Social-ecological research: achievements and next steps

By Joern Fischer

The Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) seeks to understand linkages between ecosystems and human systems. At a recent PECS meeting, we asked: (1) What key lessons have been learnt so far? (2) What are the most important challenges for the future?

figure ses

Our paper has now been published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (online for free for 50 days from today – check my ResearchGate profile after that or email me!). At least its first half provides a good news story, in the sense that social-ecological research has indeed begun to shift research and practice in important ways:

Advance 1: Recognition is growing that humanity depends on nature – it’s no longer a small community that understands that humanity fundamentally needs nature (and has an ethical obligation towards it).

Advance 2: The need for solutions to sustainability problems has increased communication and collaboration across disciplines, and between science and society – interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are growing rapidly, especially in a sustainability context.

Advance 3: Conceptual and methodological pluralism is increasing in an effort to better understand complex social-ecological systems – scientists increasingly seek to understand systems through multiple modes of enquiry.

Advance 4: Appreciation of social-ecological systems is beginning to influence major policy frameworks – although there is a long way to go still, national assessments and international frameworks now explicitly recognize social-ecological linkages.

We also identified a set of priorities for the future.

Priority 1: Social-ecological interactions between regions need to be better understood, and institutions should be developed to govern such interactions – this is the issue of “teleconnections”, which are common and important, but poorly understood and governed.

Priority 2: Both researchers and decision makers must pay greater attention to long-term drivers that gradually shape social-ecological systems – these long-term drivers continue to be (largely) ignored and include inconvenient issues such as dominant value, political and economic systems.

Priority 3: The interactions among power relations, equity, justice and ecosystem stewardship need to be better understood – this is the issue of who is in control and who benefits from ecosystems, and includes greater attention to major global injustices.

Priority 4: Commitment is needed by governments and society at large to support the development of a stronger science-society interface – we have only just begun to link science with society through transdisciplinary processes, but a step change is needed to bring about major changes.

… and major changes are what we need. As we say in the paper: Despite the progress that has been made, “there is a real danger that the growing challenges of the Anthropocene – such as climate change, global social injustices, and biodiversity loss – will outpace the progress that is being made.” A good reason to keep up the collective effort to further advance social-ecological research!

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One thought on “Social-ecological research: achievements and next steps

  1. Pingback: Occasionally, I have faith in humanity … | Ideas for Sustainability

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