The sociology of science in environmental management: Reflections on “Fields and Streams”

WaterwaysRestoration-Tools.jpgby Jay Lund

Most readers of this blog are water management wonks who toil in the bureaucracies and professions of water management, the water-industrial complex, so to speak.  We mostly work on technical issues and internal and inter-organizational rules and controversies.  Despite the daily “firefighting” foci of our activities, almost everyone understands something of the organizational and multi-organizational nature of water and environmental management.  But few actively study the larger organizational and methodological sociology of our work.

Some excellent sociology, history, geography, and political science exists on water institutions (such as Maass 1950; Tarr 1984; Walker and Williams 1984; Kelley 1989; Blomquist 1992; Lund 2015).  But there is much less insightful writing on the sociology of the professions and methodological trends (and fads) which often dominate environmental activities and institutions.

The 2013 book Fields and Streams, by Rebecca Lave, is a worthwhile and thought-provoking work on the field of stream restoration, its development as a profession and implementation by agencies and NGOs.  The book particularly traces the development of the “Natural Channel Design” (NCD) approach to stream restoration.  This NCD approach had largely non-academic origins and came to dominate stream restoration in practice, with a set of internally consistent and coherent definitions, procedures, and methods that are sometimes effective in the field.  The approach, its origins, and its mixed results have fed controversy between its largely consulting and agency staff proponents and opposing academic and government researchers.

The book describes the history of the NCD approach and how its growth was driven by a growing regulation-driven market for pragmatic approaches for stream restoration, the ability of non-academic professionals to develop and market coherent pragmatic advice (even when flawed), and the difficulties of more scholarly researchers producing and delivering practical advice.

The book’s story and findings are interesting in themselves, but lead me to some broader reflections on the development and application of technical ideas and knowledge by government agencies with mandated missions:

  1. Agencies which lack strong organized engagement with science can be attracted to whatever seems like conveniently organized science, seems legitimate, makes sense, and is not too expensive. The author’s wonderful history of fin-de-millennium stream restoration seems to mirror recent environmental flow regulation controversies, where a real problem is met with less than coherent academic and professional advice, so agencies and advocates take more convenient advice from earnest environmental professionals and business-seeking firms.
  2. Academics are not the sole source of wisdom and methods used in practice. Practicing engineers and professionals know this well.  Nevertheless, we live in times when academic work can be influential, and sometimes is.
  3. Academic work is more often useful for large practical problems if organized externally. For stream restoration, academics were largely unsuccessful at organizing themselves to shape practice.  Academic ideas tend to be used more in practice when agencies or firms focused on a problem organize and sponsor academic involvement (such as the Manhattan Project of the 1940s, Cold War military applications, some past Federal and state water infrastructure development, water and wastewater treatment technologies under US EPA leadership and regulations, university cooperative extension, underwriters’ laboratories, and the internet).  Indeed, modern engineering academia arose in the 1700s and 1800s from the French State’s need for an academic enterprise to educate its national and regional road and waterway staffs.
  4. So, government agencies that want effective science-based management often must lead in organizing technical and scientific input and insights. This can take many forms, but requires fundamental sustained agency commitment to organized problem solving.
  5. In a world of changing problems and expectations, such as increased regulatory and market demand for stream restoration, it is a persistent struggle for agencies to move from doing what sounds good to doing what works. If institutions are not organized to develop, test, and improve approaches and methods scientifically, they will expend their resources on what sounds like it might work.

Political economic structure always shapes environmental management and environmental professions, even without capitalism and neo-liberalism.  Ancient China’s deforestation (mentioned by Mencius), Mesopotamian soil salinization, invasive species spread by Polynesian and European seafarers, the Soviet Union’s Aral Sea, and India’s air pollution, are a few examples of the human-induced degradation globally throughout history, unrelated to liberalism.  Excellent scholarship on political-economic effects on modern environmental management and professions includes histories of flood control (Kelley 1989) and sewers (Tarr 1984).

The effects of political economy on environmental management is broad and eternal.  Even without neoliberalism, there has always been profit in being a capable courtier to kings.

To me, the great value of Fields and Streams is in highlighting the importance of unfortunately rare sociological studies of the development and use of technical knowledge in complex multi-institution problems.  We mostly blunder through sociological thinking on environmental management.  The book highlights the costs of this blundering in terms of environmental efficacy, distraction and waste of human time and resources, and expansions of controversy for already-hard environmental problems.

Many of our water and environmental management and regulation systems need some fundamental rethinking to more effectively achieve sometimes conflicting objectives in changing times.  This book’s partial anatomy of stream restoration’s water-industrial complex is a thought-provoking start on this difficult and important aspect of contemporary environmental and ecosystem management.

Further reading

Lave, R. (2013), Fields and Streams: Stream Restoration, Neoliberalism, and the Future of Environmental Science, University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 170 pp.

Two useful reviews of Lave, R. (2013), Fields and Streams: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/2325548X.2017.1366833, https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/2013EO090013

Blomquist, W. (1992), Dividing the Waters: Governing Groundwater in Southern California. San Francisco: ICS Press.

Kelley, Robert (1989), Battling the Inland Sea: Floods, Public Policy, and the Sacramento Valley, University of California Press, Berkley, CA.

Lund, J.R., “Integrating social and physical sciences in water management,” Water Resources Research, Volume 51, Issue 8, Pages 5905–5918, August 2015.

Maass (1950), Muddy Waters, The Army Engineers and the Nation’s Rivers, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Tarr, Joel A. (1984), “Water and Wastes: A Retrospective Assessment of Wastewater Technology in the U.S., 1800-1932,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 25, No. 2 (April), pp. 226-263.

Walker, R.A. and M.J. Williams (1982), “Water from Power: Water Supply and Regional Growth in the Santa Clara Valley,” Economic Geography, Vol. 58, No. 2 (April), pp. 95-119.

Jay Lund is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California Davis, who has never recovered from his exciting graduate school foray as a social geographer.

About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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1 Response to The sociology of science in environmental management: Reflections on “Fields and Streams”

  1. J Rizzi says:

    Inflatable & deflatable barriers – inflated to create ponds and deeper water in summer with same flow as normal summers. – deflated in high flow times to decrease flooding. More water stored is better for environment, more life, and creates less erosion. Does take management to inflate and deflate but is great for all, including people with more water, fresh air, fish, small hydro, etc, ect,

    Liked by 1 person

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