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Perceiving Change and Knowing Nature: Shifting Baselines and Nature's Resiliency


Robin Kundis Craig


University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law

November 3, 2012

ENVIRONMENTAL LAW AND CONTRASTING IDEAS OF NATURE: A CONSTRUCTIVIST APPROACH, Keith H. Hirokawa, ed., Cambridge University Press, 2013
University of Utah College of Law Research Paper No. 24

Abstract:     
Nature changes. However, not all changes in nature warrant a regulatory or policy response. As a result, in order to “know nature” — to evaluate natural processes, evolutions, progressions, thresholds, and collapses — policymakers and managers work within frames through which they perceive, interpret, and respond to changes in nature. This chapter explores various ways of perceiving change in nature and how the law and policy responds to those perceptions.

One important device for framing changes in nature is a baseline. As a result, this chapter examines the many ways in which historic baselines can be incorporated into — or ignored within — environmental and natural resources law. The first part of this chapter argues that, at a most basic level, human-constructed baselines for nature serve as a tool for distinguishing what is “natural” change generally left out of regulation from what are “unnatural” or anthropogenic changes, the potential subjects of environmental and natural resources law. The second part argues, conversely, that the law's failure to deal adequately with indirect direct, indeterminate, and synergistic causes of change in nature derives at least in part from the increasing difficulty of distinguishing “natural” from “unnatural” change, a dilemma that has arisen in contexts as diverse as responding to a crown-of-thorns invasion on the Great Barrier Reef to mitigating climate change. The chapter's third part discusses the "shifting baseline syndrome" and humans' and law's ability to "forget" or elide change in nature.

Finally, this chapter concludes by noting that ecologists have moved away from the idea that nature ever had a stable baseline. In particular, the growing discipline of resilience thinking counsels that natural systems and socio-ecological systems experience continuous perturbations and ongoing cycles of growth, stabilization, and disruptive change and reorganization. Under this framing, humans who truly know nature should expect continuous change, including abrupt and discontinuous change, in nature. Especially in a climate change era, therefore, resilience thinking suggests that humans need to more wholeheartedly embrace change in nature and to eschew historical baselines — a more radical acceptance of change in nature that could in turn evolve environmental and natural resources law.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 34

Keywords: change, baseline, environmental law, frames, framing, resilience thinking, resilience theory, climate change, perception, psychology

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Date posted: November 4, 2012 ; Last revised: May 14, 2013

Suggested Citation

Craig, Robin Kundis, Perceiving Change and Knowing Nature: Shifting Baselines and Nature's Resiliency (November 3, 2012). ENVIRONMENTAL LAW AND CONTRASTING IDEAS OF NATURE: A CONSTRUCTIVIST APPROACH, Keith H. Hirokawa, ed., Cambridge University Press, 2013; University of Utah College of Law Research Paper No. 24. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2170733

Contact Information

Robin Kundis Craig (Contact Author)
University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law ( email )
332 S. 1400 East Front
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0730
United States

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