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Social ecology is a highly dynamic interdisciplinary research field rooted in both social science and natural science traditions. The common denominator of this research field is not so much a shared label but a shared paradigm. The core axioms in this paradigm are that human social and natural systems interact, coevolve over time, with causality pointing in both directions. Social ecology deals with energy and society, land use and food production, the metabolism of societies, and the environmental impacts of human activities. It offers a conceptual approach to society–nature coevolution that integrates historical and current development processes and future sustainability transitions.
- Academic Traditions Contributing to the Emergence of Social Ecology
- Society’s Biophysical Structures
- Energy and Society
- Land Use and Food Production
- Social Metabolism/Industrial Ecology
- Ecological Economics
- Identifying Environmental Impacts of Human Activities
- Biohistory and Society–Nature Coevolution
- Regulation, Governance and Sustainability Transitions
Social ecology constitutes a highly dynamic interdisciplinary research area with roots in both the social and natural sciences (see part 2). Whatever the discipline of origin, the common motive for moving into the direction of socioecological research has been to critically respond to decades of disciplinary differentiation and specialization that created a blind spot (Latour, 1991) detrimental to society’s capability to properly understand and address its relation to the – seemingly increasingly strained – natural environment.
The common denominator of this research field is not so much a shared label – names extend, beyond social ecology, from human ecology, industrial ecology, and ecological economics to socioecological systems analysis – but a shared paradigm. The core axioms in this paradigm are that human social and natural systems interact, coevolve over time, and substantially influence each other, with causality pointing in both directions. What follows from this paradigm is a need to develop theoretical and epistemological concepts and research methodologies that can capture social and natural structures and processes in an integrated fashion. This challenge has been addressed in different ways and at different levels of depth and consistency across the various strands of social ecology.
In this research paper we first reconstruct some earlier academic roots of social–ecological thinking. Subsequently, we discuss key research traditions that deal with the biophysical features of human societies, such as energy, land use, and social metabolism. This is followed by a review of approaches to identifying environmental impacts of human activities. The fourth part is devoted to biohistory, and reviews theoretical and empirical efforts to analyze society–nature coevolution. Finally, we turn to issues of regulation and governance, with a particular focus on future sustainability transitions.
Academic Traditions Contributing to the Emergence of Social Ecology
The academic roots of social ecology can be traced back to the nineteenth century, partly because the social and natural sciences had not yet fallen into their respective epistemic boxes that made crossovers so difficult in the twentieth century. There are excellent reviews reconstructing such roots in the political economy of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, and Thomas Malthus (Martinez-Alier, 1987; Sieferle, 1990; Fischer- Kowalski, 1998) illustrating the debates on the interrelations between population, land, food, technology, and economic development. While Smith, Ricardo, and Malthus remained focused on natural limitations to economic growth (in particular: land), Marx was the first to claim technological development (and thus: human ingenuity) as the key driver of economic growth, thus overcoming natural limitations.
Another influential field was geography. George Perkins Marsh’s book Man and Nature: or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1864) inspired at least two major efforts to comprehensively account for human-induced changes in global ecology, namely the Princeton Conference on Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth (Thomas, 1956) and the 1987 conference at Clark University titled The Earth as Transformed by Human Action (Turner et al., 1990). In 1969 the German geographer Neef explicitly talked about the ‘metabolism between society and nature’ as a core problem of geography (Neef, 1969). Since then, geographers have played a major role in social ecology.
Cultural ecology, as brilliantly reviewed by Orlove (1980), must be regarded as another important predecessor of later social–ecological research. Similar to sociology, the beginnings of cultural anthropology (as in the works of Morgan, 1877) were marked by evolutionism, that is, the idea of universal historical progress from more ‘natural,’ barbarian social conditions to more advanced, civilized ones. Cultural anthropology subsequently splits into functionalist and culturalist strands. The functionalist strands retained a focus on the society–nature interface. Leslie White, one of the most prominent anthropologists of his generation and an early representative of the functionalist tradition, rekindled interest in energetics. For White, the vast differences in the types of extant societies could be described as social evolution propelled by energy and technology (White, 1943). In contrast, cultural anthropologist Julian Steward’s ‘method of cultural ecology’ also paid attention to the quality, quantity, and distribution of resources within the environment, albeit with a different focus. This is exemplified by his comparative study ‘Tappers and Trappers’ (Murphy and Steward, 1955) which examines how two tribes that were traditionally reliant on subsistence hunting and gathering (and some horticulture) completely change their ways of living as a result of changing their metabolism. The authors report an irreversible shift from a subsistence economy to dependence upon trade.
Despite some early calls for ‘ecology of human’ (Adams, 1935; Darling, 1956; Sears, 1953), biological ecology was reluctant to engage in human ecology prior to the environmental debate of the 1970s (Young, 1974). Moreover, when the first influential texts on human ecology appeared (e.g., Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 1970; Ehrlich et al., 1973), they adopted an approach that remained typical for much of the bioecological work until very recently: namely to view humans as a source of disturbance in ecosystems. Those resulted in a rather narrow concept of human agency which hampered interdisciplinary collaboration. The fact that ecologists tended to favor ‘natural’ ecosystems over ‘human-dominated’ ones as study objects may also have contributed to this bias. However, the most important factor was that many biological ecologists simply did not recognize the need to develop a more complex approach that conceptualizes socioeconomic systems as different from natural systems. This was further exacerbated by the dominance of neo- Malthusian ideas in bioecological approaches to human ecology (above all in the work of Paul Ehrlich) unpopular with social scientists. The revived environmental debates of the 1970s changed the situation: major international research programs were launched, including UNESCO’s Man-and-the- Biosphere, or the International Human Dimensions Programme for Global Environmental Change, which stimulated and supported research across the ‘great divide’ (Snow, 1956) between the social and natural sciences.
History as a humanities discipline, in particular the tradition of the Annales School (e.g., Fernand Braudel), paved its own way toward social–ecological reasoning. Braudel viewed the history of the Mediterranean as an outcome of interaction between social and natural processes. Maurice Godelier formulates his core hypothesis in the introduction to The Mental and the Material as follows:
Human beings have a history because they transform nature. It is indeed this capacity which defines them as human. Of all the forces which set them in movement and prompt them to invent new forms of society, the most profound is their ability to transform their relations with nature by transforming nature itself. Godelier, 1984, p. 1
This way of looking at history relates to the Marxist tradition but transcends it, instead taking ecological and/or coevolutionary directions. The classic reading of Marx leads to a discussion of changing ‘modes of appropriation of nature’ through the development of new means of production, namely technology. Godelier’s reading stresses the fact that human appropriation of nature modifies nature and this modified nature in turn stimulates social change. Godelier thus deviates from mainstream social science approaches by viewing nature as historically variable, attributing societies’ historical dynamics to a feedback process from nature. Since the 1970s, the field of environmental history has worked with this fundamental concept of mutuality of nature–society relations (Winiwarter and Knoll, 2007).
For sociology, some commentators see the so-called Chicago School of Human Ecology (Park, Burgess, Duncan) as an entry point to modern social ecology (Park, 1952; Duncan, 1959). This school used concepts and terminology from biological ecology such as hierarchy, competition, or succession to analyze urban development. However, the natural environment was largely reduced to spatial structures in the built environment. For example, Duncan’s POET model (population, organization, environment, and technology) described social processes but did not refer to natural processes or conditions, with the exception of space (Beus, 1993). This said, some followers of the German human ecology tradition view this differently (cf Bruckmeier, 2004). Catton and Dunlap (1978) called for sociology to move beyond Durkheim’s dictum that “a social fact can be explained only by another social fact” (cited in Beus, 1993, p. 94) and to abandon the ‘human exceptionalism paradigm’ in favor of an ecological paradigm in which the human species is one among other species on Earth, sharing their susceptibility to nature. This frequently cited appeal, nevertheless, did not immediately give rise to substantially new theoretical or empirical approaches. Almost a decade later, German sociologist Luhmann, who built upon the system-theoretical approach of biologists Maturana and Varela (1975), published an influential book (1986) on society’s ability (or lack thereof) to adequately react to disturbances it initiates in its natural environment, even if these disturbances could prove to be detrimental to society in the long run. In the same year, Beck (1986) started to publish on ‘risk society,’ proposing that late modern society was characterized by the ways in which it creates and handles environmental risks and redistributes their consequences among its members. This starkly contrasts with traditional industrial society’s preoccupation with its emancipation from natural forces and efforts to legitimately handle social inequalities. Janicke (1988) and later Mol and Spaargaren (2000) opened a debate on ‘ecological modernization.’ They claimed that modern societies are capable of technological and organizational learning to mitigate or solve environmental problems. All these approaches, though, fall short of an epistemic turn toward a more symmetrical view of the social and the natural.
Society’s Biophysical Structures
Energy and Society
The idea that control of energy matters for society, even determines the advancement of civilization, has a long tradition in social theory, prominently represented by Herbert Spencer. In his First Principles in 1862 societal progress and developmental gradients between societies are linked to energy consumption: The more energy a society is able to consume, the further advanced it is. Societal progress is based on energy surplus because it enables social growth and differentiation and frees up time for cultural activities beyond work to meet basic vital needs. Cottrell (1955/2009), on the other hand, offered a more nuanced analysis of the relevance of the sources and amounts of available energy for social processes that steered clear of the more narrow energetic evolutionism embraced by Spencer and Morgan. Similarly, physicist Vaclav Smil published periodic compendia on Energy in the Biosphere and Civilization (1991) up to Energy in Nature and Society (2008) that compiled encyclopedic knowledge on how energy matters. Another physicist, Robert Ayres, has presented convincing theoretical and empirical evidence that the expenditure of useful work (i.e., exergy) was, and is key to economic growth (Ayres and Warr, 2005). The historian Rolf Peter Sieferle (1982, 2001b) analyzed the rise of the United Kingdom into industrialization and political hegemony as an outcome of its ‘subterranean forest,’ i.e., its use of coal that gave it access to significantly more energy than if the United Kingdom had had all its territory covered with forest and burned it for energetic use. Currently, the issue of reducing fossil fuel consumption to both address ‘peak oil’ (and peak fossil fuels more generally, cf Murphy, 2012) and avoid dangerous climate change and its potential consequences for economies and societies, is stimulating much research on the potential consequences of changing society’s energy base and possibly reducing the energy intensity of social processes altogether.
Land Use and Food Production
That societies extend over territories and restructure them for social purposes, with severe consequences for social as well as natural processes, is not a new issue among social scientists. However, it has regained considerable momentum of late. Ester Boserup (1965, 1981), both in her continuation and her critique of Neo-Malthusianism, was simultaneously at odds with the development policies of her time by (empirically) demonstrating social learning processes in response to population growth and food scarcity. She was able to show that traditional agriculture had found ways to feed an expanding population by intensifying land use (and not only, as in the Malthusian paradigm, by extending agricultural area). Landuse intensity is an essential aspect of the human use of terrestrial ecosystems. In the course of history, the intensification of land use allowed to overcome Malthusian traps and support population growth as well as improving supply of food and other products dependent on photosynthesis. It helped to achieve increases in agricultural production without requiring proportional increases in the area of agricultural land. On the contrary, intensification ensured that most industrialized countries increased their agricultural output in spite of shrinking agricultural areas in the last decades, if not centuries. In the industrial part of the world, we find reforestation instead of long-term deforestation (although this is partly because of deforestation and ‘land grabs’ in developing countries). On the other hand, increasing land-use intensity has often been associated with detrimental effects of land use on ecosystem functioning, such as soil degradation, groundwater and air pollution, and biodiversity loss. Such processes have had negative effects on the ability of ecosystems to sustain vital ecosystem services, thereby potentially jeopardizing human well-being in the long run. Under conditions of traditional agriculture, which largely prevailed worldwide until the 1960s, increased food output per unit area was achieved through increased investment of human labor (Boserup, 1981). This, in turn, incentivized high fertility to provide the necessary labor power, thereby contributing to population growth. When fossil fuels use facilitated the industrialization of agriculture (mineral fertilization, pesticides, tractors), this started to change (cf. Fischer-Kowalski et al. 2014a), with agriculture turning from a supplier of energy to a consumer (Pimentel et al., 1973). Emerging toxicological hazards linked to agriculture such as those documented in Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring (1962) ran the risk of poisoning the entire food chain. More recently, the debate has revolved more around the risks of genetic engineering (see for example the Nature Special Feature, 2013). Importantly, the issue of land use and land cover change has mobilized a large research community (most recently, the international program on ‘Future Earth,’ http://www.futureearth.org/) working on food security, diets, carbon emissions, biodiversity losses, climate and habitat change through broad interdisciplinary cooperation.
Social Metabolism/Industrial Ecology
While Marx had already recognized the centrality of social metabolism with nature for human labor (Marx, 1867/2010), these considerations resurfaced in Ayres’ and Kneese’s work in the second half of the twentieth century. They claimed that the common failure of economics results from viewing production and consumption in ways that are at variance with the fundamental law of the conservation of mass (Ayres and Kneese, 1969, p. 283). They argue that uncompensated externalities such as pollution and waste are inevitable unless the following three conditions are met: (1) all inputs into the production process are fully converted into outputs, with no unwanted residuals along the way; (2) all final outputs (commodities) are completely used up through consumption; and (3) property rights guarantee that all relevant environmental attributes are in private ownership and that these rights are exchanged in competitive markets. Given that these three conditions are never fully met in practice, environmental policies targeting wastes and emissions must take into account the full cycle of industrial metabolism to succeed (Ayres and Simonis, 1994). The Viennese School of Social Ecology has introduced a paradigm for social–ecological research by placing social metabolism within a wider picture of society–nature interaction (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Society–nature interaction and the role of social metabolism.
Source: Elaborated after Fischer-Kowalski, M., Haberl, H., 2007. Socioecological Transitions and Global Change: Trajectories of Social Metabolism and Land Use. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, UK; Northhampton, USA, p. 13. Institute of Social Ecology (SEC).
This model depicts social metabolism as one of the key links between society’s biophysical structures (defined as human population, livestock population, and physical infrastructures, including technical equipment) and the natural environment. In order to reproduce its biophysical stocks, society needs continuous flows of energy and materials. At the same time, it expands labor to intervene in nature and modify it according to society’s needs (e.g., agriculture, construction activities). Society’s biophysical structures are shaped by events that happen in nature. Through culture and communication, society represents these events, interpreting them as rewards for people’s efforts (e.g., a large harvest), as catastrophes (e.g., floods), or possibly as irrelevant. In the other direction, there is a cultural program that translates into action. An interesting feature distinct to this model is the overlap between the natural and the cultural– symbolic realms: elements are neither exclusively natural nor purely cultural, but are governed by both natural and cultural factors. In other words, society is a hybrid of the two realms (see also Boyden, 1992). Recent similar conceptualizations used by Liu et al. (2007), who talk about the complexity of coupled human and natural systems, and Becker (2013), who emphasizes the importance of hybrid structures, continue and expand on this paradigmatic tradition.
By conceptually linking metabolic flows with biophysical stocks in this way, it is possible to define boundaries for social systems (vis-a-vis both their natural environment and each other) and to create a consistent metric for material and energy flows for social systems on various scales (local communities, firms, cities, or nation-state). For example, national material flow accounting has become a regular part of public statistics in Japan, the European Union, and elsewhere (Fischer- Kowalski et al., 2011). It provides reasonably reliable annual accounts of natural resource use in physical terms and allows for their comparison across time and with economic accounts (Figure 2). On the global scale, adding up all the extraction of natural resources that occurs during a year produces useful figures while, at the same time, avoiding the complexities of international trade networks that distribute these resources around the globe (Figure 3).
Figure 2. Global social metabolism during the twentieth century.
Source: UNEP, 2011. Decoupling Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth. United Nations Environmental Programme, Paris.
Figure 3. Interrelation between the human development index and the ecological footprint.
Figure 2 illustrates an eightfold increase in resource extraction during the twentieth century across the following areas: Biomass, construction minerals, fossil energy carriers, and metals (including industrial minerals). While societies at the beginning of the century reproduced themselves mainly through biomass inputs (i.e., food for humans and animals, firewood), they increasingly turned toward the so-called nonrenewable resources such as fossil fuels and ores (Krausmann et al., 2009). Moreover, biophysical stocks clearly increased between 1900 and 2000, with the human population increasing fivefold. In addition to this substantial population growth, metabolic rate, that is, resource use per person also doubled, from less than 5 tons per person per year to almost 10 tons. This was complemented by an even greater increase in world GDP (at constant prices) and average income per person. This apparent ‘decoupling’ of resource use and income is mainly due to technological progress that facilitates producing more value with less input, which also makes products cheaper. However, this also feeds into further growth of resource consumption: an hour’s work can buy more products.
For nation-states, there is a rich literature comparing resource requirements (e.g., Weisz et al., 2006 for the European Union), resource efficiencies (e.g., Schandl and West, 2010 for Asia and the Pacific), trade patterns (e.g., Dittrich and Bringezu, 2010), and growth in biophysical stocks across countries. On the other end of the metabolic process, there is particular interest in researching greenhouse gas emissions (that can be calculated from fossil fuel use, livestock numbers, and steel and cement production) that either occur directly within countries or result from international trading. Naturally, these emissions are highly relevant for climate policies.
Interest in the metabolism of cities has surged of late, with city planning being identified as an important means to reduce resource consumption while maintaining welfare levels. Substantial amounts of energy for heat and transportation, construction materials, and land can be saved by appropriate spatial structures (Kennedy et al., 2007; Weisz and Steinberger, 2010).
A somewhat different metabolic approach is chosen by Giampietro et al. (2012). Their “Multi-Scale Integrated Analysis of Societal and Ecological Metabolism” (MuSIASEM) systematically relates human labor, exosomatic energy use, and economic output to describe the metabolic pattern of various types of social systems (from households to farms to national economies, stratified into sectors). This approach builds on Georgescu-Roegen’s (1971) foundational work on ‘bioeconomics,’ which influenced the emergence of ecological economics.
Identifying Environmental Impacts of Human Activities
In the 1970s, the so-called IPAT equation was developed from a debate about the relative importance of population growth on the one hand, growth in affluence on the other, in determining human impacts upon the environment (Ehrlich and Holdren, 1971; Chertow, 2001). IPAT is the lettering of the following formula:
I = P * A * T
where I stands for (environmental) Impact, P for Population, A for Affluence, and T for Technology. This formula has been repeatedly applied to estimate various environmental impacts such as land and resource use, pollution, CO2 emissions, or the ecological footprint (EF) (see below). More statistically elaborate applications use regression analysis to determine the relative weight of the components and to calculate both nonlinearities and interactions (e.g., Dietz et al., 2007). The hope attached to this equation, that technological improvements would neutralize at least some of the ecological damaging effects of population growth and increasing affluence, is not strongly substantiated. In some cases the opposite occurred. For example, Schandl and West (2012) found that the impact of increasing affluence on CO2 emissions in Asian and Pacific countries was further exacerbated by technology changes. This seems plausible given that economic growth in developing countries typically implies a shift toward using fossil fuels. For a long-term IPAT analysis with similar outcomes see Fischer-Kowalski et al. 2014b.
Another widely used approach to describing human environmental impact is the so-called EF. In 1996, Wackernagel and Rees published the book Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Per capita EF, or EF analysis, is a means of comparing consumption and lifestyles, and checking this against nature’s ability to provide for this consumption. It does this by assessing the biologically productive land and marine areas required to produce the resources a population consumes and to absorb the corresponding waste using prevailing technology. The EF is expressed in ‘global hectares.’ Despite several modifications, this indicator has been subject to considerable methodological criticism (cf Gaube et al., 2013), including how different land productivities are taken into account (Haberl et al., 2004), or how trade can be integrated into the picture (Grazi et al., 2007).
This said, it remains one of the most powerful tools for communicating the human impact on the environment. Moreover, it can inform policy by examining to what extent a nation uses more (or less) than is available within its territory, or whether a nation’s lifestyle would be replicable worldwide. The footprint can also be a useful tool for educating people about carrying capacity and overconsumption, with the aim of changing behavior. EFs may be used to argue that many current lifestyles are not sustainable. Global EF comparisons also clearly show the deep inequalities in resource use on this planet at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
From a social science perspective, these indicators and analyses of environmental impact cannot adequately capture the complexity on the social system side of the metabolic process and usually lack a coevolutionary perspective. While they recognize that humans exploit nature, they do not include how nature hits back or what adjustments human societies (are forced to) make in response to environmental problems.
The so-called DPSIR model – D = Drivers, P = (environmental) Pressures, S = States (of the environment), I = (environmental) Impacts, and R = (policy) Responses – as used by the OECD and the European Environmental Agency attempts to address this gap. It assumes a causal chain whereby social causes (‘drivers’) exert pressures upon the environment that trigger changes, with society subsequently responding to those changes with (presumably ameliorating) policies. Still, while the DPSIR model focuses more on social processes than its predecessors, it does so in a rather narrow way (Stanners et al., 2007).
Biohistory and Society–Nature Coevolution
There is a long tradition in the social and historical sciences to distinguish between qualitatively different forms of societal organization, subsistence or production, or to identify diverse stages of civilization or development. The distinctions drawn, and the criteria upon which these are based, vary considerably but rarely refer to society–environment relations or environmental consequences of human activity.
It has been the special achievement of Rolf Peter Sieferle (1997) to regard different forms of societal organization not only as socially or socioeconomically distinct entities but to systematize them according to their socioecological patterns. This implied considering both social organization (in the widest sense of the word) and concomitant changes in the environment. Key to Sieferle’s distinctions is society’s key source of energy and its dominant conversion technology for energy production. He distinguishes between the hunting and gathering mode, the agrarian mode (with some subdivisions), and the industrial mode. The energy system of hunters and gatherers is ‘passive solar energy utilization.’ They live on the products of recent photosynthesis (plants and animals for their food, firewood for heat). That they use fire to cook (rather than grill) their food widens the specter of edibles – but still, only a very small fraction of their environment qualifies as food whose collection requires mobility, both on an everyday basis and seasonally, allowing only for very low population densities. In contrast, the agrarian mode is based upon ‘active solar energy utilization,’ implying that certain areas are cleared of their natural vegetation and that solar energy on these areas is instead monopolized to grow human food plants. This leads to extensive deforestation of the Earth (and the enrichment of the atmosphere with the CO2 that previously had been stored in trees and soils), a sedentary way of life as well as a large human labor burden (despite technological improvements to increase yields, Boserup, 1965, 1981). Resulting changes in lifestyle and nutrition allow for higher fertility while the large labor burden motivates having children to share the labor. The resulting growth in population creates high population densities and an expansion of the agrarian mode across the world. Control of territory, tools, livestock, and stored reserves is essential, and frequent territorial conflicts lead to the emergence of specialized classes of people to defend and attack territories, social hierarchies to control them, and urban centers that offer protection and opportunities for trading. In many parts of the world, these agrarian systems developed into major empires and civilizations that emerged, flourished, and in some cases collapsed again (Diamond, 2005; Tainter, 1988).
In the sixteenth century, a new fossil fuel-based energy system started to emerge, supplying society with an unprecedented amount of energy. In the United Kingdom, the use of coal instead of increasingly scarce firewood initiated urban growth and industrial manufacturing. Textile production for export became very profitable and sheep gradually crowded out farmers growing food. The invention of the steam engine finally triggered what is now known as the industrial revolution, which caused large-scale ecological and social transformations. Industrialization continues today, spreading from the core industrialized countries (comprising about 20% of the world population) to the much larger rest of the world at an accelerating speed (Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl, 2007). It remains to be seen whether the exhaustion of fossil fuels, a detrimental transformation of the Earth’s climate system, or politically guided change will bring an end to this energy regime. In any case, it is likely that the fossil fuel era will have lasted for a much shorter period of time than the two previous regimes.
Overall, the main appeal of Sieferle’s classification is that it sheds light on different functional problems societies face when trying to establish and maintain themselves under specific environmental conditions and the associated evolutionary advantages and drawbacks. Moreover, Sieferle’s approach also provides some clues about the possible direction of change. More recently, a new research area has emerged from ecological observations of long-term processes across a global network of local and regional habitats (also called Long-term ecological research sites). In recent times, this research has been extended to also focus on social processes, culminating in the LTSER network (long-term socioecological research, see Singh et al., 2013).
Regulation, Governance and Sustainability Transitions
Good governance of the commons (or lack thereof) is a longstanding socioecological theme. Departing from existing models of collective action, Elinor Ostrom’s book, Governing the Commons (1990) stimulated a rich strand of research in the area of new institutional economics, which culminated in her winning the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009. The focus of her research was on how people manage common-pool resources such as land and water to maintain long-term sustainable resource yields. Her field studies focused on the management of pastures and irrigation networks by local people and documented how societies have developed diverse institutional arrangements for managing natural resources and avoiding ecosystem collapse. Ostrom (1996) identified a number of ‘design principles’ of stable local common-pool resource management including:
- Clearly defined boundaries (effective exclusion of external un-entitled parties);
- Collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process;
- Effective monitoring by agents who are part of, or accountable to the appropriators;
- A scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules and mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and easy to access.
In her later work, these principles have expanded to include a number of additional variables believed to affect the success of systems of self-organization and self-governance, including effective communication, internal trust, and reciprocity.
Ostrom and her many coresearchers developed a comprehensive ‘Social–Ecological Systems framework,’ within which much of the still-evolving theory of common-pool resources and collective self-governance is now located (Ostrom, 2009). A strong research community that relates to these approaches is the Resilience Alliance. This network of institutions and people publishes the influential open-access journal Ecology and Society and defines socioecological systems as
a multi-scale pattern of resource use around which humans have organized themselves in a particular social structure (distribution of people, resource management, consumption patterns, and associated norms and rules). Hence, the main aim of resilience management and governance is to keep the system within a particular configuration of states (system ‘regime’) that will continue to deliver desired ecosystem goods and services and prevent the system from moving into an un-desirable regime from which it is either difficult or impossible to recover, or, to move from a less desirable to a more desirable regime.
The Frankfurt approach to social ecology deploys the core concept of ‘societal nature relations’ (gesellschaftliche Naturverhaltnisse), focusing on the relations between society and nature in terms of the various societal regulations that define them. Operationally, this approach focuses on basic societal nature relations such as freshwater or food supply that are indispensable for meeting basic human needs and for individual and societal reproduction and development. The link to the concept of human needs turns societal nature relations into an irreducibly normative concept: the basic societal nature relations ought to be regulated in such a way that all human are able to meet their basic needs (Becker et al., 2011, p. 79). The Frankfurt approach defines as its ‘epistemic object’ the ‘crisis of society–nature relations’ (Becker and Jahn, 2006, p. 19). This definition is highly normative in that presupposes a crisis, that is, a dramatic deviation of the ‘is’- from the ‘ought’-state of societal nature relations. The purpose of social ecology is thus to generate the knowledge to understand and react to this crisis, with a view to reaching the desired ‘ought’-state of societal nature relations. The core research question of social ecology is thus: “How can crisisridden societal nature relations be perceived, understood and actively shaped?” (Becker and Jahn, 2006, p. 12). In the 1990s, the German Government established an interdisciplinary social–ecological research program that reinforced this orientation toward basic needs, demanding strong involvement of stakeholders and strengthening the policy relevance of socioecological research in Germany over many years.
The Dutch societal transitions management school adopts a similar approach to managing human-environment systems. In contrast to the resilience alliance tradition, the Dutch school focuses more on interactions between technical and social systems. The core concern are ‘wicked’ problems in social system functioning that cannot be solved through conventional means but that require a systemic transition. A social–ecological transition is a transition between two dynamic equilibria, that is, a shift from one more-or-less stable state to another. The typical model of a transition is the S-curve, which allows for the distinction of discrete phases: a ‘predevelopment phase’ in which some processes start to deviate from the dominant pattern; the ‘takeoff phase’ involving a departure from the original equilibrium; an ‘acceleration phase,’ where change accelerates in a nonincremental, disruptive, and potentially chaotic manner; and a ‘stabilization phase,’ where the rate of change is declining and a new dynamic equilibrium is approached (Rotmans et al., 2001, p. 1). The nature of transitional dynamics is described as a generic sequence of mechanisms that result in irreversible changes in the system. ‘Niches,’ that is, individual technologies, practices, and actors outside or peripheral to the existing regime function as potential drivers of radical innovation (Geels, 2005). Niches emerge and cluster, and by empowering a niche cluster, a niche regime unfolds. This niche regime may then become more powerful, finally dominating and replacing the incumbent regime. Underlying mechanisms are variation and selection, adaptation, emergence, clustering, empowerment, transformation, decay, and building up. Transition management draws together a number of frontrunners in a protected environment or arena. To effectively create a new regime, agents need to be at a certain distance from the incumbent regime. However, the continuous link with the regime is also important, requiring buy-in from regime agents that are open to change. The methodological concept of transition management frequently draws on this ‘Multi-Level Perspective’ on an evolutionary dynamics between a micro (niche), meso (regime), and macro level. Transition management was taken up by the Global Energy Assessment (GEA, 2012) and UNEP for framing its new modeling approach (UNEP, 2013).
To conclude, many of the social ecology approaches reviewed in this research paper are known and used by natural scientists interested in sustainability questions. However, they appear to be less popular among social scientists who follow more traditional disciplinary pathways. This said, social ecological concepts and methodologies enjoy increasing popularity within the rapidly expanding social–scientific sustainability research community (cf Rau and Fahy, 2013). Greater involvement by social scientists in interdisciplinary debates about humanities’ long-term future on Earth would help to further progress a paradigmatic shift toward social– ecological thinking, policy, and practice.
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