How does Cultural Coexistence Theory fit with other theories for sustainability?

In an earlier post, I reflected on how Cultural Coexistence Theory (CT) might inform ongoing conflicts over resources, specifically the conflict over salmon fisheries in Southcentral Alaska. Here, I address the more theoretical question of how this proposed theory complements existing theoretical frameworks in the world of sustainability science, specifically Elinor Ostrom's Social Ecological Systems (SES) Framework. A true science of sustainability must be able to explain periods of stability in complex human-natural systems; what CT aims to do is just that: explain how competing groups of people in a shared resource setting come to coexist stably over time, as opposed to a scenario where one or more groups is pushed out because of some disadvantage.

 Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics. Photo by  Holger Motzkau . 

Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics. Photo by Holger Motzkau

Elinor Ostrom revolutionized the way that scientists understand the institutional dimensions of sustainable and unsustainable resource management systems. Prior to her work, most people in the civilized world had come to believe that Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons thesis was a matter of human nature — that people, when left unchecked by government enforcement, will always over harvest resources until they are fully depleted. Ostrom and her colleagues, in a variety of works but most notably the groundbreaking "Covenants with and without a sword," showed that self governance for sustainability is possible, and that the tragedy of the commons, far from being a matter of human nature, is but one of countless possible outcomes. 

Building on this contribution, Ostrom and others set out compiling information on countless examples of successful self-governance over natural resources. One of her operating premises, now called "Ostrom's Law", was that if something works in practice, it must also work in theory. Over the years, she examined what many of these cases had in common, and developed a list of eight design principles for effective self-governance. She and her colleagues also assembled the so-called "Social Ecological Systems (SES) framework", in which many of her ideas are brought together. 

What the Ostrom framework does not offer are explanations for why certain combinations of factors lead to sustainability, while others lead to conflict and the overuse of resources

Without getting into too much detail, the SES framework is descriptive in nature: it provides a vocabulary and a schematic for breaking apart complex natural resource systems into their various functional components (i.e., the users, the resource, the governance system), with a goal of enabling scientists and policymakers to diagnose the circumstances that lead to sustainable or unsustainable outcomes.

What the Ostrom framework does not offer, however, are explanations for why certain combinations of factors lead to sustainability, while others lead to conflict and the overuse of resources. 

This is where Cultural Coexistence Theory comes in. It is a 'middle range' theory, meaning that it connects patterns (e.g., sustainability, conflict) to processes. It builds on the notion of the ecological niche, and ecological relationships (competative, predatory, mutualistic, etc.) that exist among species that have shared or overlapping niches. To make the theory relevant in a social context, it is essential that such matters as agency, values, and adaptation are taken into account. So, in addition to the basic ecological concepts of coexistence theory -- limited similarity, limited competition, and resilience -- Cultural Coexistence Theory also identifies equity, pluralism, and adaptability as being essential to the coexistence of otherwise competing groups of people on a shared landscape. 

 Hannah Harrison, my former graduate student, and her Uncle Craig. The Harrisons are a fishing family who place much personal value on being fishermen.

Hannah Harrison, my former graduate student, and her Uncle Craig. The Harrisons are a fishing family who place much personal value on being fishermen.

There are some limits to the ecological metaphor I am applying to social systems with this proposed theory. Different groups of humans, such as the different groups of fishers discussed in my paper, are not as limited in their options as are different species. People can change their livelihood strategies, wheareas non-human species, generally, are more locked in to a specific set of behavioral strategies. That being said, people often do not want to change how they live; fishers, for example, generally put much value and gain much life satisfaction from fishing. Thus, a normative aspect of Cultural Coexistence Theory is that different ways of life have inherent value, both to the people living these lives and also as a matter of biocultural diversity

As is evident throughout this website, my operating assumption regarding sustainability is that it is an inherently place based challenge: there are no one-size fits all solutions because each place is different in terms of geography, ecology, and culture. What works in one place will not be appropriate elsewhere. What this means is that people who want and need to live in different ways will inevitably come into conflict, though we shouldn't necessarily see that as a bad thing. Conflicts can be essential to ensuring sustainability and justice. They are only problematic if they escalate to the point where people villainize one another or are unable to work together when problems occur. Cultural Coexistence Theory, is my attempt to elaborate this ethic in scientific terms.