method was designed to allow us to learn more about causes of declining productivity and to refine both goals and means. When “muddling through” is combined with efforts to learn and the capacity to adapt, or “adaptive management” (Walters, 1986), it can contribute to the emergence of effective common-pool resource institutions.


The previous discussion is influenced heavily by mainstream and also by less well-known and emerging traditions in studies of common property and, more generally, human ecology. My goal in the rest of the chapter is to highlight the less familiar and newer traditions that have influenced my own thoughts and are of potential interest to other scholars and practitioners.

Actor-Focused Ecology and the Economics of Flexibility

The value of muddling through processes, through which initial changes are small, relatively cheap, and not necessarily informed by consideration of larger values and goals, is similar to an argument made by Bateson (1963, 1972) and Slobodkin (Slobodkin and Rapoport, 1974; Slobodkin, 1968) concerning the “economics of flexibility” in evolution and adaptation. From that perspective, developed by human ecologists in the 1970s, responding adaptively involves not only deploying resources to cope with the immediate problem, but also leaving reserves (the source of flexibility) for future contingencies (Vayda and McCay, 1975:294). Minimal, less costly, and more reversible responses are predicted to occur first. If an environmental problem worsens or is not adequately met by the initial responses, “deeper,” most costly, and less reversible responses take over (McCay, 1978). In other words, there’s no point mustering the troops if you can survive by ignoring the problem or, if necessary, scare away the intruder yourself. But you may not survive, much less deal with problems like paying the rent, unless the troops are mustered. As stated by McCay (1978:415-416):

Within the “economics of flexibility” theory, minimal responses to perturbation may be valuable in providing a built-in time lag for evaluating the magnitude, duration, and other characteristics of problems, as well as the effectiveness of solutions. They therefore minimize the chance that costly and irreversible responses are activated for what might turn out to be trivial or transient problems. The implied cautiousness might also be adaptive for human actors who tend to define inherently complex problems in terms of narrow solutions on hand…and thus, as in the case of “technological fix” solutions to natural hazards…create new problems for themselves and others. However, if environmental problems persist, the costs of diversification strategies…may increase…for the actors. They are then expected to make decisions leading to increased commitment to

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