Capacity analyzed

Navigating the site:










CORE acronym












Recent material




Science subjects

Site Map


Technology time-line




WEAL acronym


World view

Z-A contents of this site


return to top of the page



















What is adaptive management?

Understanding carrying capacity and bounded rationality requires contrasting two kinds of natural capacity.

Bounded Rationality - a means of learning when there is limited data capability

"Instead of considering all the available alternatives when making a choice, we typically select from a restricted set. Instead of choosing the best alternative (which may not even be in the set we choose from), we typically make a satisfactory choice -- one that is good enough, if not the best. These apparently simple insights have profound implications."

( K. Lee: pp. 52, 53 )

"the most important implication is that learning in a world of bounded rationality is a costly, step by step search for better alternatives, in which local improvements may or may not benefit the whole."

Adaptive management was defined by an interdisciplinary team of biologists and systems analysts working in the mid-1970s at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, a think tank… outside Vienna.”

“Their work, published in 1978, was rooted in what their leader, Canadian ecological theorist C. S. Holling, called ‘a bias’ that understanding how natural systems respond to human disturbance is essential to ‘living with the unexpected.’

A similar approach…was developed slightly later by Allan Savory…called… ‘holistic resource management.’ The implicit idea underlying these approaches [is] that humans could not and should not try to control as many natural fluctuations as industrialism seems to demand.… ”

(Kai Lee, p. 54)

Kai Lee, Compass and the Gyroscope.

Compare to

Norris Hundley, The Great Thirst

Measuring Capacity as a key tool of adaptive management:

These two concepts are related kinds of limitations with slightly different meanings.

Both terms suggest that available resources such as water, energy, air, landscape, vegetation, wildlife or domesticated produce have a limit.

This limit, or threshold, represents a level of exploitation beyond which extraction of any further value diminishes because economic costs grow too high to keep the resource from exhausting its self renewing potential.

Contrasting assimilative with carrying capacities



carrying capacity

vs. assimilative capacity
Explanation maximum number of animals that can be sustained by this food source year after year, without diminution of the quality of the pasture.  

biotic community's net
primary productivity
or species richness.

Both are the foundation of:

"Experimentation as a strategy for managing a large ecosystem…"

[ Hardin, p. 207 ]
[ K. Lee, p. 55 ]
habitat terrestrial occupancy rate   aquatic or atmospheric renewal rate
such as: a fluctuating amount referring to a capacity to survive   level of ability to endure disturbances
What this means

a more limited concept of dynamic qualities

a habitat (dune or riverside) of any size, or place (marsh), or range (grazing area), or ecosystem (forest) has limitations based on biochemistry.


a more dynamic concept

responding resiliently to ecological impacts or disturbances without a measurable decline in the functional value of available resources.

for example: amount of impact tolerated before measured decline   threshold of functionality, or effectiveness.
urban planning number of homes per acre of developed land   level of waste water treatment needed to maintain the fisheries, recreational and scenic values of a river or stream.
restoration target number of trees / acre or level of water in a wetland   flow regime & distribution of water


These two forms of capacity (carrying vs. assimilative) are examples of both material constraints and naturally occurring restrictions on the rate of return from any investment in biological wealth.

To better understand limitations in the rate of extraction, consider acceleration in a vehicle.

1. the initial amount or volume of gas required to go from 0-25 miles per hour is less than the subsequent volume to accelerate from 26-50 miles per hour.

2. the next increment of acceleration from 50 to 75 mph uses even more gasoline fuel than the previous amount of fuel consumed.

3. The example above means that each additional amount of fuel required to increase the pace of the vehicle is greater than the previous input. So you exert more and more effort to get the same or less return in value.

4. In economic terms the example above is one case of the "law of diminishing returns."

5. By analogy -- the accelerating vehicle is like a human community trying to increase its use of water, energy, air or land. Each of these native components of places imposes its own limitations on economic behavior because water is limited by climate (energy), atmospheric conditions and landscape.

6. Each native component of a forest, field, or mine can be transformed into fuels for the use of human community and limited by ecological processes that are subject to the laws of thermodynamics.

Accounting to natural assets is hard, but worthwhile

In terms of ecological accounting informing design practices, (Sim Van der Ryn) the above concepts are fundamental explanations of why unhealthy conditions arise. Many of our ecological problems arise from poorly designed systems used by communities.

Unhealthy or pathological behavior, according to McHarg, undermines our cities, towns and suburbs as communities. See Mcharg's value table.

To best understand the relationship of water and land, see the Siry text in terms of Aldo Leopold's description of the "land organism" and Rachel Carson's understanding of the role of wildlife and vegetation in characterizing productive and thus healthy landscapes.

Kai Lee suggests that adaptive management is an experimental application of social learning.

We apply these experiments to entire ecosystems because large ecosystems are the sources of our farming, forestry, fishery or even electrical wealth. Extracting wealth over a long period of time (as long as a forest grows to maturity (50 to 200 years), for instance, requires adaptive management.


While it is easy to see how outdoor recreation may rely on natural ecological conditions, it is not always apparent that our households' need for services directly affects water, landscape, vegetation and wildlife.

Even electrical use that is needed for homes and to pump water affects the air and water since energy use requires combustion and steam for us to extract valuable electricity from the environment. That process leads to air and water pollution.

Real versus ideal compared.


ecosystem services

ecology defined

environmental science

These buttons below work as navigational aids.

Bounded Rationality | Capacity | Conclusions | Example