Nebraska Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit


Date of this Version



Published in Social-Ecological Resilience and Law, ed. Ahjond S. Garmestani and Craig R. Allen (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).


U.S. Government Work.


A dramatic paradigm shift in American law occurred in 1970, as Congress began to target hazardous waste, water pollution, and protection of endangered species with sweeping new legislation (Lazarus 2004). Preceding this new era of environmental protection, federal policies had already begun to shift resource use from private interests for economic development to conservation and preservation by and for the public. This shift in U.S. policy was preceded by subtle shifts in the way that scientists, policy makers, and the public viewed and conceptualized the natural environment. In particular, changing conceptions of the naturalness of ecosystems, humans' ability to affect ecological processes, and the manner in which ecological systems function preceded the emergence of new environmental laws (Lazarus 2004). Early environmental laws in the United States were dominated by optimism and the belief that technology would be able to "fix" environmental problems, and many of these laws were successful at addressing numerous environmental issues (Lazarus 2004). Growing recognition of the inherent uncertainty associated with the dynamics of ecological systems and their often nonlinear and surprising behavior, however, presents a set of problems outside the scope of classic environmental law and has led to a fundamental understanding about the interaction of environmental law and ecological systems: rigid legal standards are largely incompatible with our current understanding of the dynamics of social-ecological systems. Nature is not static, and thus environmental law should be adapted to reflect our current understanding of nature. The chapters in this volume have deeply considered this nexus of law and social-ecological resilience. The authors have considered how legal systems can be made more resilient, and how laws might be configured to foster resilience in social, ecological and social-ecological systems.