grasslands decline in China and Inner Mongolia (Williams, 2000). In addition, where there is a high degree of uncertainty about the environmental problems, as is often the case in fisheries as well as in many toxic exposure situations, there is even more scope for conflict and opportunistic behavior by special interests (Wilson and McCay, 1999).
Finally, in some situations, the predicted response of most people and social entities is “so what?” During civil war or a famine, protecting a forest or water supply is not likely to galvanize action. The critical and scarce resource is the ability to survive. “So what” can also be the response when new opportunities arise quickly, before existing institutions can respond to them (or are overwhelmed by them). For example, if most people in a community are making money from the destructive practice of dynamiting fish on a coral reef, protecting that reef is not likely to happen unless someone can provide alternative resources and motivations (see Alcala and Russ, 1990).
Once on the agenda, a whole new set of questions arises. Do people see and accept any cause-and-effect or action-and-consequence relationship between their behavior and the environment issue at hand? (This also affects whether the problem gets onto the agenda.) If they do, is the situation viewed as something that can be corrected or that is “too far gone”?
In many situations, because of culture, past experience, or the inherent disconnects between perceived action and perceived consequences, people do not accept that their actions or the actions of other people have any real effect on the resources in question, either as causes of problems or as potential sources of solutions. Carrier (1987) shows this for Ponam Islanders of Papua New Guinea, who believed that God, not people, caused change in fish, shellfish, and turtles, and thus were unwilling to accept the need to change their harvesting practices being promulgated by people concerned about major declines in some of these resources. Similarly, many New England fishermen have resisted changes in fishery management because they were convinced that chaotic-like processes in nature had long resulted in cycles of abundance and decline, and thus that restrictions on their catches would do little good (Smith, 1990; see Wilson, this volume:Chapter 10).
The role played by such dismissals or suspicions of human agency is likely to be greater with respect to resources that are difficult to monitor (i.e., fast-moving fish versus stationary shellfish; or fish versus trees). Other ecological factors are important as well, such as variability and uncertainty. As noted already, features of the natural world influence whether people are able to accurately see what is happening to a common-pool resource, much less appraise the effects of human activities on it and predict what happens next. However, one should not focus too much on features of the natural environment at the expense