Managing the great unknown

How decision theory, thresholds, scenarios and resilience can reduce risks and uncertainties

Photo: J. Lokrantz/Azote
When it comes to dealing with global change there are both good and not so good news. The good news is that we are the first generation with the knowledge of how our activities influence the Earth system. The less good news is that global change issues are complex and the consequences of decisions are often highly uncertain.
The question is thus: how can we best guide decision-making to meet present and future human needs given pervasive uncertainty?
This question is the starting point for a new article recently published in TREE. The article, which is written by centre scientific director Carl Folke together with Stephen Polasky, Stephen Carpenter and Bonnie Keeler, is a theoretical attempt to find new approaches to dealing with decision-making under great uncertainty.
Imperfect on their own, powerful in company
Folke and his co-authors argue that there is no silver bullet theory out there. Instead, they have looked at ways to make the most out of a variety of theories and practices.
"Although there is no perfect approach to decision-making for global change, various approaches contain potentially useful components that help address different aspects of learning and decision-making," Carl Folke says.
Folke and his co-authors found that decision theory, thresholds approaches, scenarios and resilience thinking together can expand awareness of the potential states and outcomes, probabilities and consequences of alternative decisions.
Strengths and weaknesses
Decision theory is an approach that uses available information to make optimal decisions under uncertainty. The major advantages of the theory are that it provides a clear statement of the problem and objective for decision-making. The major disadvantage of decision theory for global change problems is that it requires more information to effectively implement than is likely to exist.
Enter thresholds approaches. They can be useful in organising thinking about complex problems by focusing attention on dynamic boundaries and regime shifts that may have major consequences if crossed. Examples of the application of thresholds in global change include the suggested planetary boundaries to avoid unpleasant global environmental change.
"Thresholds can be used as a screen to rule out actions thought to have too high a risk of crossing a threshold or to rank actions based on how risky they are," says co-author Stephen Carpenter, at the Center for Limnology at University of Wisconsin.

Scenarios are sets of plausible stories, supported with data and simulations, about how the future might unfold. It helps people contextualise the future. The benefits of using scenario planning has previously been studied in case-studies on small-scale farming as well as examples from the business world.

During the 1980s IBM ignored the potential of scenario planning and as a result greatly underestimated the market for personal computers. Oil giant Shell took a different approach and used scenario planning to help them adapt and innovate more rapidly than its competitors during the mid-1970s.

Inclusiveness both a strength and weakness of resilience
Similar to scenarios, resilience thinking uses processes that uncover uncertainty. It focuses on critical thresholds for system performance and how to build capacity to recognise, respond and even transform in relation to thresholds.
"Resilience thinking generates a comprehensive, inclusive view of the entire system that aims to include relevant factors for a decision. Its generality and inclusiveness is both a strength and a weakness of resilience thinking, but because it is comprehensive it can be combined with the other theories and approaches to provide guidance in management settings," Carl Folke says.
Crucial to understand future trajectories
Bottom line is that in situations of profound uncertainty, decision theory, threshold approaches, scenario planning and resilience thinking together can be useful ways to organise complex materials and broaden the perspective.

"Scientific assessments have a key role to play in improving decision-making. Although difficult, trying to understand the future trajectory of global change is unavoidable. Making good decisions even with limited information and great uncertainty is necessary if we hope to steer the world towards more sustainable trajectories,"Folke concludes.

See whiteboard seminar video with Carl Folke explaining the theory of resilience:

Loading the player ...
Souce: Polasky, S., S.R. Carpenter, C. Folke, and B. Keeler. 2011. Decision-Making under Great Uncertainty: Environmental Management in an Era of Global Change. Trends in Ecology and Evolution doi:10.1016/j.tree.2011.04.007.

Request publication (Include publication title in subject line)

Polasky, S., S.R. Carpenter, C. Folke, and B. Keeler. 2011. Decision-Making under Great Uncertainty: Environmental Management in an Era of Global Change. Trends in Ecology and Evolution doi:10.1016/j.tree.2011.04.007.

Request publication (Include publication title in subject line)

Professor Carl Folke is Science Director of the centre and has extensive experience in transdisciplinary collaboration between natural and social scientists. He has worked with ecosystem dynamics and services as well as the social and economic dimension of ecosystem management and proactive measures to manage resilience.


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