Experimenting for sustainable land use: free exploration or limited view?

Experimenting is hot! And that is promising for environmental problems, because experimenting is the management approach where radically alternative ideas can be tested and scaled up. But is that actually happening? In other words: how transformative is experimenting as a management approach? This is the subject of a new paper published in Environmental Policy & Governance, for which ten subsidence experiments in the Dutch Groene Hart were investigated.

If we integrally want to address problems in the Netherlands, we must focus our attention on non-sustainable soil use and the structures which uphold that.

Looking beyond technological innovation

Authors Mandy van den Ende , Heleen Mees , Peter Driessen and Dries Hegger do not deny that a technological measure can reduce peat oxidation and address subsidence and greenhouse-gas emissions in the process, but this does not solve the root of the problem. This results in other problems such as bad water quality, increased risk of flooding and loss of biodiversity remaining unaddressed. "If we integrally want to address problems in the Netherlands, we must focus our attention on non-sustainable soil use and the social, economic, governance and institutional structures which uphold that," the authors state.

Routes to transformation

A possible route to transformation is to impose new policy, such as by establishing responsibilities for more sustainable use of soil in laws and regulations. "This is a process that brings about relatively quick changes," Van den Ende says, "but it leads to much societal resistance and requires politicians to be very decisive, involved and courageous."

By considering the current soil function, they are playing it safe.

A step-by-step route such as experimenting has a lower threshold: "It can start small-scale systemic changes towards sustainable soil use." Experimenting provides administrators with the possibility to put new ideas into practice without the need to fear big political consequences if the results are disappointing, and citizens can slowly get used to it.

Limited scope for solutions

There is no lack of experiments in the Dutch Groene Hart. However, most subsidence experiments are focused on technological innovation, with the starting point that the current use of soil (mostly intensive cattle farming) needs to be continued. "By considering the current soil function, they are playing it safe," Van den Ende says. The authors are especially concerned with the dominance of technological experiments. "Further development, access to additional funds and upscaling fortify a technological solution route and head off transformative paths for the future."

Transformative experimenting

So increasing the scope of the solution - being able to walk various paths for the future - is essential. Only if a broad range of alternative measures are visible, the most logical option can be chosen based on the needs of the landscape. This does require a different form of experimenting. "More equal representation of various interested parties such as agriculture pioneers, future generations and non-human actors, but also more co-creation and less technocracy," Van den Ende says. All in all, experimenting as a steering approach will have to undergo its own transformation before it can contribute to a transformation towards sustainable soil use.

Publication

Van Den Ende, M. A., Hegger, D. L. T., Mees, H. L. P., & Driessen, P. P. J. (2024). The transformative potential of experimentation as an environmental governance approach: The case of the Dutch peatlands. Environmental Policy and Governance, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1002/eet.2098