Posts Tagged ‘social-ecological systems’

Welcome to the Anthropocene

It’s the time of year when the academic calendar starts to get long in the tooth, and I only occasionally have time to peek out from behind the curtain of campus.  When I did this recently, I realized that there were a few phrases that I use regularly in my teaching and research that seem commonplace to me, but my friends outside of academia had no idea what I was talking about.  This concerned me both because I was so out of touch but also because these seem, to my mind, to be crucially important concepts for today’s society.  The two phrases were the Anthropocene and the Great Acceleration.  I remember having similar feelings several years ago when I referred to global climate change, and I was met with either blank stares or a “you mean global warming” question.  Happily, I generally hear global climate change today.  I hope that soon I won’t encounter blank stares when I mention the Anthropocene.

To begin, the Anthropocene captures the idea that human society has so fundamentally altered the planet that we are no longer in the geological epoch known as the Holocene but now in a new human-dominated epoch, the Anthropocene.  This is introduced by Will Steffen and others in a wonderful paper in Ambio in December 2007 (Steffen, W., Crutzen, P. J., & McNeill, J. R. (2007). The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature. Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment, 36(8), 614-621.). [Note:  there are references to the Anthropocene going back several more years to 2000, but this article is 1) one of the most highly cited and 2) a really good read.]

The basic idea is that in the Pre-Anthropocene period, humans didn’t have the capacity or the technological means to dominate nature (the Earth Systems).  This started to change in the Industrial Era (Stage 1 of the Anthropocene) from around 1800-1945.  With the onset of industrialization, the expansion of the use of fossil fuels, and the advancements of technology, we began to transform the earth on a global scale.  This shift from local effects to global was the key change.

Stage 2 of the Anthropocene (1945-present) is when things really started changing.  This is known as the Great Acceleration.  Pressure on the global environment intensified.  Often people talk about exponential growth in population or the global economy, but the Great Acceleration goes far beyond that, as shown in the figure below.


The figure is from the very informative website:  This website explains these ideas in much more detail with great references for further, more specific questions.  This is interesting for a number of reasons.  Of importance to me are a number of questions about the ramifications for social-ecological systems and what this means for changing how we govern and collectively make decisions in such an environment – in a world being altered at an accelerating pace, with increasing connectivity around the global between people and their aggregate actions.  Ultimately, if humans are shaping the world in entirely new directions, can we also collectively decide the type of world that we want to live in and make decisions to get there.

I’ll end with one final comment.  There is a proposal to formally adopt the Anthopocene as a geological epoch.  It is currently under review with the International Commission on Stratigraphy, with a current target decision date of 2016.  The question is whether geologic formations would show a distinct demarcation for when the Anthropocene began.


Linking Complexity and Indigenous Knowledge

Let me begin by saying that I’m treading on ground that I’m only beginning to explore.  However, I find it fascinating to think about linking cutting edge science with traditional knowledge systems.  In a similar fashion to how ultra-conservative politicians often sounding like left-wingers and hyper-liberals sounding like John Birchers, it’s interesting to explore recent work in complex adaptive systems with very different ways of understanding the world.

Last week in my undergraduate course, Systems Thinking, my TA, Edward Dee, spoke about the Navajo knowledge system in which he was raised, and he began to clarify his own thinking about how many commonalities exist between complex adaptive systems and the Diné concept of hozho or the broader elements of Sa’ah Naagháí Bik’eh Hózh==n. (SNBH), which is often translated as “one’s journey of striving to live a long, harmonious life.”  Edward noted common features of these two world views – in taking a holistic perspective, linking the social and ecological as a single entity, seeing emergent behavior (as in the example of the Red Ant Way in Diné tradition or how individual interactions lead to a collective behavior unpredicted by the individual actions in complexity jargon), and drawing on multiple ways of understanding.

In following up on his class, I came across a blog posting on hozho that clearly explains what I was trying to comprehend in a straightforward layperson’s account.  The website is at, which surprised me as I consider myself a scholar of Resilience Thinking.  The website draws on the academic literature of resilience but does so in the pursuit of “resilient communities” as part of the Post Carbon Institute.  I know very little about this organization at this point, but I did find the post on hozho to be very nice.  Click here to see the article:

Enjoy.  I’ll post more as I learn more about the topic.

Ozone under a Social-Ecological Systems Lens

With my colleagues Graham Epstein, Chanda Meek, and Irene Perez-Ibarra, we have a manuscript coming out in the International Journal of the Commons this month, “Governing the Invisible Commons: Ozone Regulation and the Montreal Protocol”.  We are very excited to see this in print for a number of reasons.

We wanted to highlight both how the SES framework and, as an extension, the SES Meta-Analysis Database could be used for pollution cases, and we wanted to show the insights gained by such an analysis in general.  This goes against some commonly held beliefs on the generalizability of case studies.  We believe that the manuscript makes important independent contributions related to the relevance of CPR theory and the SES framework to large-scale pollution cases.  As the analysis shows several factors associated with CPR theory such as proportionality, political participation, and nested governance are associated with substantial reductions in ODS emissions.   This suggests that common-pool resources and scale may not act as a boundary for CPR theory which may apply to a wider range of goods and environmental problems.  Second, the SESMAD approach draws attention to the complexity of social-ecological systems which is often lost in narrow theoretical accounts.  Many past studies apply a  a single theoretical lens to analyze the Montreal Protocol, and focus on one or a few variables.  Given well-known problems with applying singular models to cases, we believe that our approach which draws attention to some of the real-world complexity of the case is, at a minimum, a useful complement to other studies and at best draws attention to the multiplicity of factors whose interactions led to its success.  Given the general failure of a Montreal Protocol type approach to resolve problems associated with climate change, it would seem that such considerations possess both theoretical and policy-relevant value.

We think that the greatest strength of the case study utilizing the framework is its development of a systematic approach to perform within-case analysis using snapshots over time.  This allowed us to identify important changes that may have contributed to the general success of the Montreal Protocol.  However, we acknowledge weaknesses in reducing the level of measurement associated with some variables, the loss of dimensionality of others, and the averaging over heterogeneity in some as well.

(Thanks to my co-authors for their brilliant insights.)

Ozone Layer from 1979-2008 from NASA

Ozone Layer from 1979-2008 from NASA

Social-Ecological-Technical Systems

In the next month, I will kick off a new required course designed for ASU’s School of Sustainability’s incoming graduate students.  The course is called “Social-Ecological-Technical Systems”.   This literature based seminar course will guide students in developing an integrated approach/framework for thinking about complex adaptive systems in a sustainability context. While overviews of content, theories and methods from each of the SETS domains (Social, Ecological and Technical Systems) will be presented, the primary focus will be on how to bring these domains together. The goal is to enable students to explore the SETS interfaces (intersections) from an integrated perspective and to equip students to make those linkages in their research and in subsequent elective courses.

Translated into everyday language, we hope to get students thinking in a more holistic manner across a wider range of knowledge domains.  Most of the sustainability problems confronting humanity are not pure social, political, or economic in nature.  Nor are they environmental problems apart from human contribution and influence.  Likewise, the causes of and solutions to these problems are also not exclusively technical.  Rather, they are a conflagration of these three knowledge domains.  While we cannot expect anyone to be a master of all, we do hope to provide a baseline standard and recognition of how various fields inform our study of phenomena of interest and contribute to our understanding of them.  As such, the course will require reading seminal literature on a wide range of topics – biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, environmental and natural resource economics, industrial ecology, and resilience/robustness and many others.  If you have suggestions for topics that we should be covering or readings that we should do, please let me know.  We have a planned syllabus, but this has great scope and potential as a grand experiment.

Short Introduction to Resilience Thinking

Courtesy of the wonderful Communications and Marketing people at Stockholm Resilience Centre, the soon-to-be released book by the Resilience Alliance Young Scholars group, Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems with Cambridge University Press, has a 20 page brochure that provides a wonderful short course on resilience available in hard copy or free online at:

The pamphlet highlights the content of the forthcoming book and provides examples that put the theory into practice.  The book identifies seven principles that are considered crucial for building resilience in social-ecological systems and discusses how these principles can be practically applied. The seven principles are 1) maintain diversity and redundancy, 2) manage connectivity, 3) manage slow variables and feedbacks, 4) foster complex adaptive systems thinking, 5) encourage learning, 6) broaden participation, and 7) promote polycentric governance systems.

Each chapter of the book introduces and defines one of the principles and then proceeds to detail how the principle enhances resilience and the context in which resilience may be compromised.  Importantly, the book chapters go beyond theory to identify how the principles can be operationalized and applied (the application of resilience thinking to real-world situations).  Further the chapters identify gaps in both research and application.  While the chapters are chock full of examples, they also contain longer case studies that draw out the nuances of the chapter.

The hope is that the wonderfully informative brochure will generate enough interest to warrant the purchase of the book.  The book is written in a manner conducive for both experienced resilience scholars looking for a compendium of research findings as well as grad students and scholars new to the field and looking for a guide.  In effect, it is the book that the editors and authors wished was available for them as they started learning the concepts.

New Project with Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society

Georgina Cundill and I are heading up a new project recently endorsed as a Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) working group that will focus on collaborative governance and management in support of resilience-based ecosystem stewardship:

For those not familiar with PECS, it is a new initiative in the ICSU’s set of programmes on global change.  Its aims are “to integrate research on the stewardship of social—ecological systems, the services they generate and the relationships among natural capital, human wellbeing, livelihoods, inequality and poverty.”

George and I are very excited for this opportunity and look forward to combining insights from field work in the US, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Sweden, and several other locales around the globe.  More to follow on these projects in the coming months.

Studying irrigation in China using QCA

This week I had the honor of presenting with the Chinese scholar and economist, Chai Ying.  Chai is a visiting scholar to ASU’s Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity from Guangdong University of Finance and Economics.  We presented her research on 20 small-scale irrigation systems under China’s decentralized irrigation management program.  Drawing on theories of the commons and previous irrigation research in China, Chai identified 5 variables linked to improved efficiency of government involvement in irrigation.  Her study first measured efficiency of government spending across four key outputs – the increase in the area under irrigation, the amount of irrigation infrastructure that was improved, increase in food capacity, and reductions in the water used.  She used linear programming to assess the efficiency of providing these outputs for a given amount of government spending.

Next, we used Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) to look at how different causal clusters of institutional arrangements combined to lead to efficient outputs.  Again, the causal variables were chosen based on past theoretical studies.  The causal variables examined were: market-based pricing of water, routine (regular) fiscal investment, administrative coordination by the local-level of government, self-organized management of the irrigation system, and the hiring of a water monitor/guard.

The results combined in 3 configurations:

  • Having routine fiscal investment and administrative coordination – what we term governance by the government
  • Having either market-based pricing, self-organization, and administrative coordination or market-based pricing, self-organization, routine fiscal investment and a water guard  – what we view as a form of mixed governance  with elements of formal government and self-governance combined
  • Having a self-organized system of governance

The analysis is still in the preliminary phases, and based on the Q&A after the talk, we have both a number of interesting insights and a number of areas that need more work.  We hope to finalize the manuscript and submit over the next few months!

Here is a photo from Chai of one of the irrigation canals: