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How can we tackle Taboo Trade-offs in development and sustainable resource management? New paper in PNAS


Decisions about sustainable natural resource management often entail weighing up seemingly incommensurate factors. These have profound implications for poverty alleviation and for poor people. Decisions about who has access and can benefit from natural resources, and what this means for conservation require careful balancing. These are the kinds of dilemmas that confront conservation planners developing protected areas, and development projects seeking to integrate conservation with needs of poor people and adjacent communities.

Many – or indeed all – of these decisions entail trade-offs. A trade-off occurs when a positive change in one thing results in a negative change in another. A common example is when decisions made for conservation restrict people’s access to a set of resources. In effect the enhanced or improved biodiversity is traded off against peoples’ rights to use and generate income from resources. Those resources might be valuable timber in a protected forest, or game meat from a National Park.

Findings from recent research in coastal Kenya and published in a new paper in PNAS, set out to investigate the possible trade-offs and what they mean for different people and for marine resource management. Trade-offs can be between different people, different resources, and might also vary across time and space. For example, many sustainable development decisions involve weighing up trade-offs between present and future generations. This often means sacrificing short-term profit for long-term security.

But what is being traded off and how decisions get made are of paramount importance. This new study suggests that understanding the underlying nature of the values being traded-off is vitally important, and may influence whether outcomes are successful or decisions themselves supported. It also has important implications for conservation and development decision-making.

This work applies ideas developed by psychologist Philip Tetlock, who first proposed that values could be understood in this way. He distinguishes two categories of values: Sacred values, such as justice or human rights, which are absolute and inviolable, and secular values that are fungible and are potentially reducible to monetary terms.

This results in three distinct types of tradeoffs. Taboo trade-offs, which pit sacred values against secular ones; and routine trade-offs which pit secular values against each other, and tragic tradeoffs which pit sacred values against each other.

Routine trade-offs between secular values are amenable to well-known conventional decision-making tools such as cost-benefit analysis. But tragic trade-offs are especially difficult; for example, between secular values such as money and sacred values, such as love and loyalty. People often reject making these trade-offs because they transgress moral boundaries and violate deeply held values, integrity and self-identity.

Yet this is around these tragic trade-offs that many conflicts in conservation and development arise. These types of problems require devising platforms where people can express their opinions and where decisions can be carefully deliberated. These decisions cannot be left to technical fixes – if so, they will be viewed as unjust, and illegitimate.

To overcome these problems, the environmental governance literature advocates value pluralism and pragmatism as compromises between the economist’s technocratic approach and the psychologist’s deadlock. Value pluralism suggests that although there may be a clash of core values which will be exposed in hard choices, almost everyone can be persuaded to engage in trade-off reasoning when five important conditions are met: transparency; salience; cultural acceptability; accountability; and when it is no longer socially acceptable to avoid decision-making. It is under these conditions that trade-off reasoning becomes possible. Necessary pre-conditions include inclusiveness (that all relevant stakeholders are acknowledged and engaged); employing multiple methods; making sure that information is made available; and processes that build trust are emphasized.

This all implies that we need different decision-making approaches for different types of trade-offs – that ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ and that negotiating between secular and sacred values requires understanding deeply held values and acknowledging that they might not be easily compensated or simply reconciled.

The research suggests that different strategies are necessary. Extended cost benefit analysis and conventional impact analysis might help to understand routine trade-offs. But taboo trade-offs require carefully structured and very sensitively planned deliberative platforms where different stakeholders are able to express and articulate deeply held views and values.

The research undertaken in Kenya as part of the ESPA-funded ‘Participatory Modelling of Wellbeing Tradeoffs in Coastal Kenya (P-Mowtick)’ project suggests that new forms of engagement to enable discussions around gendered opportunities are necessary to open up space for negotiation about marine protected area and fisheries policy are necessary. Without social equity, then policies and rules will not be seen as legitimate and are unlikely to be wholeheartedly supported by all in the community. Understanding values and views is fundamental and a first starting point before such negotiations can even begin and before protected area and conservation rules are devised and regulations implemented. This can only feasibly be done when local people and primary stakeholders who are most affected by these decisions, are confident of fair processes that recognise their voices, views and needs.

Evaluating taboo trade-offs in ecosystems services and human well-being

Tim M. Daw, Sarah Coulthard, William W. L. Cheung, Katrina Brown, Caroline Abunge, Diego Galafassi, Garry D. Peterson, Tim R. McClanahan, Johnstone O. Omukoto, and Lydiah Munyi.


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