State of the Field: Too big, too small, just right – the Goldilocks Conundrum of Conservation

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scale can really change perspective... take this fruit fly eye, for example, at scanning electron microscope scale - it looks like an army of hairs

Scale seems like a simple term with a simple definition, a concept certainly not up for debate. Well, digging just a little deeper we find that the nuances of a term that is used in almost every discipline make it important to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Furthermore, it’s important to make sure that the concept gets some attention, some time on the agenda, and some problem-solving energy.

In the world of conservation, scale mismatches are often a visible failure of policies, leading to recent calls for ecosystem-based management that trace scales of governance according to ecosystem boundaries instead of political boundaries. This has led to the existence of “peace parks” protecting wildlands that cross national borders, watershed management plans, and attention to habitat protection in environmental species conservation, to name a few examples. However, matching governance to ecosystem scale is only one type of scale adjustment that needs to occur.

Scale can potentially be used as a unifying concept when bridging natural and social aspects of an ecosystem (Silver 2008). Scales are often constructed at the social level to meet political ends, so if one has conservation goals in mind, reconstructing the social scale to meet biophysical boundaries may serve as a means to appropriately bound a social-ecological system. Defining such a system allows a complete model of the system to be formed, including both natural and social factors and processes. In addition, local ecological knowledge is generally ecosystem-based, so unifying scale may be a means to gather more information about the system that can lead to better management by making that knowledge relevant (Berkes 2008).

Scale is also important when defining and framing a problem for potential policy action. The scale at which a problem is framed bounds the possible solutions (Escobar 2004), so misrepresenting the scale may leave out effective solutions. An estuarine example of this comes from Carteret County, NC, where Andreatta and Parlier (2010) have examined the political ecology of small-scale fishing. The area faces a decline in traditionally large fisheries such as menhaden that is largely attributed to overfishing. However, local fishers point out that although overfishing definitely plays a large role in the decline, larger ecosystem factors such as habitat removal for development or pollution also likely play a role. These factors, rather than directly killing fish, decrease the total number of fish the estuary can support (known as carrying capacity). The fisher’s framing of the problem questions whether fishery closures will help the stock return to historic levels without other solutions for water quality and habitat.

The scale of governance is arguably the most malleable of the factors in a social-ecological system. Choosing a scale is like Goldilocks choosing a chair – too big, too small, or just right. For an example of governance occurring at too large a scale, Campbell (2007) discusses the role of international conservation organizations in local conservation efforts for sea turtles in Costa Rica. Coastal communities in Costa Rica have developed their own management system over a long period of tenure along the same beaches. Through careful observations of turtle nesting behavior (the main source of information about sea turtle population status), the locals have decided that they can collect turtle eggs to sell for profit during the first 36 hours of nesting without harming population levels, since those eggs are often squashed by later sea turtle females forming their nests. The collection days become a community event and embed conservation practice in local cultures and customs. However, recent calls from the international community to end egg harvests have demonized the local practices and disconnected the communities that are part of the turtle nesting habitats from conservation efforts by making their values irrelevant.

An example of governance occurring at too small a scale, Jentoft (2000) discusses an instance of ineffective comanagement. The governance system was designed to include individual fisher input but “fishermen, among whom norms of equity and reciprocity used to reign, have now, much as a consequence of fisheries management, become selfish profit-seeking individuals, who regard management systems is opportunistic terms”. He describes an anomie, or confusion over social norms, developed in the fishers in communities that have not maintained community support programs. He concludes comanagement “can only work effectively as part of a larger scheme for community development, which includes the civil society as an arena for social integration, building trust and networks, learning and internalization of democratic virtues and social responsibility through participation in public affairs”. Comanagement has been shown to be remarkably effective in other communities (Jentoft, McCay et al. 1998), but this example shows that the scale of comanagement must be at the community level.

Scale, a relatively simple concept, becomes complicated because people don’t give it enough credit for the ability to cause problems or prevent successful conservation efforts. Perhaps even more important than paying attention to a particular scale is to pay attention to cross-scale linkages, or something at a much broader or narrower level might be affecting your project. The devil’s in the details, the saying goes, and this is one of those details that must not be forgotten.


Jennifer Silver (2008). Weighing in on scale: synthesizing disciplinary approaches to scale in the context of building interdisciplinary resource management Society and Natural Resources, 21 (10)

Berkes, F. (2008). Sacred ecology, Psychology Press.

Escobar, A. (2004). “Beyond the Third World: imperial globality, global coloniality and anti-globalisation social movements.” Third World Quarterly 25(1): 207-230.

Andreatta, S., & A. Parlier (2010). The Political Ecology of Small-Scale Commercial Fishermen in Carteret County, North Carolina Human Organization, 69 (2)

Lisa Campbell (2007). Local conservation practice and global discourse: A political ecology of sea turtle conservation Annals of the American Association of Geographers

Jentoft, S. (2000). The community: a missing link of fisheries management Marine Policy, 24 (1), 53-60 DOI: 10.1016/S0308-597X(99)00009-3

Jentoft, S., B. McCay, et al. (1998). “Social theory and fisheries co-management.” Marine Policy 22(4-5): 423-436.