Ecology for Transformation

David Zaks and Chad Monfreda write on Worldchanging on Steve Carpenter and Carl Folke‘s 2006 paper in Ecology for Transformation (

Ecology has long been a descriptive science with real but limited links to the policy community. A new science of ecology, however, is emerging to forge the collaborations with social scientists and decision makers needed for a bright green future. Stephen Carpenter and Carl Folke outline a vision for the future of ecology in their recent article, Ecology for Transformation. You need a subscription to access the full article, so we’ll quote them at length:

“Scenarios with positive visions are quite different from projections of environmental disaster. Doom-and-gloom predictions are sometimes needed, and they might sell newspapers, but they do little to inspire people or to evoke proactive forward-looking steps toward a better world. Transformation requires evocative visions of better worlds to compare and evaluate the diverse alternatives available to us … Although we cannot predict the future, we have much to decide. Better decisions start from better visions, and such visions need ecological perspectives.”

Ecology for Transformation offers the perspective of resilient social-ecological systems. Simply put, it recognizes that ecosystems and human society are interdependent, and that they need the capacity to withstand and adapt to an increasingly bumpy future.

Examples of resilient social-ecological systems abound in all kinds of notoriously difficult to manage areas, like natural disaster response and rangeland management. Resilience sounds great, but how do we get there? Fortunately Carpenter and Folke offer a theoretically robust three-part transformative framework:

1. Diversity
2. Environmentally sound technology
3. Adaptive governance

Diversity constitutes the raw material we can draw from to create effective technologies and institutions. It reflects the wealth of genetic and memetic resources at our disposal, in the form of biodiversity, landscapes, cultures, ideas, and economic livelihoods. We need to foster diversity as an insurance package for hard times because…

“…crisis can create opportunities for reorganizing the relationships of society to ecosystems. At such times, barriers to action might break down, if only for a short time, and new approaches have a chance to change the direction of ecosystem management. To succeed, a particular approach or vision must be well-formed by the time the crisis arises, because the opportunity for change might be short-lived.”

Environmentally sound technology ranges from incremental advancements in energy efficiency to innovative economic tools like natural capital valuation and markets for ecosystem services. Diversity and technology should sound familiar enough to WorldChanging readers. Ecology for transformation, however, goes on, to challenge us to engage in adaptive governance that recognizes the reality of constant change. The authors define adaptive governance as:

“Institutional and political frameworks designed to adapt to changing relationships between society and ecosystems in ways that sustain ecosystem services; expands the focus from adaptive management of ecosystems to address the broader social contexts that enable ecosystem based management.”

Governance is much broader than what we normally think of as government and encompasses all of the actors who shape the way we work, live, and interact. Communication across various scales, from individuals to institutions, is vital for effective governance. Many of the management and governance structures currently in place are static, but an ‘adaptive’ approach promises more sustainable outcomes by negotiating uncertainty and change.

Steve Carpenter, WA Brock, and I addressed the issue of how scientists can encourage transformations by creating new management models in our 2003 paper Uncertainty and the management of multistate ecosystems: an apparently rational route to collapse (Ecology. 84(6) 1403-1411). We wrote:

…scientists can contribute to broadening the worldview of ecosystem management in at least three ways.

(1) Scientists can point out that uncertainty is a property of the set of models under consideration. This set of models is a mental construct (even if it depends in part on prior observation of the ecosystem). It therefore depends on attitudes and beliefs that are unrelated to putatively objective information about the ecosystem. Despite this discomforting aspect of uncertainty, it cannot be ignored.

(2) Scientists can help to imagine novel models for how the system might change in the future. There will be cases where such novel models carry non-negligible weight in decision, for example when the costs of collapse are high. The consequences of candidate policies can be examined under models with very different implications for ecosystem behavior. Such explorations of the robustness of policies can be carried out when model uncertainty is quite high or even unknown, for example in scenario analysis.

(3) Scientists can point out the value of safe, informative experiments to test models beyond the range of available data. In the model presented here, fossilization of beliefs follows from fixation on policies that do not reveal the full dynamic potential of the ecosystem, leading to the underestimation of model uncertainty. Experimentation at scales appropriate for testing alternative models for ecosystem behavior is one way out the trap. Of course, largescale experiments on ecosystems that support human well being must be approached with caution. Nevertheless, in situations where surprising and unfavorable ecosystem dynamics are possible, it may be valuable to experiment with innovative practices that could reinforce desirable ecosystem states.

I think our second point, the need for creative synthesis, is not emphasized enough in science, which tends to focus on testing existing models. Ecological governance needs new ways of thinking about nature that are useful in governance situations. The creation of novel, practical models is a vital part of connecting science to policy and action. Without practical models, people are unable to develop desirable policy or effective actions.

One thought on “Ecology for Transformation”

  1. I really like your emphasis on the “creative synthesis” aspect of scientific transformations. I aggree that this is an area that deserves more attention, especially at the undergraduate level. Students can be taught how to address scientific issues creatively, or they can be taught to examine scientific questions by relying on the models that have been reinforced, perhaps with an unacceptable level of uncertainty for some situations, in the past.

    This is not to say, of course, that these models are not important for transformations through ecology. I think that as more researchers begin to focus on aspects of policy as an important part of our ecological understanding, there will be a tendancy to view the established models in a different light, and, with the right training, be able to ask the questions that will lead to more appropriate, creative models that are designed with policy and action in mind.

    Very nice review. Thanks.

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