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Editorial: The 'Governing in the Nexus' issue

Editorial: The 'Governing in the Nexus' issue

Zora Kovacic

Over the last 4 years, the MAGIC team has engaged with policy-makers in the European Commission, European Parliament, national and local governments, establishing a dialogue about the challenges that the nexus poses to governance. Some recurrent questions are: How can we make sure that improvements in one area (say, support for agricultural production) do not negatively affect other areas (for example, water supply and water quality)? How can policy-makers identify the synergies and handle the trade-offs created by the nexus?

We have come to learn that the governance of the nexus is not just a matter of identifying and managing trade-offs, but often requires a balancing act between different policy goals. For this reason, in the project we now speak of governance IN the nexus. The interconnected nature of water, energy, food, climate and biodiversity policies creates challenges of governance that include, but go beyond, the negotiation of multiple interests that any policy faces. In this issue, we suggest that the nexus creates a new situation in which governance has to let go of the paradigm of control – and act in an adaptive way in a changing world.

In order to grapple with the complexities of governing in the nexus, some articles of the present issue refer to works of literature, seeking for alternative guiding principles to the “prediction and control” paradigm. Other contributions assess some of the tools of governance, such as pricing externalities and the use of indicators. Collectively, the articles point at the importance of critically assessing the narratives that support decision-making.


By referring to the novel Ishmael by Quinn, Renner and Di Felice reflect on the role of narratives in sustainability policy and suggest that paradoxes may be a helpful tool in breaking unconscious thought patterns, which they refer to as “epistemic boundaries”. Some paradoxes already exist in EU policy: the notion that economic growth can be decoupled from resource use – or abuse, as the authors suggest – is highly contested by biophysical economists, and supported by neoclassical economists. They conclude that adopting the complexity paradigm requires accepting value pluralism and engaging with creative dialectics – just like conversations with the gorillas do in Quinn’s novel.

Manrique, Cabello and Pereira critically reflect on the Illusion of Control theory, by psychologist Langer. They argue that the reliance on technology gives such illusion, sometimes by turning a blind eye on the unsustainability of the current economic model. The authors analyze the issue of water scarcity in the Canary Islands, which is “solved” by producing alternative water resources, through the use of technologies such as desalination and reclaimed wastewater. While the technologies may help overcome scarcity, the techno-fix overlooks underlying sustainability issues, such as: population growth, strong competition among economic sectors (industrial, tourism and agriculture), and the gradual decrease of the average annual rainfall, anticipating the effects of climate change. The article argues that alternative water resources create overconfidence in technological solutions and create the illusion that the status quo can be sustained.

Jones and Sindt take a closer look at how the nexus is governed in the reductionist paradigm, and explain that the market is used as the main mechanism to internalize externalities. This mode of governance relies heavily on scientific advice. Targets and benchmarks for climate change mitigation, for example, are established through scientific models, and are defined outside of the political system. Scientists, however, are not accountable to the public in the same way as politicians are. As a result, the authors argue that the nexus poses a problem of accountability – not of complexity. This is why it is so important to critically assess the narratives that guide decision-making. By examining narratives, it is possible to identify the assumptions on what should be valued, thus improving the accountability of scientific advice to policy.

Völker and colleagues take a closer look at the use of indicators in the governance of the nexus. Based on interviews with policy-makers from the European Commission, this study shows that indicators are seen as a way to make the nexus visible by relying on scientific evidence – but at the same time, the creation of indicators leads to a managerial approach to the governance of the nexus, which is reduced to governing metrics: setting targets, monitoring statistical data, and so on. The article is an extract of a recent publication of the MAGIC project, which can be found in open access at this link.


In line with the spirit of this issue, the coordinator of the MAGIC project, Mario Giampietro, wrote an opinion piece on the current coronavirus crisis. The coronavirus is, unfortunately, a clear example of both the limits of the paradigm of control, and of the difficult balancing act required of policy-makers when faced with trade-offs: how should a country balance public health emergencies and the menace of an economic recession? Giampietro takes us through some reflections about the fragility of our identity, the risk of societal collapse and the need to rethink the role of science in governance.

Story-telling gorillas and sustainability discourses of the European primary sector

Story-telling gorillas and sustainability discourses of the European primary sector

Ansel Renner and Louisa Jane Di Felice

In January of this year, the European Commission released the European Green Deal. Thereby, the Commission laid down a 10-year roadmap for the “complete decoupling of economic growth from resource use”. Somewhere behind the crowds of neoclassical economists applauding the idea of absolute decoupling stand biophysical economists—many of whom are likely rolling their eyes at the idea of increasing economic growth in the face of declining resource (ab)use. How is it that the two factions coexist? How is it that neither faction is shown to be more logically consistent than the other?

To answer such questions, let us take a brief foray from European policy and reflect on the teachings of Daniel Quinn’s bestselling novel Ishmael. In Quinn’s novel, a Socratic conversation between a man and a wise gorilla is used as a pedagogical device to show readers just how peculiar and idiosyncratic human society is. Students of sustainability and the environment will recall the novel’s two koans—anecdotes presented with the purpose of demonstrating the inadequacy of logical reasoning (Quinn, 1995, p. 160):


and later


Does the extinction of man give hope to gorilla or does it condemn gorilla? Does the extinction of gorilla give hope to man or does it condemn man? Koans are pregnant with meaning for sustainability, and all interpretations are equally valid. Just as with those individuals who converse with wise gorillas, scientists rely on cultural narratives to deter ambiguity. Such narratives provide epistemic boundaries—boundaries that allow one to distinguish between justified belief and opinion. Epistemic boundaries are constrictive. Epistemic boundaries are also necessary for the creation of purpose and meaning, however, and their adoption is unavoidable. All too often, the assumption of epistemic boundaries is left implicit and unquestioned. In the context of a global sustainability crisis, this blasé attitude is not constructive.

In two forthcoming scientific articles, we took a look at how energy and agriculture policy in the European Union are shaped by justificatory, normative, and explanatory narratives. Those three narrative types, respectively answering questions of why?, what?, and how?, can be understood to form epistemic boundaries of decision-makers. From a scientific research standpoint, their purposeful identification can reveal inherent cultural biases. Their identification can also help reveal how primal, societal concerns are transmuted into problems formally represented in policies as well as what solutions are proposed for those problems.

In that work, in conclusion, we identified a number of ways in which European knowledge society as it relates to energy and agriculture policy could benefit from the adoption of a complexity paradigm over a paradigm of reductionism. Among other things, the complexity paradigm prescribes the acceptance of irreducible value pluralism. Such an acceptance is difficult to entertain in reductionism—a prevailing approach to science infatuated with objectivity and optimization. While the current version of the European Green Deal is reductionist in spirit, naysayers should be comforted by recalling that Europe occupies a unique position among Western political entities. More so than in, for example, the United States, the European policy-scape prescribes a precautionary handling of conflicting epistemic boundaries (precaution being quite different than risk). Regarding scientific decision-support under a complexity paradigm, a promising line of research arises thanks to that precautionary stance—a line of research suitable for shedding light on indeterminate dialectics related to decoupling and green deals such as:


and also




Quinn, Daniel. 1995. Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. Bantam Books.

More about our approach can be found in two forthcoming scientific articles. The reference section will be updated once those the articles are published. In the meantime, readers are invited to get in contact.



Alternative water resources and the illusion of control

Alternative water resources and the illusion of control

David Romero Manrique, Violeta Cabello and Ângela Guimarães Pereira

The theory of the illusion of control was developed within the psychological sciences during the 70s by Ellen Langer. The illusion of control is defined as an expectancy of a personal success probability that exceeds the objective probability of the outcome (Langer, E., 1975). In other words, it is the tendency of humans to believe they have full control over situations that actually exceed their capacity of control.

The overestimation of the efficacy of technological solutions to address complex situations in water governance is one example. Under this ‘illusion’, Alternative Water Resources (AWR), namely desalinated and reclaimed waters, have emerged in the last decades as the new panacea for agricultural production in regions facing water scarcity. The construction of AWR as a technological fix to water scarcity needs examination.

In the Canary Islands, we explored narratives about the feasibility and desirability of these technologies with a wide range of actors. Through an integrated methodology combining quantitative, qualitative and participatory analysis, the following questions were investigated: what role do AWR play in the recovery or reduction of pressures on natural sources? Is it plausible and desirable to implement these technologies within future scenarios of climate change, energy crisis or hardening of export conditions? What role do ‘alternative waters’ play in agricultural development if we consider current limitations such as its price, quality, emerging pollutants and impacts on the soil, and the environment?

Similarly to many other Southern European areas, several dynamics have historically contributed to increasing the pressure on fresh water resources in this region: population growth (local and stationary), strong competition among economic sectors (industrial, tourism and agriculture) and the gradual decrease of the average annual rainfall, anticipating the effects of climate change. This is a complex situation which faces different types of uncertainty and clearly exceeds the governance capacity of regional and local water-related actors.

In our study, we observed how the invited actors justify the need for AWR by referring to water scarcity, which is attributed to the depletion of freshwater resources and the effects of climate change. Other drivers for water scarcity (population pressure, sectoral competition) are mentioned only in alternative narratives held by a few actors with low stakes and lower capacity to articulate them. Moreover, we found narratives that questioned the causal connection between the use of AWR and the recovery of freshwater resources in the absence of other more comprehensive measures.

Under such complex social-ecological situation, expecting that AWR by themselves will solve all water problems is most likely an overestimation of efficacy, even more if the risks associated with the exploitation of these technologies are ignored. The framing of AWR as a panacea to govern the waters in the Canary Islands allows to maintain the status quo and avoiding the question of what is wrong in the relationship between water and the agro-economic model of the Canary Islands, while keeping the illusion of control. 



Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of personality and social psychology, 32(2), 311.


Nexus governance – not so unique after all?

Nexus governance – not so unique after all?

Chelsea Jones and Jan Sindt

In theory, governing the water-energy-food nexus is not so different from governing any other issue area characterized by complexity, conflicting interests over scarce resources and questions around their fair distribution. For instance, nexus-type governance is at the heart of any budget decision about the distribution of public funding to line ministries. Those decisions are facilitated by simplification, measuring the importance of an entire segment of society in terms of a budget share. The main difference, then, is that the water-energy-food nexus is mostly concerned with aspects that either don’t have a price, or have a price which may reflect a narrow view, as it cannot take into account the diverse set of values they may hold for different actors. This includes: “externalities”, “commons” like rainwater, biodiversity, intact ecosystems, a safe climate, but also undervalued resources like groundwater, food, and land. One commonly used solution is to attach a price to these common goods, to “internalize” them into the economy.

One example of using price-based valuation is the use of a carbon tax as a means of signaling a preference for low-carbon solutions in the economy, while leaving the selection of optimal solutions to the private sector. A carbon tax does not technically turn a safe climate into a commodity for the market to work with, as the resulting carbon price is fixed and does not react to scarcity the way the other fixed carbon price scheme - permits in an emissions trading scheme - would. Pricing through either instrument introduces economic incentives to reduce emissions up to the point where it is cheaper to pay or trade than to avoid paying and leaves it to the market to determine that point. Capping through permits further defines that point as the amount of permits issued for trading, offering no incentive for further emission reductions beyond that point and sending a wrong signal that emissions up to that point are not problematic. In both cases, governance requires a defined benchmark for either the national price of carbon emissions or size of the national carbon budget.

Determining the value of a carbon price or the size of a budget is in itself a subjective decision taken through a process of political deliberation, considering a number of economic trade-offs involved like the impact on profitability of existing business operations and repercussions on the job market and social inequalities, in addition to scientific deliberation about the safe limits for global emissions and political-philosophical deliberation about the just distribution of a hypothetical global carbon budget among nation states. Many political decisions involve a similar level of complexity (e.g. trade policy, humanitarian interventions). However, the pricing of impacts related to climate change is unique among such political decisions as it heavily relies on benchmarks and targets that are defined outside the political system and, to a large extent, through the development and application of highly complex scientific models. Scientists cannot be held accountable in the same way policy makers can be, insofar as they are not elected to govern the community and their work is also rarely scrutinized by a wider public. Policy makers end up being responsible for the impacts of decisions they base on scientific advice regarding the costs of emissions or the global carbon budget. Adding to that, the impacts of decisions around climate change, and more broadly sustainable management, often only materialize in the long term, and hence those constituencies who would hold politicians accountable for their decisions can only do so in the more distant future. With respect to nexus-governance, there is not so much of a complexity problem as there is an accountability problem.

Part of the benefit in using a methodology such as Quantitative Storytelling lies in its ability to examine the underlying narratives of decision-making and policy recommendations. The use of carbon prices and the prioritization of decisions based on economic parameters is just one example of these policy narratives: the narrative that natural resources and environmental goods can be valued economically and that the trade-offs among them can be managed via monetary means. By using the QST framework of evaluating not only the feasibility of options, but also their viability and social desirability, narratives can be evaluated against a policy-relevant range of indicators which better captures the more intangible components of their value. By examining the underlying narratives surrounding a policy, more information is also made available regarding its inherent assumptions on what should be valued how much, thereby helping to hold policy-makers accountable for what they choose to value in their decisions and why.




The role of metrics in EU governance of the water-energy-food nexus

The role of metrics in EU governance of the water-energy-food nexus

Thomas Völker and colleagues

In a recent publication by the MAGIC project, Völker and colleagues investigate the changes that are emerging in governance with regard to the nexus. Recognizing the interconnections between water, energy and food, means also acknowledging how water policies, energy policies and food policies interact with each other – sometimes by reinforcing each other, and sometimes by supporting contradictory goals. In order to make these synergies and trade-offs visible, policy makers in the European Union are relying more and more on indicators. The paper asks, are indicators a good means of raising awareness about complexity of governing for sustainability and challenging existing governance structures or are they a way of reducing the complexity to a technical problem, that can be measured and managed through existing institutional arrangements?

Quantification requires considerable work and relies on technical and administrative infrastructures that allow for data collection and processing. Once such “accounting machineries” are put in place, they become not only quite stable and “sticky”. The creation of new metrics on the nexus have, therefore, the potential of creating new paths of accountability. For example, nexus indicators can expand accountability of agricultural policies outside of the agricultural realm and including water governance, energy governance and other sustainability goals, such as climate and biodiversity. But indicator production may also suffer from the stickiness of the current “managerial” system of governance.

The analysis builds on 28 interviews with 32 actors from different European Commission DGs, members of European Parliament and its Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) as well as from the European Environment Agency (EEA). Our primary focus was on the views and experiences of the staff within the Commission. The Commission is the administration for the European Parliament and Council of Europe, and is responsible for making, implementing, evaluating and enforcing cross-European policies that are mandatory for the 28 member states in the current European Union. The Commission is organized into 33 Directorate-Generals (DGs -departments), each with a separate, specific and self-contained policy area, giving rise to the idea of “policy silos”.

Our data indicate that there are institutional logics and mechanisms that might hinder an implementation of nexus governance. Interviewees stressed that there is little room to think about what people are doing when one is busy and focused on immediate priorities. Metrics on the nexus are welcome as eye-opening evidence that may help overcome policy made in “silos” – within DGs, and without regard for how policies affect each other. New data may challenge taken for granted ways of thinking and doing things within European policy making. The water-energy-food nexus is framed as a problem of institutional arrangements and working culture. For challenging this status quo, however, our interviewees ask for novel forms of quantified knowledge and in doing so reinforce the mode of governance that relies on the “managerial” approach to metrics, which leads to a process of de-politicizing difficult political decisions about the trade-offs of sustainability through the notion of the nexus as measurable interconnections.



Völker, T., Blackstock, K., Kovacic, Z., Sindt, J., Strand, R. and Waylen, K. (2019). The role of metrics in the governance of the water-energy-food nexus within the European Commission. Journal of Rural Studieshttps://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2019.08.001 

Opinion: The Awakening from the Cartesian Dream?

Opinion: The Awakening from the Cartesian Dream?

Mario Giampietro

The current coronavirus crisis has succeeded where climate change has failed: it has made us aware of the shortcomings of the Cartesian Dream of prediction and control. The idea that our society is able to control events by using science and technology has suddenly lost its credibility. In the Church of the Carmine in Naples the Crucifix of Miracles, used in 1600 to protect the city against the black plague, has reappeared on the main altar. For some, the crucifix has become a more effective means to combat the stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic than the scientific advice given by experts. As the virus directly threatens our own life, the implausibility of the claim that ‘everything is under control’ has become evident. The coronavirus has shown us just how fragile our society is. We have now come to realise that everything that is dear to us, like visiting family or having a coffee with a friend, can suddenly change or disappear.

However, an important lesson we can take away from the COVID-19 pandemic is that, if need arises, it is possible to make changes to our lifestyle and, more importantly so, in a very short period of time. At present, society is enduring the restrictions imposed by governments in the hope of controlling the virus and returning to normality. But what if there will be no return to normality? What if this crisis will bring about lasting societal changes (another “black swan”—Taleb, 2007); changes that will not be determined by the grand narratives and plans about how to fix the world (e.g., the European Green Deal) but by a forced need to adapt to new circumstances? This looming possibility adds to the current feelings of unease and fear.

The Cartesian Dream of prediction and control is exactly what has prevented us from making changes to our social practices in response to the threat of climate change. In fact, it is currently unthinkable for us to adopt new solutions without assuring ourselves that we will be able to control them. But what happens if society is faced with the realisation that ‘total control’ is simply impossible? Are we condemned to do ‘more of the same’—technological fix after technological fix—until our system collapses and we will be forced to accept alternative solutions? 

The fragility of our identity

Our contemporary identity—I like to call it the ‘cyborg identity’—is imposed on us by our capitalist economy, as well as by media and influencers (hyper-cycles of self-referential messages). It no longer reflects the culture and traditions passed down through generations. As a consequence, our identity has become increasingly shallow and vulnerable to perturbations such as the COVID-19 pandemic. We are becoming less and less capable of handling ‘the tragedy of change.’ In order to fight, resist and adapt to change, we must have a clear and shared understanding of who we are and where we want to go. A fragile identity hinders decisions about what we are willing to lose in order to preserve what we would like to retain. We are increasingly unable to see, let alone thread the difficult path through change.

Technology is no match for nature

In the 1953 movie The War of the Worlds, Earth is attacked by spaceships from Mars. The US army employs its best weapons but cannot compete against Martian technology. After several defeats, the US army decides to drop the best they have—an atomic bomb—but, unfortunately, also this last resort fails. When humans are resigned to their fate a miracle occurs.  The Martian ships start crashing to the ground, their occupants having succumbed to a viral infection. The narrator concludes the movie by saying: “[…] the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth…”; a virus! The morale is that technology is no match for nature. Descartes’ vision of humankind as ‘masters and possessors of nature’ must be modified by Bacon’s maxim: ‘nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed’[1]. Friend or foe, viruses are part of nature and we need to accept to live with them.  

Can we avoid the collapse of complex societies?

The inability of our health care systems to handle the COVID-19 crisis in a ‘prediction and control’ mode confirms Joseph Tainter’s (1988) concern regarding the risk of over-complicating the functional structure of society. It is impossible for societies to guarantee absolute prediction and control over all potential future perturbations. As a consequence, allocating resources under such assumption may not be a wise choice. It may be more useful to govern society using strategies based on: (i) monitoring and anticipating by considering non-equivalent perceptions of our interaction with nature based on feelings and concerns held by the extended peer community (not only based on data generated by scientific experts); (ii) preserving the diversity of social practices in society to boost adaptability.

The role of science in governance

Apart from satisfying our curiosity, science is expected to provide society with useful information to guide decision-making processes and in this way to reduce stress for its citizens. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown that science not always lives up to this expectation. It can provide us with essential information on the mechanisms of the epidemic outbreak, but it does not provide us, for example, with a solution on how to deal with the shortage of ventilators needed for treating COVID-19 patients. Science cannot help us decide whose concerns, fears, and needs to prioritise. In the Cartesian Dream, science is purported to reduce stress by controlling the world and calculating risk. It does not acknowledge that danger (e.g., death) is an unavoidable part of life (Saltelli and Boulanger, 2020). To date, science has been predominantly used to selectively improve the quality of life of some social groups, providing them with an edge on the competition, and replacing religion as the source of legitimization of their power. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the expectations about science are losing their credibility, even for the selected few. As a result, the more reflexive citizens have begun to re-think the validity of the Cartesian Dream, while others have stocked up on toilet paper.

Further reading:

Waltner-Toews D, Biggeri A, De Marchi B, Funtowicz S, Giampietro M, O’Connor M, Ravetz JR, Saltelli A & van der Sluijs JP (2020). Post-Normal Pandemics: Why Covid-19 Requires a New Approach to Science.

Saltelli A & Boulanger PM (2020), 'Technoscience, policy and the new media. Nexus or vortex?', Futures, vol. 115, 102491, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.102491.

Tainter JA (1988), The collapse of complex societies, Cambridge University Press.

Taleb NN (2007), The Black Swan, Random House Publishing Group.

[1] Quote from Jerome Ravetz, personal communication.