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Why Governance Is Never Perfect: Co-Evolution in Environmental Policy and Governance

Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB T6G 2E3, Canada
Harris Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL A1A 1B3, Canada
School of Science and Environment / Environmental Policy Institute, Memorial University, Corner Brook, NL A2H 5G4, Canada
Faculty of Management, Science & Technology, Open University, 6401 DL Heerlen, The Netherlands
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2022, 14(15), 9441;
Submission received: 6 July 2022 / Accepted: 12 July 2022 / Published: 1 August 2022
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Environmental Policy and Governance: Evolutionary Perspectives)
This Special Issue explores evolutionary perspectives on environmental policy and governance. It focuses on human attempts to plan, organize and steer their physical environment. Steering is a matter of coordination, of managing the effects of policy in the world and in governance itself [1]. Environmental governance can be a matter of limiting damage to and enhancing the quality of physical environments, it can be natural resource governance and it can be focused on the development of rural economies—often tied to their physical environment [2,3]. In other words, through environmental governance, people try to understand and attempt to organize their environment. The authors in this Special Issue demonstrate that understanding and organizing are constantly co-evolving [4,5]. How something is conceptualized within governance and the position that perspective takes in governance, shapes and at the same time is shaped by traditions of organizing, rooted in the presence of particular actors, institutions and forms of knowledge. The co-evolution of these different elements never ceases, and therefore the interplay between power and knowledge takes places before, during and after the formulation of policies, plans and laws for the environment. Policies are reused, reinterpreted, reinforced and undermined in a context of changing actors, institutions and forms of knowledge implied in the taking of collectively binding decisions.
These basic insights have major implications, which are covered from different angles by the contributors to this Special Issue. It means that steering and options for adaptation and innovation are continuously shifting, and that tools to coordinate collective action can quietly erode or gain strength over time. It also means that basic assumptions and guiding discourses can silently transform and affect the way goals are set, and results are evaluated. Anxieties about the future can change the perception of the environment and evaluation of environmental policies, while nostalgia for an imagined past can accomplish similar things. It means that public discourse can suddenly shift when a new conceptual connection is foregrounded or a new narrative becomes dominant—not necessarily a narrative on the environment or a resource. A new political ideology or a new fixation on a model of economic development can indirectly reshape the expectations for environmental governance and the appreciation of the existing system [5,6]. At the same time the options for transforming a governance system are limited by the configurations of power and knowledge, actors and institutions which co-evolved in the governance system [7,8,9].
Co-evolution is not merely a limiting force, however. Its unceasing nature brings options for change as well: co-evolution creates concepts, assets and tools of coordination that can produce valuable insights and steering power. Meanwhile, fighting perverse policies remains an option, bouncing back to a previous system state can occur while institutional experiments are never entirely off the table. What matters is that nothing in environmental governance can escape governance configurations and the paths they trace [10,11], and nothing can ignore the context of social–ecological systems [12,13], so nothing can escape the partly unpredictable change coming with the co-evolutions in those coupled complex systems [14].
What the different contributions in this Special Issue highlight is that environmental governance has to rely more on strategy than on mere rule setting [4,15]. In other words, complex institutions are needed to achieve high environmental ambitions and solve complex environmental problems, but also, these institutions cannot be merely technical documents amenable to technocratic implementation. Institutional development needs to be part of broader strategies that reassemble the constituent elements of governance regularly so that it can move forward, strategies that embody a persuasive narrative about future and present. This implies that a strategy in environmental governance must be an institution that coordinates and integrates other institutions, as well as a narrative that presents goals as realistic, desirable, and linked to tools [16]. Strategies are needed to navigate environmental complexity, but need to consider that reshaping the environment will have partly unpredictable effects and therefore might require an adaptation (see [17]).
Huntjens and Kemp (2022) [18] in their contribution argue cogently that, with the diversity in values and ongoing reinterpretations of ‘self’ and environment necessarily present in democratic systems of environmental governance, normativity is not out of the picture. They show that, besides the normativity that can be constructed in governance, based on the plurality of forms of knowledge and expectations, it remains possible and important to argue for a new set of responsibilities. Competing narratives and values exist that might resist easy integration. Tools of coordination are temporary but, even in the absence of consensus, the conversation on anchors for environmental governance should continue, perhaps with a new form of foundational institution. Even imperfect and temporary institutions can find common ground and stabilization [19,20], and the authors argue for a new social–natural contract suitable for the dire situation of our social–ecological systems.
Such a contract would articulate responsibilities for the environment in a new way, open for adaptation and compromise, but not open for shirking, hiding, and evading our responsibility for the environment as a collective [21]. One can expect tensions at any point in environmental governance but, rather than pretending to eliminate them, the contract could force an ongoing conversation where those tensions can be managed. The contract can lead to a re-founding of the polity as an environmental polity, a community which is not allowed to neglect its position in and impact on the embedding social–ecological system. The argument blends well with Valentinov’s work [22,23] calling for a re-moralizing of sustainability discussions, with the sustainable future understood as always discursively unstable and always generating conflict in the present, yet shared responsibility for a shared future in a viable environment a moral imperative.
Beunen, Van Assche and Gruezmacher (2022) [24] place the analysis firmly in the context of social–ecological systems and see co-evolution in the ongoing co-construction of governance, community and environment. Strategy in environmental governance can then intervene in the three sub-systems and in their linkages [11,25]. The authors highlight the temporal dimension of environmental governance, as the cycles and time frames in the organizational and discursive dimensions of governance and the temporalities of the ecosystems are only very loosely linked [26,27,28], and as the interventions in the environment by governance are shaped not only by the features of the self- reproducing governance system [6,29,30], but also by its history of interventions and the memories thereof [31,32]. The authors distinguish between more ambitious strategies towards sustainability transitions, and environmental policy and governance aiming at less complex and comprehensive goals. Environmental governance strategy thus triggers effects on the material environment, on the community and on governance itself [33], and overarching images of “the environment” and what it should be like require a coordination of institutions, which again entails a multiplication of temporalities and system–environment relations involved [21].
As noted, the complexity and opacity thus mapped out also offer opportunities for directed change and innovation. Huntjens and Kemp (2022) [18] see opportunities arising from the corona crisis for dealing with three interrelated crises: an ecological crisis, a confidence crisis (trust and confidence in government, in science) and an inequality crisis—which can trigger further instabilities in social–ecological systems and further erode trust in institutions [34] cf [35]. The authors propose the aforementioned natural social contract as an innovation that can represent a re-foundation of environmental governance and lean on insights in co-evolutionary governance to identity system-specific leverage points for change, where unique actor coalitions can help to synchronize different agendas, which can then be helpful towards policy integration [36], but also in rendering the environment more legible for governance [22], and making governance more aware of the temporalities and leverage points relevant for achieving environmental change or preservation [16].
Tobin and Zaman (2022) [37], in their analysis of inter-municipal partnerships for waste management in Australia, reveal the complex interactions between actors in those partnerships, the collaborative and competitive nature of power/knowledge relations in the formation and functioning of the partnerships. They do notice, despite the observable benefits of the partnerships, a culture of competition (within and between partnerships) that detracts from the sustainability thinking supposed to guide the functioning of the partnerships and can even undermine it. Their study shows, quite remarkably, how a strong grasp of the complexity of waste management and of municipal governance as such can combine with a remarkable myopia and forgetting, induced by shorter term and smaller goals, by organizational identity and competitive behavior [38]. The authors make a persuasive connection with the reigning neo-liberal governance paradigm, which is apparently able to gloss over internal contradictions and keeps producing ever new narratives of competition and efficiency in governance. The story also illustrates the different co-evolutions of actors, of power/knowledge in different emerging partnership, as well as the different relation between the participating actors and the new entity of the partnership. The new entity sometimes functions based on a new emerging identity, in other cases the partnership is a sum of the parts and not more [4,5].
Van Assche, Gruezmacher and Beunen (2022) [32] investigate what happens when systems cannot reproduce themselves anymore based on existing procedures, when they cannot respond to a shock emanating from the environment. As with the balance between competition and collaboration, and the balance between innovation and tradition, there is no way to ascertain in general what such balance should be, and whether the effects of shocks (vs. stability or slow transformation) should be assessed as negative or positive. The authors do state that shocks can be both productive and eroding, and that the productivity can be both positive and negative. A shock can be productive in the sense of triggering the creation of a radical party or ideology, which can then create new obstacles for sustainability. Yet, a shock can also generate new ideas or coalitions which can do more than respond to the shock, which can solve older and different problems [39]. They point out the difference between social and ecological systems, and the implications for responses to shocks, by distinguishing between shocks and conflicts, with conflicts often arising in the social system.
Conflicts can be productive as well and, as with shocks, that productivity can be both positive and negative [20,40]. A difference—a crucial difference—is that conflicts can easily restructure memory and identity, through polarization of topics beyond the original bone of contention. Conflicts can increase unfortunate path dependencies and make it harder to manage the effects of shocks. Adaptive governance becomes harder then, because observations are simplified and dichotomized [41], while policy integration through strategy becomes tougher as artificially created opposites are harder to reconcile [7,28].
During, Van Assche and Van Dam (2022) [42] speak of situations where systems respond to disturbances in resilient ways. Leaning on a treasure trove of case studies in the Netherlands, they analyze situations where nature bounces back and comes closer to people and situations where people organize themselves to respond to this new closeness, or to promote ecological resilience. Thus, these cases show a set of different linkages between observable ecological resilience, and social resilience, understood as new forms of self-organization, possibly triggering effects higher up in governance. The authors recognize the differences between social and ecological systems, hence between social and ecological resilience, and map out the terrain for further investigations into their overlaps and potential synergies. They argue that social resilience as self-organization can be an important driver for overall social–ecological resilience, but, at the same time, that governance structures and capacities cannot be ignored or jeopardized [25]. More precisely, they demonstrate that maintaining the diversity of forms of knowing and organizing in multi-level governance is essential to the maintenance of both social and ecological resilience [3,8,12].
After shocks, systems do not always respond by bouncing back to a previous state, and this does not have to be the case. Systems can transition to a truly new state, and this is partly amenable to intervention and strategy [43,44,45]. Gerritsen et al. (2022) [46] speak of experimentalist forms of governance, where a problem is recognized, and an alternative is tried. Experimentalism can take the form of small experiments and of larger, more risky and costly reorganizations. The goal can be more narrowly focused or, alternatively, a true system transition. They highlight the diversity of forms of experimentalism, but also the diverse pathways through which forms of experimentalism can evolve and have effects. The problem definitions, the types of experiments devised, the forms of learning possible and the responses to the lessons in governance, are all marked by the path evolving governance traces [1]. Experimentalism is, therefore, never entirely open to complete sets of problem definitions, experimental forms and possible answers. One can speak of self-reference here [6], and of the dependencies in governance (recognized by evolutionary governance theory and others [47]) and of always contingent observations (this distinction vs. that one) that shape the functioning of governance [23].
Gerritsen et al. (2022) look at efforts in the realm of energy transition governance in the Netherlands, and argue that experimentalism can be more open, flexible and informed if awareness of the governance path and context inspires the decision-making on governance experiments. As usual, the dependencies at play create not only obstacles, but also enabling factors for experiment and innovation [48,49]. As usual, the experiment, if successful, is not the end of the story. New challenges will require adaptations, and a backlash against the experiment, against the government or against environmentalist ambitions can occur and thwart the intentions behind the experiment [36,50]. Careful governance path and context mapping before and during the experiment can help to manage the risk of backlash, an insight resonant with the paper by Huntjens and Kemp (2022).
Nayak and Berkes (2022) [51] offer a complementary perspective on the contingent character of co-evolution in governance, the plurality of pathways possible and the impossibility of perfect stability, of points of arrival in governance. In dialogue with the influential literature on the commons, they develop a perspective on commonization and de-commonization, locating the reasons for the creation and destruction of commons in a variety of factors, economic, social, environmental and political. Conditions which seem similar at first sight might nevertheless lead to entirely different governance arrangements [52], given the complex patterns of co-evolutions and the mechanisms of self-transformation that came about in an always unique governance path [9]. Moreover, a seemingly stable arrangement of commons might quickly erode and be replaced by alternative regimes based on individual private property or others.
Nayak and Berkes (2022) show that, while it is impossible to reverse governance paths entirely, it is entirely possible that stable arrangements, i.e., particular institutions, forms of organization, and whole governance configurations, come undone and reverse to a state resembling a previous state. This can be the result of path dependencies pulling back, it can be an actor or discursive coalition more fragile than it seems, but more generally it can be the contingent result of co-evolutions triggering self-transformation [27]. The resemblance of a new common with an old common, after a reversal of fortune in between, has to be superficial, just as a new form of socialism cannot be a replica of an actually existing old form of socialism [53]. Co-evolution in complex systems does not allow for turning back the clock, yet forms of organization, particular actors, discourses, forms of expertise, and policies can come back. In addition, types of governance configurations can also come back.
The nature of dependencies in governance, combined with the possibility of experiment and the unstoppable character of co-evolution, makes it possible for old features of environmental governance to reappear, for whole configurations to bounce back, or for radical transformations to occur. The environment considered by an environmental governance configuration will be changed by governance, and by itself [21,54]. The governance system itself will be changed by previous governance decisions and by its social and ecological environment. Neither the environment nor the governance system can be fully grasped, understood, and known by the governance system itself, and like all social–ecological systems, environmental governance operates based on uncertainties, narratives and productive fictions [33].
The contributions to this Special Issue highlight that the environment does talk back, and that a co-evolutionary analysis of environmental governance opens the door to a recognition of both new limits as well as new creative possibilities for improving the relation between social and ecological systems. Dealing with contingency, and distinguishing productive from harmful fictions is of the essence. If we choose to believe that one sort of expertise will solve all our problems, or that one policy tool or type of configuration will fix things forever, then we are in for trouble. If we, on the other hand, accept that transformation has to be self-transformation in governance, that small steps based on previous iterations of the system can lead to transformative change, to an emergent new order [13,31,47], and if we see that infinite semiosis, or the never-ending flow of signs and reinterpretations in power/knowledge [55], creates new pressures on governance, but also new openings, then we can productively move forward. Then, it becomes easier to understand how, as the contributors demonstrated, shocks can produce both innovation and conservatism, that common goods can fragment easily, that resilient social–ecological systems can bounce back to an acceptable state after one shock, but later to a terrible copy of the configuration, with entirely different ecological and social consequences.
A co-evolutionary perspective on environmental governance helps us to go beyond commonplaces and unravel how it is possible that some systems bounce back and why such resilience is in some cases productive and problematic in others [45]. It reveals why some shocks are productive, and others not. The contributions to this Special Issue show that no solution is perfect and will work everywhere but, more poignantly, that this is the case because of always unique sets of system–environment relations that produce unique governance configurations over time, with unique capabilities of transforming the environment. As environmental governance in its most potent form is about more than responding to crises, as alternative and better futures are imagined, the co-evolutions at play include those between images of the past, present and future. As ecosystems cannot imagine alternative futures and coordinate themselves in that direction, we as societies are responsible for them. Optimizing our pallet of possible interventions means becoming aware of governance paths and contexts, and of the co-evolutions that constrain and shape our modes of thinking and organizing, our repertoire of collective action.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, K.V.A., M.G. and R.B.; investigation, K.V.A., M.G. and R.B.; resources, K.V.A., M.G. and R.B.; writing—original draft preparation, K.V.A.; writing—review and editing, K.V.A., M.G. and R.B.; funding acquisition, K.V.A., M.G. and R.B.; All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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