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For every solution there are many problems: the role and study of technical systems in socio-environmental coevolution

Abstract

This paper uses a case study on the evolution of the Rhine river delta to illustrate the coevolution of the environment, the technology used to exploit it, and the institutions governing it. Three strands are interwoven:

  1. Achieving equilibrium between protecting and utilizing land is difficult. In this area, as a result of exploitation, agriculture on fertile peat is succeeded by stock raising on infertile peat, peat extraction, inundation, and drainage to regain fertile soil.
  2. In the dynamic between collective and individual action that accompanies these changes, individuals beget institutions and institutions beget individuals.
  3. New technologies are invented, helping overcome challenges posed by the natural environment. Their unexpected consequences undermine the solutions found, leading to new technologies, etc.

The ultimate cause is the interaction between human cognition and action. Our cognition is limited in the number of dimensions it can simultaneously handle, and our action (directly or indirectly) affects all the dimensions of the complex adaptive system that is the environment, triggering unintended consequences, and new actions. This feedback takes the system from perceived challenges to solutions to new, unintended challenges, driving the region further and further from its point of departure, towards the bottom of the sea.
Authors: Sander van der Leeuw

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