Talk:Complex socio-ecological systems/Coupled Human and Natural Systems

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Summary of discussion:

We started the class with an exercise asking people to draw a forest and select one variable that they could use to measure or evaluate the resilience of that forest. This was to test if people with different disciplinary backgrounds (natural/social sciences for instance) would draw the forest in a certain way (more ecological, more socio-ecological) and to start to think on how we can operationalize the concept of resilience in real world. We had forests with and without people, and there was some doubt on whether people belonged to natural or social sciences.

The variables selected were:

Tree age

Heterogeneity of the forest

Habitat for wildlife

Deforestation rate


Population density (in general)

Canopy density

We discussed how these variables could be indicators of resilience, and whether the human element was represented in them.

We then started to discuss what it means to carry out interdisciplinary work, and what was the approach of interdisciplinary research approached in the papers. Danielle commented, reinforcing her posting, that ecology is interdisciplinary since its origins and that the idea that ecology is only about ecosystems is a very distorted vision of the discipline. Claudia talked about trans-disciplinary, to mean that one might combine different disciplines to better capture a given problem or context, and that she started to study economy as a complement to her formation as a biologist. We talked about how sciences tend to follow a cycle of being entangled and dissociation, such as in the past when there was the discipline of natural history, which included relationships between humans and nature, that were dissociated with the enlightenment, and now are being combined through renewed theories of SES and CHANS. Critiques to Liu et al were related to the mechanistic characteristic of CHANS studies, that are visibly developed by ecologists with some contribution from social sciences in terms of measures of social characteristics that don't capture the nuanced variation of social system's attributes and the complexity of human societies' power and political structures. Westley et al. bring the idea that social systems differ from ecological systems in important ways, such as systems of meanings, forward vision, reflexivity and novelty. This is a good link for our next section on social systems.

Question that remains:

- What are the differences or similarities between concepts, approaches and methods applied to understand SES X CHANS?

Readings comments:

Comments for this week: Interesting articles and overview of the relationship between social and ecological systems. I was intrigued by Fig. 2 in Liu et al.’s AMBIO paper: the evaluation of resilience of a lake in Wisconsin seems more qualitative than quantitative, at least in that figure. This article presents a nice overview of all the possible elements of CHANS, which by the way, is an acronym that I haven’t encountered again (though I am not much of a CAS or SES expert). I liked that there are some specific examples of integrated CHANS research (agents-based modeling of LUC, integrated models of climate change), and yet need to still discover what and how these approaches deal with researching and understanding complexity (references 146-148). Liu and colleagues’ SCIENCE paper was also clear. The commonalities and differences amongst the 4 case-studies highlight the need for research to unveil patterns and processes in other areas with different problems. The loops and inadvertent consequences of policies were nicely shown in the Wolong case (panda habitat degraded faster after the protected area was created; number of households increased to capture subsidies). I liked also the emphasis in managed systems (consequences of removal of grazing in Sweden), which reinforces the concept that systems are more than ecological machines but also products of social interventions. I saw yet another definition of resilience (capacity to retain similar structure and function after disturbances) based on our previous discussions. This paper jumps from examples on resilience that are purely ecological to others that integrate economic factors with environmental effects, and even human enhanced resilience (role of incentives). I still need want to get to the nitty gritty of measuring resilience and integrating research (the black box of interdisciplinarity).Claudia 15:20, 3 February 2011 (UTC)
The Liu et al. and Redman et al. readings are complimentary in my mind, with the chapter from Panarchy serving as a supplementary text (sorry for the childish geometry quip). The efforts at carving out a CHANS domain has been somewhat complicated by the fact that SES thinking predates it (and indeed ideas of integrated social and biophysical science predate SES, but we’ll get to that in tomorrow’s discussion), so I think I can authoritatively tell Claudia that other than the NSF imprimatur, these are largely questions of semantics (the mission statement of the LTERs to the contrary: Perhaps more to the point, other than the brief description of the difference between sociobiologists and systems thinkers in Westley et al., the lack of nuance in these texts may be somewhat troubling—especially, though not exclusively to those who work in the social sciences. I can hear the faint utterances of determinism already. Two points that should be made now, but will again be explored tomorrow:

1) When were human and natural systems ever decoupled in the first place? Wait, were they?
2) Is Liu et al.’s assertion that interdisciplinary work is a new development really a new development? Is it really the new normal? What about scientific fragmentation as a parallel, equally important trend?

These are double-barreled questions if ever there were any. Nevertheless, to use the jargon of “patterns and processes,” one might assume I’m asking process-oriented questions, but that’s not my intention. Both of these questions get at the seemingly bulletproof case that the authors make for the complexity of the systems we and everything around us inhabits. In the case of 1, if we add history into the mix (not to mention a few other vital ingredients), the rapprochement doesn’t look so crystal clear. And for 2, true researchers of all stripes now publish things together, but first there’ the issue of whether that’s interdisciplinary work, and secondly there were people doing interdisciplinary work far before even the 19th century.

Onward to the discussion chamber! ~ Sam

Liu et al. (2007), CHANS:

Does it make sense to say "Coupled Fish and Natural Systems"? Or a female woman? Similarly, does it make sense to say "Coupled Human and Natural Systems"? Isn't it redundant? Aren't humans part of the natural systems? Most people might agree that humans are part of natural systems, but many people often act as if humans systems are separate from natural systems.

The title "Coupled Human and Natural Systems" poses a division that not everyone might perceive. The authors often refer to "human systems" and "natural systems" as separate things that have become increasingly coupled through increased human impact. They seem to take for granted that the reader perceive these divisions. However, I (and maybe other people too) never perceived humans to be decoupled from nature.

CHANS seems to focus more on ecosystems than on human systems (that is, society).

What is a system? Which scale of analysis is a system? At the ecosystem scale? At the micro scale? At the global scale? It seems difficult to understand where a system begins and where it ends.

CHANS seems to focus on the ecosystem scale. The questions guiding discussion of CHANS seem to be: What affects ecosystems? What is happening at the ecosystem level? Which interactions and feedbacks are taking place?

CHANS research is unique because it focuses on the LINK between human and natural ecosystems, that is, the interaction between these two systems. Because this research focuses on the LINK between two systems, it seems obvious that this research needs to look at characteristics of BOTH systems. However, this is not to say that all social science needs to consider the "natural" environment, and that all natural science needs to consider society and human behavior. There is plenty of space for research that does not focus on this link. In my view, whether one focuses on one system or the interaction between the two systems depends on the question the researcher asks.

The authors refer to the "escalating complexity" of CHANS. Why is the complexity escalating?

flaleite 02:21, 4 February 2011 (UTC)Reply

For both the Liu et al papers, it's a useful exercise to make sure definitions and concepts are shared, and that's pretty much all I get out of these papers. I disregard entirely the argument that ecology separates the human component from the ecological; for the last 40 years the literature is inundated with the realization that no ecosystem is left untouched by human presence in one form or another. That ecologists have attempted to understand how ecosystems functioned before human intervention/before human intervention became a liability for certain ecosystems is not a problem for me; the quest is to understand ecosystem development and degradation simultaneously so that decisions can be made as to what humans want those ecosystems to look like. That human constructs, including society, abstraction, and physical presence adds more dimensions of complexity is a given. Certainly human-ecological systems are going to exhibit characteristics of thresholds, hysteresis, etc the same as the landscape they make a part of. The only surprise I see is the surprise that it's necessary to point it out in multiple review papers, and as late as 2007. My final thoughts as I finish up the Panarchy chapter is that it's not so surprising we have only begun to model coupled systems with any sophistication; modeling in general is still inadequate to fully capture the characteristics of basic systems as a primary step, coupling multiple dimensions together is a tertiary or more step that shouldn't simply be leaped into because we want to be able to model everything. If we do so without a careful evaluation of how components of a system fit together, we risk making large assumptions and making decisions based on inadequate information. The confusion over climate change models, the number of models available, and the public's and media's inability to understand what climate change models are and mean is an excellent example.DWatts 04:17, 4 February 2011 (UTC)--DanielleReply

I like the quote in Westley et al',s chapter: "In nature, there are no rewards or punishments, just consequences" (Anon)

I agree with some of you that CHANS being treated as a new and innovative science isn't convincent for me. Is there anything on earth that is not a coupled human and natural system? The "new" science of SES or CHANS is largely being advanced by a group of ecologists or human ecologists trying to apply ecosystems concepts to explain how everything works in the planet, including social dynamics. I was a little worried with the lack of history and politics in Liu's et al Science paper, which is a bit better addressed in their Ambio paper. One could argue that the bigger patterns found when you look at CHANS - such as thresholds, surprises, reciprocal feedback loops, time lags, heterogeneity and resilience - are all found in ecosystems, and the details on social dynamics that lead to those patterns are not very well explored. In fact, social dynamics in those cases is treated rather in a mechanistic and deterministic way, brought by demographic dynamics and other quantitative/statistical measures that don't capture the nuances of social systems and the enormous capacity of, at the same time, innovate, conserve and destroy. The same historical events that led to the fragmentation of scientific disciplines led to the generation of mental models that are deeply rooted in our common imaginary, about de-coupling humans from nature. I want to go back to address Claudia's comments few weeks ago on the range, limits and classifications of "anthropogenic" actions of humans in nature. When is stops to be "natural"to be harmful? One example would be the role of indigenous societies in historically creating patches of heterogeneity and enhancing diversity of tropical forests X the overuse of fertile soils for agriculture leading to nutrient exhaustion and lack of productivity, due to nowadays sedentarization. I was a bit relieved after reading Westley et al in which the claim that ecosystems and social systems are intrinsically linked, but present very distinct characteristics that should be considered when doing interdisciplinary research. In that sense, we would need the discipline fragmentation to be able to understand the system better and put the pieces together. They talk about meaning, symbol and culture in human societies, in which cultural change can be extremely fast in comparison to biological evolution. They bring the idea that social constructs dictate how we relate with the natural world, which is overlooked in the more materialistic and deterministic approaches used to define CHANS. Simone

Some questions for reflection:

1. What is a system? Which scale of analysis is a system? At the ecosystem scale? At the micro scale? At the global scale? It seems difficult to understand where a system begins and where it ends. (Flavia)

2. When were human and natural systems ever decoupled in the first place? Wait, were they? (Sam)

3. Is Liu et al.’s assertion that interdisciplinary work is a new development really a new development? Is it really the new normal? What about scientific fragmentation as a parallel, equally important trend? (Sam)

4. What is means to be interdisciplinary, and what is the relevance of interdisciplinary research in the study of SES? Should we get rid of fragmented disciplines?

5. What is the critique of CHANS approach? Is there any gap or issues left out of Liu et al's papers?

6. What is the role of political ecology, economy and political sciences in advancing knowledge about CHANS?

7. How could we better address the divide between social and ecological systems without overlooking important nuances of the way in which societies evolve and culture changes?

8. The authors refer to the "escalating complexity" of CHANS. Why is the complexity escalating? (Flavia)

9. How, by which mechanisms, learning lessons and insights from studying CHANS being communicated to broader society and policy-making arena?