Tag Archives: social-ecological systems

Clive Hamilton on climate denialism and social-ecological systems and

Clive Hamilton is an author and Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Stuart University and Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics in Australia.  He has been writing about the ethics of climate change, and climate denial.

In his interesting talk, Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change, one of the points he makes is the importance and difference of a social-ecological perspective:

Developments in climate science have revealed a natural world so influenced by human activity that the epistemological division between nature and society can no longer be maintained. When global warming triggers feedback effects, such as melting permafrost and declining albedo from ice-melt, will we be seeing nature at work or human intervention? The mingling of the natural and the human has philosophical as well as practical significance, because the “object” has been contaminated by the “subject”.

Climate denial can be understood as a last-ditch attempt to re-impose the Enlightenment’s allocation of humans and Nature to two distinct realms, as if the purification of climate science could render Nature once again natural, as if taking politics out of science can take humans out of Nature. The irony is that it was Enlightenment science itself, in the rules laid down by the Royal Society, that objectified the natural world, putting it on the rack, in Bacon’s grisly metaphor, in order to extract its secrets. We came to believe we could keep Nature at arms-length, but have now discovered, through the exertions of climate science, something pre- moderns took for granted, that Nature is always too close for comfort.

For more see his book, Requeim for a Species, or his related talk at the UK’s RSAFacing up to Climate Change.

Resilience meets architecture and urban planning

by Matteo Giusti [contact: matteo.giusti [at] gmail.com]
Does resilience thinking and architecture really mix? The answer is a clear “yes” if you ask urban planner Marco Miglioranzi, and Matteo Giusti, Master student at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Together with the German based firm of architects N2M, they have developed two projects led by resilience concepts. Their first work, based on social-ecological systems, was preselected in the EuroPan10 competition. The second one, “A Resilient Social-Ecological Urbanity: A Case Study of Henna, Finland” with an emphasis on urban resilience, has been published by the German Academy for Urban and Regional Spatial Planning (DASL) and also featured by HOK –  a renowned global architectural firm.
The project proposes a wide range of theoretical solutions based on urban resilience which find practical application in Henna’s (Finland) urban area. Governance networks, social dynamics, metabolic flows and built environment are separately analyzed to ultimately restore, and maintain over time, the equilibrium between human demands and ecological lifecycles.
But the project also challenges current urban planning practices as it states the city’s  future requirements to be unknown. As a result, it identifies “the development-process as a dynamic flow instead of a static state”. Time scale for urban planning is therefore included within an evolving spatial design.
Diagram of the parametric cell structure: reversible space layer (upper left) and reversible building layer (right)The project description elaborates: “As a result, the planning is not static anymore. It is not a blueprint, not a collection of architectural elements to create an hypothetic Henna out of the current mindsets and needs, but a multitude of tools, methods, opportunities, options, to define a sustainable developing strategy to meet future’s demands. We keep an eye on time, its complexity and we humbly admit we cannot foresee future; we can only provide guiding principles from current scientific understanding to define a social ecological urbanity capable of sustainably moving on with unique identity.”
All these theoretical premises ends up in Henna’s planning. This includes an energetic smart grid based primarily on Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS); community-managed greenhouse areas to enhance food local self- reliance; low-diluted sewage system to reduce water consumption; efficient reuse of municipal solid waste to reach the Zero waste goal; and a problem solving centre to analyze ever-changing social ecological demands. Time is included in space, people in their natural environment, urban services in ecological processes. An harmonious cycle of growth and decays.

Recent papers on ecological resilience

1. Hughes TP, Graham NA, Jackson JB, Mumby PJ, Steneck RS. 2010  Rising to the challenge of sustaining coral reef resilienceTrends in Ecology and Evolution. [epub]

Phase-shifts from one persistent assemblage of species to another have become increasingly commonplace on coral reefs and in many other ecosystems due to escalating human impacts. Coral reef science, monitoring and global assessments have focused mainly on producing detailed descriptions of reef decline, and continue to pay insufficient attention to the underlying processes causing degradation. A more productive way forward is to harness new theoretical insights and empirical information on why some reefs degrade and others do not. Learning how to avoid undesirable phase-shifts, and how to reverse them when they occur, requires an urgent reform of scientific approaches, policies, governance structures and coral reef management.

2. Côté IM, Darling ES, 2010 Rethinking Ecosystem Resilience in the Face of Climate Change. PLoS Biol 8(7): e1000438.

In this Perspective, we will argue that the expectation of increased resilience of natural communities to climate change through the reduction of local stressors may be fundamentally incorrect, and that resilience-focused management may, in fact, result in greater vulnerability to climate impacts. We illustrate our argument using coral reefs as a model. Coral reefs are in an ecological crisis due to climate change and the ever-increasing magnitude of human impacts on these biodiverse habitats [11],[12]. These impacts stem from a multiplicity of local stressors, such as fishing, eutrophication, and sedimentation. It is therefore not surprising that the concept of resilience—to climate change in particular—is perhaps more strongly advocated as an underpinning of management for coral reefs than for any other ecosystem [9],. Marine reserves or no-take areas, the most popular form of spatial management for coral reef conservation, are widely thought to have the potential to increase coral reef resilience [11],[13],[14],[17]. But do they really?

3. Brock, W. A., and S. R. Carpenter. 2010. Interacting regime shifts in ecosystems: implication for early warnings. Ecological Monographs 80:353–367.

Big ecological changes often involve regime shifts in which a critical threshold is crossed. Thresholds are often difficult to measure, and transgressions of thresholds come as surprises. If a critical threshold is approached gradually, however, there are early warnings of the impending regime shift. …  Interacting regime shifts may muffle or magnify variance near critical thresholds. Whether muffling or magnification occurs, and the size of the effect, depend on the product of the feedback between the state variables times the correlation of these variables’ responses to environmental shocks.

4. Dawson, T.P., Rounsevell, M.D.A., Kluvánková-Oravská, T., Chobotová, V. & Stirling, A. 2010. Dynamic properties of complex adaptive ecosystems: implications for the sustainability of service provision. Biodiversity and Conservation. 19(10) 2843-2853.

Predicting environmental change and its impacts on ecosystem goods and services at local to global scales remains a significant challenge for the international scientific community. … Social-Ecological Systems (SES) theory addresses these strongly coupled and complex characteristics of social and ecological systems. It can provide a useful framework for articulating contrasting drivers and pressures on ecosystems and associated service provision, spanning different temporalities and provenances. Here, system vulnerabilities (defined as exposure to threats affecting ability of an SES to cope in delivering relevant functions), can arise from both endogenous and exogenous factors across multiple time-scales. Vulnerabilities may also take contrasting forms, ranging from transient shocks or disruptions, through to chronic or enduring pressures. Recognising these diverse conditions, four distinct dynamic properties emerge (resilience, stability, durability and robustness), under which it is possible to maintain system function and, hence, achieve sustainability.

An interview with Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom will be in Stockholm next week for a seminar at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences among other things (unless the Icelandic ash cloud stops her) [update - it stopped her].  She was also recently interviewed by Fran Korten for Yes! Magazine in Elinor Ostrom Wins Nobel for Common(s) Sense:

Photo by Chris Meyer / Indiana University

Fran Korten: When you first learned that you had won the Nobel Prize in Economics, were you surprised?

Elinor Ostrom: Yes. It was quite surprising. I was both happy and relieved.

Fran: Why relieved?

Elinor: Well, relieved in that I was doing a bunch of research through the years that many people thought was very radical and people didn’t like. As a person who does interdisciplinary work, I didn’t fit anywhere. I was relieved that, after all these years of struggle, someone really thought it did add up. That’s very nice.

And it’s very nice for the team that I’ve been a part of here at the Workshop. We have had a different style of organizing. It is an interdisciplinary center—we have graduate students, visiting scholars, and faculty working together. I never would have won the Nobel but for being a part of that enterprise.

Fran: It’s interesting that your research is about people learning to cooperate. And your Workshop at the university is also organized on principles of cooperation.

Elinor: I have a new book coming out in May entitled Working Together, written with Amy Poteete and Marco Janssen. It is on collective actions in the commons. What we’re talking about is how people work together. We’ve used an immense array of different methods to look at this question—case studies, including my own dissertation and Amy’s work, modeling, experiments, large-scale statistical work. We show how people use multiple methods to work together.

Fran: But what about the “free-rider” problem where some people abide by the rules and some people don’t? Won’t the whole thing fall apart?

Elinor: Well if the people don’t communicate and get some shared norms and rules, that’s right, you’ll have that problem. But if they get together and say, “Hey folks, this is a project that we’re all going to have to contribute to. Now, let’s figure it out,” they can make it work. For example, if it’s a community garden, they might say, “Do we agree every Saturday morning we’re all going to go down to the community garden, and we’re going to take roll and we’re going to put the roll up on a bulletin board?” A lot of communities have figured out subtle ways of making everyone contribute, because if they don’t, those people are noticeable.

Fran: So public shaming and public honoring are one key to managing the commons?

Elinor: Shaming and honoring are very important. We don’t have as much of an understanding of that. There are scholars who understand that, but that’s not been part of our accepted way of thinking about collective action.

Fran: Do you have a favorite example of where people have been able to self-organize to manage property in common?

Elinor: One that I read early on that just unglued me because I wasn’t expecting it was the work of Robert Netting, an anthropologist who had been studying the alpine commons for a very long time. He studied Swiss peasants and then studied in Africa too. He was quite disturbed that people were saying that Africans were primitive because they used common property so frequently and they didn’t know about the benefits of private property. The implication was we’ve got to impose private property rules on them. Netting said, “Are the Swiss peasants stupid? They use common property also.”

Let’s think about this a bit. In the valleys, they use private property, while up in the alpine areas, they use common property. So the same people know about private property and common property, but they choose to use common property for the alpine areas. Why? Well, the alpine areas are what Netting calls “spotty.” The rainfall is high in one section one year, and the snow is great, and it’s rich. But the other parts of the area are dry. Now if you put fences up for private property, then Smith’s got great grass one year he can’t even use it all and Brown doesn’t have any. So, Netting argued, there are places where it makes sense to have an open pasture rather than a closed one. Then he gives you a very good idea of the wide diversity of the particular rules that people have used for managing that common land.

Fran: Why were Netting’s findings so surprising to you?

Elinor: I had grown up thinking that land was something that would always move to private property. I had done my dissertation on groundwater in California, so I was familiar with the management of water as a commons. But when I read Netting, I realized that when there are “spotty” land environments, it really doesn’t make sense to put up fences and have small private plots.

Fran: If you were to have a sit-down session with someone with a big influence on natural resources policy say Robert Zoellick, head of the World Bank, or Ken Salazar, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, what would be your advice?

Elinor: No panaceas! We tend to want simple formulas. We have two main prescriptions: privatize the resource or make it state property with uniform rules. But sometimes the people who are living on the resource are in the best position to figure out how to manage it as a commons.

Fran: Do you have a message for the general public?

Elinor: We need to get people away from the notion that you have to have a fancy car and a huge house. Some of the homes that have been built in the last 10 years just appall me. Why do humans need huge homes? I was born poor and I didn’t know you bought clothes at anything but the Goodwill until I went to college. Some of our mentality about what it means to have a good life is, I think, not going to help us in the next 50 years. We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth.

Fran: Let’s look ahead 20 years. What would you hope that the world will understand about managing common property systems?

Elinor: What we need is a broader sense of what we call “social ecological systems.” We need to look at the biological side and the social side with one framework rather than 30 different languages. That is big, but I now have some of my colleagues very interested. Some of them are young, and what I find encouraging is that with a bunch of us working together, I can see us moving ahead in the next 20 years or so. Twenty years from now, at 96, I probably won’t be as active.

Expansion of social-ecological systems science

The concept of social-ecological systems has been gaining increased interested in science. Below is a graph showing papers whose topic includes social-ecological systems. During the 1990s there were a few publications and then a rapid rise during the 2000s.  Two influential books articulated social-ecological ideas:

Papers from ISI - social-ecological or social ecological and Systems

The top five journals are dominated by Ecology and Society:

  1. Ecology and Society (78)
  2. Global Environmental Change (13)
  3. Ecosystems (13)
  4. Proc. of National Academy of Science (USA) (10)
  5. Ecological Economics (8)

The most prolific authors are a group of people who are working to bridge the social and natural (with number of papers in brackets).  The top two authors, Carl and Fikret, were editors of the Linking and Navigating books.

  1. Carl Folke (26)
  2. Fikret Berkes (14)
  3. Steve Carpenter (14)
  4. Per Olsson (13)
  5. J. Marty Anderies (11)

The universities with the most publications are:

  1. Stockholm University (41) (where Carl Folke is located)
  2. Arizona State University (27) (where Marty Anderies and a number of SES researchers are)
  3. University of Wisconsin (19) (Steve Carpenter)
  4. University of Manitoba (18) (Fikret Berkes)
  5. Indiana University (14) (Elinor Ostrom and formerly Marco Janssen, both of whom have frequently published on social-ecological systems)

Resilience Postdoc position at Cemagref, France

Olivier Barreteau is seeking a post doc candidate for 18 months starting as soon as possible to work with him at Cemagref in Montpellier, France.  Note: French is not compulsory for this position.

The post doc will help initiate a project on Communities and Climate Change, which we are currently setting up with colleagues in the US and Netherlands.  Olivier is planning on focusing this postdoctoral work on defining the indicators of resilience of SES, at least on their social part.

The process for a post-doc at Cemagref is that the candidate writes a proposal, with help from the team (ie Olivier), and the proposal is assessed (candidate + subject) by an internal commission.  There is one commission for evaluation each month. If the candidate and proposal are good, it will go through.

If there is someone with a background in resilience who is interested they should contact Olivier Barreteau (olivier.barreteau at cemagref.fr).

What is resilience thinking and what is it not

Adaptive cycleVictor Galaz‘s post Machine Fetishism, Money and Resilience Theory reflected on Alf Hornborg‘s recent paper Zero-Sum World: Challenges in Conceptualizing Environmental Load Displacement and Ecologically Unequal Exchange in the World-System, in which, among other things, Hornborg presents a partial critique of what he calls “the gospel of resilence” – resilience theory and adaptive management.

There have been many comments on Victor’s post, including responses from the paper’s author.  To highlight this discussion, I’ve hoisted some points from the comments on that post.

Alf Hornborg writes that he is waiting for a convincing response to his criticism of social-ecological resilience:

At the most general level, the rhetoric on social-ecological resilience is framed in terms of a nomothetic search for the functional principles of socio-ecological systems (SES), as if human ecology was analogous to medicine.  SES are approached like biological systems with processes of adaptation and change that can be studied from a detached, objective position. The recurrent aim is to increase our “understanding” of how SES actually function, as if more data and better models could improve our management of these systems (again, analogous to medical practice).

Rather than try to develop a conspicuously and naively non-political cybernetic etiology of socio-ecological degradation – based on the assumption that such processes, irrespective of capitalist extractivism, are universally patterned, predictable, and potentially manageable – I challenge resilience theorists to address the operation of the global economic system that is the very obvious source of such processes. The attempt to provide an abstract vocabulary for describing SES often cries out for empirical examples that might get the discussion grounded in the real politics of human-environmental relations. For example, when it is argued that we must define on which scales agency is located and how an increase or decrease of scope for agency at one level influences agency on other levels, we need to consider a concrete case in order to assess whether the concept of resilience is really the most useful way of accounting for what actually seems to be a (rather well understood) problem of power.

Is “path dependence” so much better than various understandings of cultural, social, political, and generally structural problems of inertia and conservatism?

What do we gain by rephrasing environmental conflict and armed resistance as “regulation”?

How can we hope to predict and manage the abrupt surprises and discontinuities implied by notions of “critical thresholds” and “flipping”?

Why should concepts such as “non-linear dynamics”, “disturbance”, “opportunities for innovation”, “adaptation”, and “renewal” provide a better way of understanding what Joseph Tainter and many others for decades have recognized as socio-ecological collapse?

What are, quite frankly, the discursive/ideological benefits of subsuming social systems within the vocabulary of natural science?

I find it hard to respond to this critique because I do not recognize my work or that of my colleagues in the Resilience Alliance in Hornborg’s characterization of resilience thinking.

Perhaps this is because his article only shallowly engages the resilience literature, focusing on the Linking book edited by Berkes and Folke (an overview of resilience books and articles is available on the Resilience Alliance website), but I think it may be because Resilience thinking is not a formula for explaining how the world works.  In a recent paper, Steve Carpenter and Buz Brock described resilience as:

Resilience is a broad, multifaceted, and loosely organized cluster of concepts, each one related to some aspect of the interplay of transformation and persistence. Thus, resilience does not come down to a single testable theory or hypothesis. Instead it is a changing constellation of ideas, some of which are testable through the usual practices of natural or social science. Although particular ideas may be rejected or supported, the program of research on resilience itself is evaluated in a different way. As long as resilience thinking produces interesting research ideas, people are likely to pursue it. When it seems empty of ideas, it will be abandoned or transformed into something else.

Below I give some specific response to some aspects of Homborg’s comments:

  • Neither ecosystems nor society are super-organisms – and therefore most resilience researchers do not think that medicine or health are good metaphors for managing, manipulating, or understanding ecosystems.
  • Social-ecological systems are different from ecosystems or social systems.  How they are different was specifically addressed in the 2002 book Panarchy in a chapter by Westley F, Carpenter SR, Brock WA,. Holling CS, and Gunderson LH. called “Why systems of people and nature are not just social and ecological systems”
  • Resilience thinking takes a subjective rather than objective view of systems.  Being founded in systems theory, it aims to articulate the subjective perspective from which a system is analyzed to assist in the mapping and translating between multiple perspectives.
  • I believe that more data can help us  make the world more sustainable.  Data can show where theory is wrong, identify new problems, and suggest new ways of doing things.  Science and society don’t know how to create a sustainable society – consequently I believe we need to experiment, monitor, and observe to build a better world.
  • I don’t think resilience research lacks case studies.  Researchers in the Resilience Alliance has worked on a lot of case studies.   Ellinor Ostrom in particular has done a lot of compartive case studies.
  • Homborg writes that resilience researchers are trying”to develop a conspicuously and naively non-political cybernetic etiology of socio-ecological degradation – based on the assumption that such processes, irrespective of capitalist extractivism, are universally patterned, predictable, and potentially manageable.”
    The goal of my research is to help people make better decisions under conditions of uncertainty.  I want to better understand the dynamics of human dominated ecosystems – or social-ecological systems – not “subsum[e] social systems within the vocabulary of natural science”.   I am very interested in how people interact with ecosystems and I have tried to read and collaborate with a broad set of social and natural scientists to better understand social-ecological dynamics. As far as I know, none of the various social scientists I have worked with want to subsume the social sciences within the natural sciences but rather create new ways of understanding these linked systems, especially how they cope with change and surprise.

To response to specific questions:

  • Is “path dependence” so much better than various understandings of cultural, social, political, and generally structural problems of inertia and conservatism?
    Path dependence is a shorthand way of describing these things.   The term is general and not a term produced by resilience researchers.
  • What do we gain by rephrasing environmental conflict and armed resistance as “regulation”?
    Who does that?
  • How can we hope to predict and manage the abrupt surprises and discontinuities implied by notions of “critical thresholds” and “flipping”?
    That’s what resilience research is all about. There is a lot of active research on predicting “flips” (one recent example), with lots of papers being published on it in the last few years.
  • Why should concepts such as “non-linear dynamics”, “disturbance”, “opportunities for innovation”, “adaptation”, and “renewal” provide a better way of understanding what Joseph Tainter and many others for decades have recognized as socio-ecological collapse?
    While non-linear dynamics and disturbance and general terms from math and ecology, the other concepts are exactly what some resilience researchers have added to Tainter’s analysis.  Many resilience researchers are interested in how to avoid collapse and actively transform systems to new better states.  These concepts are new additions to our exploration of social-ecological systems.

Resilience researchers believe that because living in a human dominated biosphere, in which our way of life is destabilizing the ecological systems that stabilize our life support systems, learning how to be resilient to shocks and surprise are useful and important research goals.

I do this type of research because, I want to contribute to making human impacts on the biosphere positive rather than negative, and doing this requires a better, richer, understanding how social-ecological systems actually work.