Photo: J. Lokrantz/Azote

At the intersection of law and resilience

Conference merges the dynamics of social-ecological systems with the predictability of law.

A social- ecological system is by default dynamic but it is also brittle. Too much rigidity can ultimately cause it to collapse. Law on the other hand upholds principles of predictability, reliability and stability.
A recent conference in Stockholm tried to find ways to merge these seemingly contradictory capacities.
The conference, entitled Law for Social-Ecological Resilience, was organised by the centre and Stockholm Environmental Law and Policy Centre, and gathered an interdisciplinary mix of researchers, lawyers and governance thinkers.

The risks of contradictions
Laws are often conservative and persistent. A frequently used example during the conference was the international law on the freedom of the high seas. Although proposed by the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius as early as 1609, it did not become an accepted principle of international law until the 19th century, but has not changed despite overfishing and depleted fish stocks.
“Law is good at conserving and keeping things as they are. In an ever-changing world this gives — in the short term — a feeling of security for those who benefit from it. However, as the disconnection between the changing world and the conservation of certain interest by law continues, adaptation of the interests and the changing world is delayed. These interests or the changing world, or both, become susceptible to collapse. Law and its conservation then become a risk in themselves. In this perspective law and resilience can be seen as very contradictory", said Jérôme Dangerman, scenario planner and lawyer at Nuon and scientist at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
Changes shaped by humanity
Centre Science director Carl Folke opened the conference with an introduction to resilience and how the biosphere for the first time in history is shaped by humanity to the extent that it might threaten the stability of the entire earth system.

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Following up with a quote from D. H. Lawrence, Professor Barbara Cosens from University of Idaho contested the belief among lawyers that you can study law and apply it to any area.

“Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one. But there is a third thing that makes it water, and nobody knows what that is", Cosens quoted, stressing that any law person need an understanding of the system before applying laws to it.

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Challenging the rationales of law
So how can our legal framework deal with the inherent variability of ecological systems?

Ecological systems occur at multiple scales and so do social systems. Professor Cosens suggested that stability at the large scale can provide room for innovation at the local level and fill in the gap when local level collapses. Multi-level governance is one key feature to foster resilience. Network analysis can be used in environmental law to find effective networks that are already present.

Centre researcher and conference organiser Jonas Ebbesson outlined the rationales of environmental law which are primarily applied to prevent or repair harm. At a more principled and policy level the rationale is to promote sustainable development as well as justice.

“The notion of social-ecological resilience not only gives a different perspective on prevention and reparation, it invites us to rethink sustainable development, and it challenges law, the rationales of law, and legal thinking in general. But this is not a one-way street: research on resilience can be further developed by a deeper understanding of the functions, structures and complexity of law", Ebbeson said.

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Not new regimes, but better collaborations
When it comes to international law, there is a demand for new laws or regulatory regimes.

According to key note speaker Ellen Hey from Erasmus University, it is not new regimes that are needed but a better connection between existing agreements on climate, human rights, trade etc. Many of these agreements have developed in an ad hoc manner and there is not enough clarity on how they should relate to each other.

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An inefficient way to manage our world
Professor Frank Biermann of Netherlands Research School for the Socio-economic and Natural Sciences of the Environment (SENSE), called for a rethink of nation's sovereignty and borders.

“Looking from the outside, countries and borders is a rather strange, and inefficient, strategy for managing our world", he said.

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Related info

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See video seminars from the conference here

Visit the conference website


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Stockholm Resilience Centre
Stockholm University, Kräftriket 2B
Phone: +46 8 674 70 70

Organisation number: 202100-3062
VAT No: SE202100306201