. The IPCC relies primarily on peer-reviewed information in order to ensure its credibility. But if a local assessment is to have any credibility at all for local decision makers, then clearly it would make little sense to use only the limited published information bearing on the conditions in a particular village when much better knowledge existed within the community itself.

Moreover, considerations of the legitimacy of the process also forced the reconsideration of policies for what sources of knowledge should be included in the assessment. Legitimacy can be conferred on a process in part through formal mechanisms (e.g., the involvement of particular stakeholders in governance roles), but many other less tangible elements are also involved in any particular stakeholder's decision about whether a process is legitimate and sufficiently trusted to be of use in the person's own decision making. The IPCC arrangements, as well as its reliance on scientific knowledge, were appropriate to ensure that the process was seen as legitimate by governments. But it was unlikely that the MA would be viewed as legitimate by other decision makers such as the business community and indigenous people if it expressly excluded their knowledge from the process.


Excerpted from Bridging Scales and Knowledge Systems by Walter V. Reid, Fikret Berkes, Thomas Wilbanks, Doris Capistrano. Copyright © 2006 World Resources Institute. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Walter V. Reid is a consulting professor with the Stanford Institute for the Environment in Stanford, California, and was the Director of the Millennuim Ecosystem Assessment.

Fikret Berkes is professor of natural resources and Canada Research Chair in Community-Based Resource Management at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada.

Thomas J. Wilbanks is a Corporate Research Fellow and Leader of Global Change and Developing Country Programs at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Doris Capistrano is Director of the Forests and Governance Programme at the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >