Punctuated Equilibrium in Environmental Policy

Readers familiar with panarchy theory will find a rich set of relevant examples in a new book edited by Robert Repetto, Punctuated Equilibrium and the Dynamics of U.S. Environmental Policy.

In Chapter 2, Frank Baumgartner explains how U.S. environmental policy shows is static for long periods of time, reflecting stable institutional structures, shared understanding of goals, and balance of power among competing interests. Occasionally, however, there are bursts of innovation as public policies are radically restructured. These rare but crucially important bursts of innovation occur across a range of scales, from local to national. Baumgartner makes his case using statistical case histories of policy dynamics.

William Brock, in Chapter 3, explains social and economic mechanisms that cause long periods of stasis interrupted by bursts of enormous change in environmental policy. Brock uses minimal models grounded in well-established social and economic phenomena. The remainder of the book develops case studies in depth.

Some cases have undergone radical change: management of water in California, certain marine fisheries, and timber in the Pacific Northwest. Other systems seem locked in traps: greenhouse gas and climate policy, vehicular fuel economy standards, and livestock grazing on public lands. History suggests that these traps will eventually be broken.

In his introductory chapter, Repetto summarizes the positive and negative feedback mechanisms that underlie punctuated equilibrium. He writes:

Though they [the feedback mechanisms] are fully capable of explaining the observed patterns of stability and abrupt change, their workings are difficult to predict in particular policy struggles because of their complex interactions. The infrequency of policy breakthroughs suggests that most efforts to bring them about will fail. Entrenched interests and ideology will retain their dominance; challengers will be unable to gather sufficient resources, attention, and momentum. Nonetheless, such failed efforts may build a foundation for later success when conditions are more favorable by undermining the prevailing policy image, by mobilizing new interests, and by forming new coalitions. Even knowing that the odds are long, effective policymakers continue to work on their issues in order to be ready and primed when opportunities arise. Timing is crucial . . . . Across the broad range of resource and environmental policy issues, only a few, if any, are likely to have potential for significant change at any particular time. The ability to discern which ones these are is a vital strategic skill.

This pattern is well known to researchers familiar with adaptive cycles and panarchy. Surprisingly, this scholarly and well-documented volume has almost no references to research on adaptive cycles, resilience and panarchy. The lone exception is a citation to the 2002 Panarchy book edited by Gunderson and Holling. I hope that there is more exchange of ideas on punctuated policy dynamics and panarchy in the future.

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