Today we see why we need to study and understand social-ecological systems, and not just social systems or ecological systems.
So I start out a little bit with what is the social-ecological systems approach?
To us it’s a concept where people are looked as being part of the planet we’re living on. That may seem extremely self-evident, but it’s not always clear when you look at the relations between people and nature.
Really this point that people and nature are intertwined, and humans are really an embedded part of the planet, and shaping the planet now from local to global scales. And especially the global scale has become a fairly recent one where we are now in the Anthropocene era.
And at the same time, as we are shaping the planet, we are also fundamentally dependent on the capacity of this little round ball that we’re living on to supply us with the basics of food, water, and a lot of ecosystem services, like recycling of basic nutrients and minerals salts that our body needs, or other types of services like regulating the climate.
So, I thought of giving you a few examples of these ecosystem services. Some classical ones often talked about are things like pollination of crops, or seafood production, the capacity of marine systems to produce the food we get from the sea. Carbon sinks are of course a lot of discussed in relation to the climate issue. How can we draw down carbon that we emit into nature through marine systems or through forests? And also regulation of water cycles through rainforests, or the role of parrotfish and other big fish on coral reefs in regenerating reefs after they’d been hit by cyclones. So ecosystems supply an enormous amount of services that people depend upon. And I’d like to use the idea of ecosystem services to illustrate social-ecological systems.
So first let’s move into an area in southern Madagascar. It’s an area where people are poor and live in very worn down landscapes. So if you look from a map of southern Madagascar what you see is really worn down landscapes. But if you would increase the resolution through a GIS system, or another remote sensing system, you would start to see that there are green spots in the landscapes, like small forest remnants here and there, many of them. And what’s interesting is that these green spots, they connect biodiversity in the region. So everything like lemurs, and a lot of other species need those green small areas. And they also have natural beehives in them and the bees go out in the fields and increase the food production by 30 to 40 to 50% in those regions. So what would you do if you were an ecologist and you would like to protect those green spots? And we would presumably contact the big international conservation NGO, and go to the government of Madagascar and try to make those into protected areas, excluded by humans. So the reason they are there is social and cultural, and not ecological. And actually the whole culture there is dependent on those services generated by those green spots, but they are protected by the belief systems and the worldviews of this culture.
So some key things to think about in relation to that story is that ecosystem services are not just generated by the ecological system or the ecosystem, but by a social-ecological system. And this is quite obvious now when we’re living in the Anthropocene, where people are everywhere shaping all ecosystems all over the planet. And they are complex systems, social-ecological systems, and they are connected across levels; from the local to the global, in time from history to the future. And as we are now living in this interconnected planet I think that the social-ecological is everywhere, it’s not just an exception. There are no ecosystems, there are no social systems, it’s only social-ecological systems.
Let’s take you to the other case, which is a classical one described in anthropology and other social sciences as one of the really good success stories of collective action, where people actually have come together as stewards of a marine resource: the lobster. And the lobster has not been overexploited, which is very unusual in fisheries, as you may all know. And in Maine, people from the lobster fishers have developed norms and rules, and are connected up to the State domain and to global markets, and have a very lucrative industry there around the lobster. So, it has really been described as a fantastic collection action success story, no over-fishing, and beautiful collaborations. But if you expand the horizon from the single lobster to the whole ecosystem in which the lobster lives you discover that the lobster is there largely because all the other species that ate the lobster have been overexploited. So the lobster has taken off like an insect population in the sea and become a huge, vast monoculture. And as you know monocultures are susceptible to shocks and crisis like diseases, for example. And for the south in Cape Cod, about 80%, 75 to 80% of the lobster population has been wiped out due to shell disease. And that seems to be moving up towards Maine now. So the lesson here is that if you create simplified ecosystems for production of a commodity that has a high market value right now, you create vulnerable systems sensitive to these types of shocks.
And that moves us to the whole idea of resilience thinking. Resilience is the capacity to be able to deal with change, to live a change and to make use of change, not only incremental and sudden change, but also shocks and crisis, to turn crisis into opportunities basically.
And in the Maine case they have reduced the resilience of the ecosystem so much that they are susceptible to these type of crises. And the question is to what extent they will be able to deal with it.
Resilience is often divided in three parts.
- The first part is about persistence, how do we continue to live and develop in the face of these changes?
- The second part is about adaptability, basically how do we continue to develop on the same path that we are on, and adapt on the path in the face of changing conditions?
- And the third, which is a very critical one now when we are in the Anthropocene, is how we can shift pathways, development directions into novel ones or new ones?
And we call that transformation; how we can transform societies into new development paths in line with the way the planet operates for human well-being, and for a good life for people on Earth.
The core of resilience thinking, a metaphor for resilience thinking, could actually be from the music industry. A person like Madonna, for example, who has been going through lots of changes on her career path, and actually complete changes in the way she do the music, but still remained on the path of being an artist for a very long time. So, that’s an example of being resilient in the face of change, and also created innovation and novelty in the music as part of that.
Another way to think about resilience, and what we often use, is some type of diagram called the ball and the cup. Where we have found by looking at the real world cases – we often do, we often try to look at the real world, and not just do theories around it.
We have studied several places on the planet with these type of interactions, and we find that they often go through a cycle of three phases.
- Where they first start to build resilience they know that they’re on a path that’s not sustainable, they try to build resilience to get out of the path, but they can’t do it because they’re locked by other laws, or social norms, or government policies, or business activities.
- But then suddenly there’s a window of opportunity where the forces aligns, and they can shift over the whole governance structure into a new pathway.
- And that requires skillful leadership and other actors, and then they can after that start to build resilience of the new path they’re on to be able to continue on that path and live a change. So, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is one example. A lot of landscapes in southern Sweden are other examples. And also the whole agricultural revolution in in Latin America, a third one.
So here I tried to talk tried to talk about social-ecological systems and gave you two examples of why we need to think about people and nature as totally intertwined, and especially in the Anthropocene. And we’re operating through a new interdisciplinary, or transdisciplinary platforms in the world called sustainability science, which is more defined by the problem that it addresses rather than by the discipline it employs.
So any discipline where any knowledge system or any understanding that can contribute to dealing with these problems of sustainability are part of sustainability science. And the social-ecological approach is a critical one for sustainability science and resilience thinking, another critical way of operating on that pathway