Complex socio-ecological systems/Coupled Human and Natural Systems

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Discussants: Sam and Simone

Liu, Jianguo et al. 2007. Coupled Human and Natural Systems. Ambio 36(8): 639-648. In this paper, Liu and collaborators describe aspects of the complexity of organizational, spatial, and temporal couplings of Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS). The authors argue that reciprocal effects and emergent properties of those coupled systems can lead to novel scientific discoveries, being essential for the development of effective policies for ecological and socioeconomic sustainability. The authors describe:1) organizational couplings properties, which include reciprocal effects and feedbacks, indirect effects, emergent properties, tresholds and resilience; 2) Spatial couplings, including couplings accross spatial scales, beyond boundaries and heterogeneity; and 3) temporal couplings, including massive increases in human impacts on natural systems, rising natural impacts on humans, legacy effects, time lags, increased scales and pace and escalating indirect effects. The authors claim that understanding CHANS requires effective nurturing of interdisciplinary research, comparative studies, integrated tools and effective ways of commmunicating science "beyond the ivory tower."

Liu, Jianguo et al. 2007. Complexity of Coupled Human and Natural Systems. Science 317: 1513-1516. This paper, by Liu and many collaborators from various universities and reserach centers accros the globe describe six study-cases to illustrate emergent properties and characteristics of coupled human and natural systems. They highlight properties of CHANS that are commomn accross the cases which exhibit nonlinear dynamics with tresholds, reciprocal feedback loops, time lags, resilience, heterogeneity and surprises.

Westley, F.; S. R. Carpenter, W. A. Brock; C. S. Holling and L. H. Gunderson. 2002. Why Systems of People and Nature are Not Just Social and Ecological Systems. In: L. H. Gunderson and C. S. Holling. eds. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Washington, Island Press.
This chapter of Panarchy lays the foundation for the concept of socio-ecological systems (SES), and seeks to bridge the divide in holistic scientific conceptualization between the extreme systems ecologists who posit that humans are components in an ecosystem, and social scientists who posit that human-environmental interactions are merely another type of social system. Both ecosystems and social systems are described separately, but the section on social systems discusses two features peculiar to them: abstraction and reflexivity. Abstraction is the use of communication, language, and symbols to invent and reinvent a meaningful order, which then acts in accordance with the invented world. Reflexivity is the human tendency to create a social or virtual reality that is externalized, objectified, and then experienced. The authors also discuss the role of modeling and technology as further features to differentiate the social and ecological. The chapter concludes by saying that only a clearer understanding of these systems in conjunction with each other can lead to a fuller understanding of these relationships.

Additional reading:

Redman, Charles L., J. Morgan Grove and Lauren H. Kuby. 2004. Integrating Social Science into the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network: Social Dimensions of Ecological Change and Ecological Dimensions of Social Change.

Redman, C.L., Grove, J.M. & Kuby, L.H., 2004. Integrating social science into the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network: social dimensions of ecological change and ecological dimensions of social change. Ecosystems, 7(2), pp.161-171.
The authors call for the immediate integration of the social sciences into a pre-existing research program known as the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network. Redman et al articulate a conceptual framework for understanding the human dimensions of ecological changed, as prescribed in the LTER Network. They endorse the use of complex social-ecological systems (SES) as the means to accomplish this, although they do not discriminate between complex ecological systems and complex systems more generally in their formulation. The authors list a set of areas for the identification of key social science research areas, which are termed multiscalar investigatory frameworks necessary for implementing integrated research. The paper acts as a manifesto for how cross-site research projects can be carried out when investigators agree that bringing together social, biological, and earth scientists can lead to synthetic approaches and a unified understanding of the mechanisms regulating SES.