Disturbances to key aspects of ecological systems, including biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution and natural resource degradation, have become a major concern to many policy analysts. Instead of learning from the study of biological complexity however, social scientists tend to recommend simple panaceas, particularly government or private ownership, as ‘the’ way to solve these problems. This paper reviews and assesses potential solutions for such overly simplified institutional prescriptions, referred to here as the ‘panacea problem’. In contrast to these simple prescriptions, recent research efforts are now illustrating the diversity of institutions around the world related to environmental conservation. The complexity of working institutions, however, presents a challenge to scholars who equate scientific knowledge with relatively simple models that predict optimal performance if specific institutional arrangements are in place. Dealing with this complexity has led to the development of frameworks as meta-theoretical tools. The institutional analysis and development (IAD) framework has been used over the last three decades as a foundation for a focused analysis of how institutions affect human incentives, actions and outcomes. Building on this foundation, the social-ecological systems (SES) framework has recently enabled researchers to begin the development of a common language that crosses social and ecological disciplines to analyse how interactions among a variety of factors affect outcomes. Such a framework may be able to facilitate a diagnostic approach that will help future analysts overcome the panacea problem. Using a common framework to diagnose the source, and possible amelioration, of poor outcomes for ecological and human systems enables a much finer understanding of these complex systems than has so far been obtained, and provides a basis for comparisons among many systems and ultimately more responsible policy prescriptions.
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