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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

Technical solutions and shifting the burden

Variable relationship:

This theory stipulates that technology, or technical solutions, (Technology Role) can be used to treat the proximate rather than the underlying causes of an environmental problem (Causal Level). This lowers the immediate salience or visibility of the problem (Commons Feedback Visibility Use; Commons Feedback Speed Use). This process leads to a continuation of the problem and a decline of the commons (Commons Condition Trend), to which the actor groups have become highly vulnerable (Actor Vulnerability).

According to Hardin (1968), "a technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality." The main idea here is that technical fixes can be applied without larger changes to human behavior.

This theory can apply to both natural resources (see Holling and Meffe 1996) as well as to pollution management cases. In the language of systems thinking (from which the name for theory is derived), the problem is expressed as the treatment of symptoms of a problem rather than as the underlying causes of said problem. While offering a (frequently politically feasible) solution to environmental problems, only treating symptoms may leave the involved actor groups more reliant on these temporary fixes, and ultimately more vulnerable to disturbances in the long run.

One example of this phenomenon is the adoption of new electric groundwater well technologies that enable farmers to access groundwater when surface water is scarce, instead of coming to an institutional agreement to govern how much surface water should be used by each farmer and when. Such a situation is described by Cody et al. (2015) regarding a set of farmers in the San Luis Valley of Colorado.

Another example occurs in the adoption of new diving technologies by fishermen that enable them to fish in new locations and at greater depths when current locations are becoming scarce. A third, very prominent, example occurs in the implementation of geo-engineering technologies to combat climate change without mitigating the emission rates of greenhouse gases.

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
Causal levelProximate independent variableA fundamental part of shifting the burden involves the exclusive focus on proximate causes, or symptoms, of a problem rather than more underlying drivers.Proximate
Governance knowledge useProximate independent variableTechnical solutions rely primarily on scientific knowledge in order to determine how much of a commons should be used.Scientific
Technology roleProximate independent variableTechnology enables users to either access an additional natural resource or mitigate the effects of a harmful pollutant, thereby avoiding the problems that had resulted from their excessive use of a portion of the commons.Increased commons use
Commons feedback speed useIntermediate outcomeThe act of ameliorating the symptoms of the problem associated with the use of this commons lowers the speed with which the consequences of its use are made noticeable to the users.Low
Commons feedback visibility useIntermediate outcomeThe act of ameliorating the symptoms of the problem associated with the use of this commons lowers the visibility of this problem to those involved.Low
Commons condition trendFinal outcomeAs a result of only being superficially treated, the problem that has caused the condition of the commons to worsen continues.Worsened
Actor vulnerabilityFinal outcomeAs the new technology is implemented to maintain the status quo, commons users becomes reliant on this technology and the new commons it enables the use of. This reliance translates into increased vulnerability to disruptions in both the technology and the use of the commons.Increased

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
Numeric managementcontradictory
Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM)related
Political decentralization and fitrelated
Failure of centralized controlrelated
Parametric managementrelated
Rebound effectrelated
Borlaug hypothesis and deforestationcontradictory

Related Studies


Holling, C.S., Meffe, G.K., 1996. Command and control and the pathology of natural resource management. Conserv. Biol. 10.


Cody, Kelsey C, Steven M Smith, Michael Cox, and Krister Andersson. 2015. “Emergence of Collective Action in a Groundwater Commons: Irrigators in the San Luis Valley of Colorado.” Society & Natural Resources 28 (4): 405–422.