Letter to the Editor: MPAs, Politics, and Chess

MPA News

Dear MPA News:

There was much to like about the International Marine Conservation Congress [held this past May in Washington, D.C., U.S.] and much to learn from it. Conference attendees put an impressive amount of ecological knowledge on display. And the conference did not lack for compelling visions of what wise policies should look like.

My lone significant critique concerned the disposition of some conference attendees. When observing the persistence of bad policies, some attendees simply lamented the fact that we lack the "political will" to do the right thing. I must admit that I have never been fond of the term political will. It suggests that supporters lack the energy - and/or political leaders lack the fortitude - to advance the preferred position of a given political constituency. That characterization might be accurate for some people in some situations but it can also be misleading. Politics is more like chess than tug of war.

Policy reforms are never easy to implement and political resistance is to be expected. Departures from status quo policies usually leave some people worse off (or downgrade the importance of something they value). Those people will likely mobilize to keep their preferred policy in place. More often than not the outcomes will have less to do with willpower (tug of war) than with political maneuvering (chess). And the more you understand about the game being played and the players playing it, the greater your chances of winning. Political behavior can be understood in much the same way as ecological behavior. You need to study the political landscape with the same degree of scrutiny as the ecological one.

Frank Alcock
New College of Florida, Sarasota, Florida, U.S. E-mail: falcock [at] ncf.edu

Editor's note: Alcock is Director of the new Marine Policy Institute at Mote Marine Laboratory in the U.S.