Complex socio-ecological systems/Conference discussion

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March 25th

Conference Discussion and Discussion of Scheffer et al 2000

Facilitators: Bob, Sam, Simone and Flavia

Required reading:

Scheffer, M, Willliam Brock and Frances Westley. 2000 Socioeconomic Mechanisms Preventing Optimum Use of Ecosystem services. Ecosystems 3: 451-471.

Long summary of Scheffer et al.'s paper:

This article has two parts: 1) A discussion of how ecosystems work, and 2) A discussion of the social elements surrounding ecosystems. Within the discussion of the social elements, the authors point out how stakeholder behavior depends on the relationship of the stakeholder to the ecosystem (affectors versus enjoyers), on the interaction among people within a group of stakeholders (collective action and free riding), and on the level of social organization of each group of stakeholders. As a result of the interplay of natural and social, societies tend to move towards suboptimal compromises that are not good for the ecosystem and to the welfare of society.

1) As regards the functioning of ecosystems, the authors explain that ecosystems are complex, having multiple stable states and nonlinear responses to human use. Because of nonlinearity, changes to ecosystems are often not smooth. When ecosystems change, the change occurs quickly and is often irreversible. Authors point out that ecosystem change can often be examined by the study of key state variables. The authors refer to the human use of ecosystem as the "stress" caused by humans. They explain that point the nonlinear ecosystem response to stress can lead to unexpected catastrophic shifts. They authors also explain the implications of catastrophic shifts. To illustrate their ideas, the authors discuss what studies of shallow lakes have taught us about ecosystems. One important conclusion from these studies is that lakes have two alternative stable states that depend on the nutrient levels, water turbidity and amount of plants in the lakes. The two alternative stable states are represented as the bottom of two valleys in the authors' graphs. Authors explain that once lakes reach a critical level of turbidity and high levels of nutrient, trying to reverse the lake to previous levels of nutrient and turbidity is not simple since "the system tends to say tin the "turbid valley of attraction" (p. 456).

2) Authors discuss the social elements surrounding lake ecosystems. They present possible stakeholders who have a "stake" in the conditions of the lake (e.g. fishermen, farmers, households, water companies). The authors introduce two concepts:"welfare" or "utility," which are used somewhat as synonyms. The authors argue that estimating the welfare function for each stakeholder is not simple. Authors also question whether society should focus on maximizing the value of a lake for human use, and ignore other concerns, such as ethical concerns. Author explains what a monopolistic owner of a lake would do - the owner would seek to maximize the sum of values that he or she can extract from the lake. The owner would also have an incentive to preserve the lake in order to keep profiting from the lake. Authors argue that is important to avoid cost-benefit analysis and "focus the discussion on how society might measure and extract all potential values out of the bundle of resources comprised by the lake and its watershed" (p. 457).

The authors explain that there are different services that can be extracted from a lake and that there is a trade-off between different lake uses. The authors talk about a hypothetical RASP (Rational Social Planner). They argue that a RASP should know the value of a system for different users in order to find the integrated use that brings the most welfare for society. The RASP would be able to do this by combining the ecosystem response curves with the welfare functions of the lake. The authors distinguish two types of stakeholders: the "affectors", who have a large direct impact on the conditions of an ecosystem, and the "enjoyers," who benefit from an ecosystem, but do not directly mess up the ecosystem through their activities. Authors recognize that in practice there are many types of stakeholders, who often have overlapping rather than complementary interests. The authors combine the maximum utility graph with the stable equilibrium lines to explain that that compromise solutions between the affectors and enjoyers are not good for the stakeholders or for the ecosystem. Author distinguishes overall welfare from the optimum utility solutions that result from compromises and political pressure. The authors also distinguish the "good" and "bad" side of the utility curve, which correspond respectively to good ecosystem conditions and bad ecosystem conditions.

Therefore, RASPs should not seek an optimum solution that reflect a compromise between affectors and enjoyers. The authors explain that the political process weighs in favor of affectors, who are usually more organized as a group and can therefore pressure decision makers more effectively. As results, political decisions regarding ecosystems tend to benefit more affectors in detriment of enjoyers and the ecosystems. The authors therefore note that political pressure is a strong determinant of what decisions are actually make as regards ecosystem use.

Authors use the lake example to explain theories about what social elements bring societies closer or father from obtaining optimum utility from an ecosystem. Regarding the social elements, the authors recognize that reality is more complex than the simplifications they make. Still, they talk about a lot of imaginary situations based on "ideal" situations and "ideal" behaviors. The authors argue that to make smarter decisions regarding ecosystem use, authorities should have insights on how ecosystems work and adjust policies according to ecosystem and societal variations. Still, the interactional elements of society lead decision makers away from passing regulations to guide resources users towards sustainable use. The authors provide the example of taxation, one method that could be used to regulate ecosystem use. In this case, the RASP would establish a fixed tax rate per unit of pollution. The result of the tax is that after a certain level of pollution, with diminishing returns to investments, it would be too costly for affectors to continue polluting. This would lead affectors to slow down pollution, which would be good for the ecosystem and for the enjoyers. However, one problem is that affectors have greater organizational capacity than enjoyers and they can mobilize to stop the RASP from approving the tax. The authors use game theory and theory on collective action to explain power differentials across stakeholders and the different ability of stakeholders to overcome collective action problems (free rider problem). Specifically, the authors explain why affectors can exert greater political pressure on decision makers than enjoyers, which is a result of the imbalance of costs and benefits between affectors and enjoyers, and their unequal level of social organization (social capital). Finally, the authors identify a problem that makes it harder for a well-intended RASP to plan towards optimum ecosystem: Slow social dynamics, that is, stakeholders take a while to notice a significant ecosystem variation, to negotiate and to respond to it. Authors suggest that greater social networking among stakeholders and a common culture of reciprocity can speed up the social dynamics and result in more prompt responses to ecosystem changes.