Evaluating taboo trade-offs in ecosystems services and human well-being

Tim Daw, Sarah Coulthard, William Cheung, Katrina Brown, Caroline Abunge, Diego Galafassi, Garry Peterson, Tim McClanahan, Johnstone Omukoto, Lydiah Munyi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

222 Citations (Scopus)


Managing ecosystems for multiple ecosystem services and balancing the well-being of diverse stakeholders involves different kinds of trade-offs. Often trade-offs involve noneconomic and difficult-to-evaluate values, such as cultural identity, employment, the well-being of poor people, or particular species or ecosystem structures. Although trade-offs need to be considered for successful environmental management, they are often overlooked in favor of win-wins. Management and policy decisions demand approaches that can explicitly acknowledge and evaluate diverse trade-offs. We identified a diversity of apparent trade-offs in a small-scale tropical fishery when ecological simulations were integrated with participatory assessments of social–ecological system structure and stakeholders’ well-being. Despite an apparent win-win between conservation and profitability at the aggregate scale, food production, employment, and well-being of marginalized stakeholders were differentially influenced by management decisions leading to trade-offs. Some of these trade-offs were suggested to be “taboo” trade-offs between morally incommensurable values, such as between profits and the well-being of marginalized women. These were not previously recognized as management issues. Stakeholders explored and deliberated over trade-offs supported by an interactive “toy model” representing key system trade-offs, alongside qualitative narrative scenarios of the future. The concept of taboo trade-offs suggests that psychological bias and social sensitivity may exclude key issues from decision making, which can result in policies that are difficult to implement. Our participatory modeling and scenarios approach has the potential to increase awareness of such trade-offs, promote discussion of what is acceptable, and potentially identify and reduce obstacles to management compliance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6949-6954
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number22
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jun 2015


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