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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: February 2019

Chapter Two - The Meaning and Logic of Enablement to Explain Complexity and Contingent Actions

from Part I - The Conceptual Argument of the Book and a Case Illustration



Our attempt to understand and explain transboundary water issues within the context of complexity and contingency (Chapter 1) requires us to provide the rationale for choosing the complexity lens and the notion of enablement. The choice of this frame is different from the frame of explanation based on the conventional notions of causality and its use of necessary and sufficient conditions. While Chapter 1 addressed the complexity frame, this chapter will address the concept of enablement or enabling conditions. We begin with a brief accounting of the conventional meaning of causal explanation and its shortcomings to address complexity.

As we argued in Chapter 1, complexity is neither generalizable nor specifiable without context. To address transboundary water management (TWM) issues, we need to understand the interaction among elements that create emergent phenomena in a given problem context. Once we accept the notions of complexity and emergence, we are taking on a fundamentally different view of resolving TWM conflicts. Such a notion, as we will argue in this chapter, denies the possibility of predictable and generalizable solutions that underlies the logic of the conventional notion of causality. This impossibility holds not only for the complexity that arises from societal processes and interactions but also from many natural processes, as well as from the interactions of the natural and human systems. Thus, we argue that coupled natural and human (CNH) systems are inherently complex and TWM is a particular manifestation of such a CNH system. Consequently, to explain and understand CNH systems, we need a different vocabulary and approach.

In explaining and understanding CNH systems in general and TWM issues in particular, we make a distinction between causes and conditions. We argue that causes differ in meaning from enablement. With a cause, the effect is necessary; whereas with enablement effects are not necessary but possible, that is, contingent. Many effects are possible that may or may not happen because of contextual and evolving interactions. Hence, such interactions for complex systems cannot be prescribed as a priori. It is only retrospectively that we observe emergent properties of a complex system—as an effect of certain conditions and interactions—that were not predictable.