In complex, dynamic and uncertain environments, where the appropriate course of action is unclear, natural resource managers often pose the question, “what should I do now?” Over the past thirty years, the answer from applied ecology and the complexity sciences has generally been, “adaptive management,” or in everyday terms “learning-by-doing.” Adaptive management, rooted in pragmatism, suggests that many problems can only be solved through experience, and therefore management action should be structured as a process of scientific experimentation. While these ideas have been widely embraced by ecologists, managers and policy-makers, outcomes in practice have been disappointing to advocates. There is a widespread perception that adaptive management is a great idea that rarely works in practice. In this paper we suggest, however, that while adaptive management is certainly challenging, diagnoses of failure have been largely made within implicitly linear models of the links between knowledge, practice and context that run counter to contemporary pragmatic thought. Indeed, while adaptive management prioritizes experience and ‘doing’ as way to learn about complex ecologies, the character of experience is reduced to producing more accurate representations thought to underlie better practice. In this paper we therefore reach back to the pragmatic origins of adaptive management to develop a theoretical account of the practice of learning-by-doing that begins from a transactional conception of experience, and explains knowledge and context in terms of practical action in the present. We apply three concepts from contemporary practice theory – ‘actionable understanding,’ ‘ongoing business’ and ‘the eternally unfolding present’ – to an in-depth case study of adaptive management in the Wyperfeld National Park, Australia. We illustrate the utility of a practice perspective by highlighting implications for a) assessments of success and failure in adaptive management, b) the roles of ecologists and managers, and c) the use of ecological information by managers. The key message of the paper is that embracing the inevitable complexity and ‘mess’ of experience may lead to more realistic accounts of adaptive management in action and creative forms of practice.
adaptive management; complexity; qualitative; epistemology of practice; practice theory