Environmental Conflict, Complexity, and Collaboration

Genevieve Allen is one of the stellar young professionals Akordi has had the privilege of working with recently. Akordi welcomed Genevieve as an intern in September 2023, and towards the end of the year she took on more responsibilities as a Communications Officer. Genevieve is fascinated by equitable, science-based approaches to environmental conflict resolution, and wanted to learn about the on the ground mediation practices with Akordi. 

With a bachelor’s in biochemistry and a master’s in environmental policy and law from the University of Eastern Finland, Genevieve wrote her master’s thesis on multi-stakeholder cooperation in Finnish flood risk management groups [https://erepo.uef.fi/handle/123456789/30336]. She has enriched Akordi with her fresh thinking and analytical strength, the following blog being an excellent example of thereof. The entire Akordi team is thrilled to wish her all the best for the next exciting steps. Genevieve will be starting a PhD in February 2024 at the Stockholm Resilience Center looking at the impacts of crisis on transformative change in society from a complex adaptive systems perspective. 

Drawing on her experiences in Akordi, Genevieve wrote the following blog post examining environmental conflict through the lens of complexity science. Read on to learn more.


Environmental conflicts are complex, often involving decades of contention between parties. Stakeholders will often have contradicting narratives of the situation, which treat the conflict as complicated. Collaborative approaches treat environmental conflict as complex.



Having spent the past four months at Akordi, I’d like to reflect on what I’ve learned with the help of complexity science. In the following paragraphs, I examine why so many environmental conflicts appear unsolvable via standard methods, and how collaboration helps shift the focus and framing of the problems.

During a planning theory seminar, planning theorist, professor emeritus, and mediator John Forester gave a keynote speech examining the ways in which mediated processes hold the potential to solve complex problems, such as those witnessed in urban planning. A crucial point in John’s speech was that a mediator can address conflict by increasing the complexity of the situation. In an overly simplified example, he and his son come to loggerheads when they discover that they both want the family car on the same day. A mediator steps in, and enquires after their interests. “Why do you want the car? When do you want the car?” It transpires that he and his son want the car at different times, amicably resolving what at first seemed to be an intractable conflict. (John Forester played a crucially catalytic role in the founding of Akordi. Read about Akordi’s origin story to learn more.)

Crises such as climate change, poverty, and political polarization seem a far cry from this simple example, but I’d like to explore the idea that unsuccessful attempts to solve environmental conflict can suffer from the same mismatched approach that John’s example initially illustrates.I posit three key propositions: (1) environmental conflict can be understood as a complex system, (2) monolithic, one-size-fits-all, linear solutions treat it as complicated, and (3) collaborative approaches treat environmental conflict as complex.

What do I mean by collaborative approaches? Particularly in the US, there exists a long history of attempting to solve natural resource conflicts with the help of a neutral third party to mediate between stakeholders (for example Susskind and Cruikshank 1987, Ansell and Gash 2008, Agranoff and McGuire 2003). For the purpose of this blog post, wherever I use the terms “collaborative approach” or “collaboration”, I am referring to best practices in the field of public policy mediation in environmental conflict. Akordi Oy draws on this rich body of practices in their mediation services. Later, I will delve more deeply into what this looks like for Akordi on a case-by-case basis.

In the subsequent sections, I examine the definitions of and differences between complicated and complex systems. Then, I demonstrate how environmental conflict is a complex system, and how approaches that treat it as complicated lead to deadlock and stagnation. Finally, I posit that collaborative approaches view environmental conflict as a complex system, bypassing some of the pitfalls faced by a complicated-systems approach.


Complicated and Complex Systems

To ground these concepts in reality, I define a ‘system’ according to the Oxford dictionary: [brackets inserted] “a set of things [elements] working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network.” In other words, a system comprises its composite elements, and the relations or connections between these elements.

To illustrate the differences between complicated and complex systems, let’s first define the key features of complicated systems. Interactions of elements in complicated systems can be described as random or deterministic (Siegenfeld and Bar-Yam 2020). In other words, the elements are either independent of each other, or strongly coupled together (Sayama 2015, p. 4-5). The key feature of complicated systems is that the elements interact with one another in a predictable manner.

Let’s look at some examples. A random complicated system, such as an ideal gas in thermodynamics, can be described using statistics and probability. Meanwhile, a deterministic complicated system, such as a pocket watch or a computer, can be described using mathematical tools such as calculus and linear algebra. (Sayama 2015, p. 4-5)

Complex systems occur somewhere in between these two types of complicated systems (ibid.). Take bird flocks. There is too much structure in the way these undulating patterns emerge in the air for them to be described using statistics and probability, yet not enough order for linear algebra and calculus to accurately predict where and how the flock will move. This is a complex system. While there is no overwhelming consensus on precisely which properties a complex system must exhibit, several commonalities appear across academic discussions of these systems (Randall 2011, p. 65-67).

Firstly, complex systems have emergent properties. Composed of many elements, the behavior of complex systems emerges as something more than the sum of all the interactions between its elements, and there is often uncertainty surrounding how each part contributes to the whole.

Secondly, complex systems are interconnected and interdependent. Parts of a complex system are interlinked and dependent on each other in ways that may not appear obvious at first glance. Changes in one part of the system can have ripple effects throughout, resulting in unpredictable consequences.

Thirdly, complex systems are multi-scalar and multi-dimensional. They often operate at multiple scales, with phenomena at one scale capable of being influenced by phenomena at other scales.

Finally, complex systems display feedback loops. Feedback loops play a crucial role in influencing the system’s behavior by either amplifying or inhibiting certain dynamics. Table 1 demonstrates real-world examples of these four properties. Table one illustrates these four properties with the help of real-life examples of complex systems.

Table 1: Examples of Properties in Complex Systems

Properties of Complex System Example in a Complex System
Emergence The human brain: While not encoded by any single neuron, or set of neurons, these cells all firing together can achieve remarkable outcomes (De Schotten and Forkel 2022).
Interconnection and Interdependence Ecosystems: Changes in the population of a key predator species can have a massive effect on the entire ecosystem, such as the gray wolf in Wisconsin, can have disproportionate ripple effects throughout the entire system (Callan et al. 2013).
Multi-Scalarity and -Dimensionality Pollution: Environmental challenges such as mismanaged plastic waste are caused by and affect stakeholders at many different levels. International companies may be responsible for poor waste disposal practices, resulting in consequences at the local level and generating tensions between stakeholders at different scales. Plastic pollution also demonstrates adverse effects across multiple dimensions. Previously liveable areas may become untenable residential locations, inducing migration of the local population. Other dimensions include negative economic impacts (reduced fishery usage and tourism) and environmental impacts (soil degradation and aquatic pollution) (MacAfee and Löhr 2023).
Feedback Loops Poverty: Poverty is known to cause stress, which has been postulated to result in negative affective states. Haushofer and Fehr (2014) demonstrate that this psychological factor may contribute to risk-averse, short-sighted decision making, which creates a positive feedback loop and produces poverty spanning multiple generations.

Other properties of complex systems include decentralization, non-linearity, adaptation, self-organization, and flexibility (De Coning 2016). However, there is currently no consensus on the indisputable properties of complex systems. For the purposes of this blog post, I will be focusing on the four properties described above, as they are helpful in illustrating how environmental conflict constitutes a complex system. Having defined complex systems, the next section looks at environmental conflict through the lens of complexity, examining how it presents a prime example of a complex system.


Environmental Conflict is a Complex System

An environmental conflict is a conflict arising over the intersection of interests regarding the use of the natural environment, whether in urban planning, watershed management, or forest management (Glasberg 2022). Let’s revisit the properties introduced in the last section and examine how environmental conflict is a complex system using real life examples from Akordi Oy’s work.

Firstly, environmental conflicts demonstrate emergent properties: patterns and behaviors that cannot be inferred from individual interactions (Siegenfeld and Bar-Yam 2020). Take the green transition, for example. While transitioning away from a fossil-fuel dependent economy is an undeniably vital part of preserving and healing the natural environment, there are a wide variety of conflicts that may result from the steps required for the transition. Finland, for example, aims at a 50% share of renewable energy by 2030 (NECP 2019), but this requires the construction of renewable energy facilities, such as wind farms. Conflicts between the wind power industry and reindeer herders have already emerged as a result of both sectors prizing the same geographical locations for their practices (Akordi 2023a). Failing to address the emergent properties of interactions between these two stakeholders has already resulted in high-stakes conflict in countries including Norway (Fjellheim 2023), Sweden (Amnesty Sápmi 2022), and Finland (Akordi 2023a).

Interconnectedness and interdependence are also clearly present in environmental conflict. Indeed, conflicts often arise as a result of actor interdependence. In the previous example of wind power and reindeer herders, both parties depend on the same land to exercise their livelihoods. Studies have clearly demonstrated the adverse impacts of wind farm construction and operation on reindeer habitat selection (see, for example Skarin et al. 2018, Eftestøl et al. 2023). Additionally, reindeer herders have unique rights and legal precedent to practice their livelihoods: herding rights are ancient usufruct* rights, denoting free grazing rights whether the herder owns the land or not (Reindeer Herding Act 848/1990, Section 3). Nevertheless, Finland aims to transition away from fossil fuel energy, and wind power has the potential to play a decisive and vital role in that shift (FWPA 2023). The adverse effects of wind farms on reindeer migration and herding, the unique position of the herders themselves, and the importance of wind power to Finland’s green transition have resulted in clear interdependence between the two stakeholders. This generates a high potential for conflict. (Luoma and Kangasoja 2023, Luoma et al. 2023)

Multi-dimensional and -scalar properties can be observed across environmental conflicts. In a recent project, Akordi mediated a process that established a collaborative platform monitoring the impacts of mining activities on water quality in the Finnish municipality of Sodankylä. The stakeholders involved in this process appear at many different scales. This includes stakeholders operating at the local level, such as representatives from village associations and municipalities, fishing associations, environmental non-governmental organizations, and those operating at the national level and international levels, including Kemijoki Oy, a national producer of hydropower electricity, and the international mining companies Boliden Kevitsa Mining Ltd, Rupert Resources, and AA Sakatti Mining Ltd (Akordi 2023b). As such, the conflict occurs across a wide range of stakeholders from the public, private, and civic sectors, additionally illustrating the multi-dimensionality of environmental conflict.

Finally, environmental conflicts display feedback loops. As Finland was taking active steps towards industrialization during the 1950s, the Iijoki river, situated in Northern Ostrobothnia, was harnessed for hydropower electricity production. This action, however, blocked the migration of fish such as Atlantic salmon and migratory brown trout. Due to the intersecting uses of the river basin including recreational boating and fishing, irrigation, and nature conservation, this site has been ripe with conflict since the 1950s. (Karjalainen and Järvikoski 2010) Long-standing conflicts between stakeholders led to a positive feedback loop which generated distrust between stakeholders, bringing development in the river basin to a grinding halt (Akordi 2022, Rantala et al. 2023).

Reindeer herders, watershed managers, and mining companies: a divergent bunch of stakeholders. But what unites all is the complex nature of the interactions that make up the conflict. It can be observed that (1) environmental conflict arises as a result of emergent properties contained within the interactions between stakeholders, (2) those stakeholders were in the position of interacting in the first place due to their interdependent interests, (3) the conflict itself emerged in myriad different ways due to the multi scalar and dimensionality of the situation, and (4) the conflict escalated and took on different forms due to the feedback loops present in interactions. In other words, they are all complex systems.

*‘Usufruct’: Usu = use, and fruct = fruits, as in, fruits of production. This term refers to the right both to use a thing possessed and to derive profits from a thing possessed. In the context mentioned, this refers to reindeer herders’ right to both use and derive profit from reindeer herding territory. (Oxford English Dictionary 2023)


Complicated Solutions for Complex Systems

Humans are very good at solving complicated problems. We know how to break down a complicated problem into its composite elements and build it back up again. However, treating complex problems as complicated can have disastrous consequences.

What happens when you treat a complex system, such as environmental conflicts, as complicated? When an environmental conflict is viewed as a complicated system, there are often two or more contrasting narratives of reality. In other words, two or more narratives of the situation that stand in opposition to each other. Is a company deliberately obscuring information and harming the local community, or are citizens worried about nothing and just stirring up trouble?  These opposing perspectives often observe environmental conflict as complicated: a problem with clear, linear causes. When this happens, as can be seen in the Iijoki River conflict, deadlock, stagnation, and an environment of mistrust can result, sometimes spanning decades of contention. So, how can a collaborative approach help?


Collaboration Treats Environmental Conflict as a Complex System

Collaboration anticipates and responds to the aforementioned properties of complex systems, allowing for changes and adaptation in the conflict as it evolves over time. The following paragraphs explore the manner in which a collaborative approach accommodates and leverages these properties.

Akordi’s expertise partially lies in anticipating where and how environmental conflicts might arise, and addressing them proactively before they are recognized as conflicts (see Figure 1). The process itself is far from linear. This approach allows for retracing and repeating steps, going back over fact finding or negotiations should new information emerge over the course of the process. This flexibility recognizes the emergent properties of environmental conflict.  Even while creating the collaborative process, the conflict itself is not stationary: new information can emerge, stakeholders can develop allegiances or resentments, and even while being addressed, the conflict itself is extremely dynamic.

Figure 1: Identifying and anticipating conflicts at the ‘upstream’ stage before they escalate. (Kangasoja, 2023)

Collaborative approaches assume that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. While environmental conflict demonstrates common elements (see Figure 2), the individual cases are entirely unique. In Akordi’s cases, the assessment is conducted with interviews from multiple different perspectives and angles in order to get a coherent picture of the whole. Akordi employees talk about the difficulty of not letting the first interpretation of events color the whole picture. Who are the actors involved? What are they angry about? How is the conflict being discussed from different perspectives? In this initial assessment, environmental conflict is treated as a complex system. It aims both to identify and to outline the interconnection of and interdependence between stakeholders involved, as well as the dimensions and scale of the conflict.

Figure 2: The Process of Assisted Negotiation. In practice, Akordi’s approach does not reflect this process one-to-one. Some of these steps will run in parallel to each other, with room to revisit steps should the need arise. 

The “final” step in the collaborative process is for the parties to implement the plan stakeholders have jointly created, and to keep learning from the results and adapting. By fostering interpersonal relations between stakeholders, collaboration leverages the property of feedback loops in complex systems. The collaborative approach doesn’t attempt to solve the environmental conflict as a whole. Rather, the aim is to establish flexible processes that can respond to the inevitable issues that arise along the way, hence creating positive feedback loops and open channels of communication between the stakeholders impacted by the conflict.



This blog post has outlined the properties of complicated and complex systems, illustrated why environmental conflict is a complex system, and demonstrated how collaborative approaches address environmental conflict by treating it as such.

Through meticulous assessment, the recognition of emergent properties, and a commitment to understanding interdependence and interconnection between actors in the conflict, collaborative approaches are designed to address the multi-dimensional and multi-scalar aspects of environmental conflict. The techniques are designed to create platforms from which an adaptive approach can be taken to addressing emergent issues that will inevitably arise during the process of addressing the initial conflict.

Moving from a complicated system mindset to a complex system mindset is integral to understanding why and how monolithic solutions to environmental conflicts may fail. While collaborative approaches are not a one-size-fits-all solution, they are flexible, and have the potential to solve many conflicts that may at first appear unsolvable. In the sentiments of John Forester, the world is complex. Conflict is complex, and if we treat it as such, we start moving towards solutions.



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