Abstract: Observation and measurement of the ocean’s ecosystems is difficult and costly. It makes verification of our theories difficult and forces us to engage in collective action based upon often very imperfect concepts of the dynamics of the system. Once we establish the institutions of collective action, however, we adopt ‘official’ conceptions of system dynamics that define the bounds of individual action. In response, individuals (in both private and public employment) invest in skills, knowledge, capital, technology, business plans, and scientific agendas that fit within those bounds. The self-interest reflected in these investments filters the amount and the quality of private information provided to the public so that it is consistent with the self-interest of the agents who acquire it. If the system being managed is simple and the costs of data collection minor, these impairments are not likely to be significant. Under these circumstances a public, impersonal science body should be able to gather whatever information is necessary for continuing adaptive governance. In a complex system, however, these impairments deprive the governance process of valuable information and reduce the scope for collective adaptation (the set of feasible rules). In these circumstances path dependent lock-in reduces adaptive capacity, contributing thereby to the circumstances for still another tragedy. Our way out of this dilemma rests in institutional design that is adapted to an understanding of the limits of our ability to monitor, predict and control natural systems. We tend to gravitate towards scientific, institutional, and private arrangements that emphasize the use of quantitative knowledge. We do this because our collective experience elsewhere has taught us that quantitative approaches facilitate the processes of collective action. In the kinds of complex systems found in the ocean, however, the ability to acquire collectively useful quantitative knowledge is limited in ways that are consistent and knowable. At fine ecological and temporal scales the costs of observation generally prevent reasonable quantitative management of the 30 James Wilson resource; at broad scales quantitative approaches are impaired by the slow pace at which we can acquire observations of the system. Nevertheless, knowledge of these fine and broad scale aspects of natural systems is important to our adaptive capacity. Persistent reliance upon institutional arrangements keyed to quantitative approaches only tends to blind us to a substantial segment of the natural system, restrict our adaptive capacity, and make us vulnerable to surprises that develop outside the scope of our collective vision. Improving our adaptive capacity, consequently, means matching our institutional designs to the kinds of knowledge we can acquire economically.
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