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Emerging Collective Action to Resolve Sustainability Trade-offs in Polycentric Governance Systems: Evidence from Trift, Switzerland

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Kellner, Elke; Oberlack, Christoph
Conference: Workshop on the Ostrom Workshop 6
Location: Indiana University, Bloomington
Conf. Date: June 19-21, 2019
Date: 2019
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/10462
Sector: Social Organization
Region: Europe
Subject(s): polycentricity
collective action
Abstract: "Recent scholarship on polycentric governance has called for increased attention of processes of cooperation, competition and coercion in order to better explain the varying performance of polycentric governance systems. This need is particularly acute in situations with strong trade-offs between sustainability goals (e.g. environment vs. economic development) and competing claims on natural resources (e.g. renewable energy infrastructures in landscapes deserving protection). This paper presents an analysis how processes of cooperation, competition and coercion influence the emergence of collective action in the face of sustainability trade-offs. We analysed polycentric governance processes around a planned hydropower dam in the Trift area in the Swiss Alps between 2008 and 2017 as an exemplary case study. The data are from 24 semi-structured interviews, participatory observation, transect walks and analysis of policy documents, laws, meeting minutes and media news. The results show that the planned construction of the Trift reservoir is expected to create trade-offs among sustainability goals, as evidenced through positive expected impacts on eight targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and adverse expected impacts on seven other SDG targets. These sustainability trade-offs correspond to diverse actor claims on natural resource held. Despite this difficult starting point, collective action emerged during a five-year process. We trace the detailed processes of cooperation, competition and coercion that account for this emerging collective action in the face of sustainability trade-offs. We find that the combination of a participatory process with separate spaces for knowledge creation and engagement with local mayors was directly instrumental in building collective action. Preparations for the popular vote on the Swiss national energy strategy and learnings from earlier experiences with hydropower projects as well as with former participatory processes were processes that indirectly facilitated emerging collective action in this unlikely situation. We conclude by showing that situations of sustainability trade-offs imply important new directions in the study of collective action by broadening the set of evaluative criteria and by focusing on interdependent processes of cooperation, competition and coercion in polycentric systems."

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