The Tyranny of Small Decisions

How did we get to where we are today?

William Odum highlighted the importance of small decisions effects on wider environmental issues and management — the “tyranny of small decisions” as it is has been called. When the accretion of small decisions give rise to broader scale events and phenomena, the results that emerge are not necessarily optimal for society or the environment.

In the case of my PhD study area an important issue is the sustainable maintenance of the relationship between fire, vegetation and human activity across landscape, as a result of land use decisions made by individual humans within that landscape. To ignore the potential effects of these small decisions on the wider environment could prove costly.

Equally, when studying these effects of these individual decisions, the reciprocal effects of changes in the wider environment (e.g. the wildfire regime) upon them shouldn’t be omitted. The tyranny of small decisions means that any model of landscape change in needs to represent the feedbacks between individual decisions and the landscape consequences. Agent-based modelling, integrated with a cellular automata is one way I’m attempting to do this.

But these feedbacks don’t only happen in space across landscapes, they happen over time through one’s life. All the small minute-by-minute decisions that have led me to be where I am now. Individual minute-by-minute decisions made now, with an eye to future based on past experience. If making a decision at the current time is dependent upon one’s situation at the present time, which in turn has arisen due to past decisions, have those past decisions reduced the viable options one has open at the present time? Or have as many new doors opened as closed?

The tyranny of minute decisions. Why every minute counts. Any why we’ll never know whether a decision was the right or wrong one to make until all our minutes have gone…

Odum, W.E. 1982 Environmental Degradation and the Tyranny of Small Decisions Bioscience 32:9

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