A socio-ecological system is a type of complex adaptive system composed of two primary subdomains, a human society and economy on the one hand and a biological ecology on the other.1 They are systems in that they are composed of a set of parts that are interdependent in effecting some joint outcome. They are complex in that they typically consist of a very many parts interacting in a nonlinear networked fashion. They are adaptive in that components in the system change their state in response to that of others, and in this capacity socio-ecological systems exhibit strong co-evolution as they develop over time. Like all complex systems, socio-ecological systems are multidimensional, they exist on many qualitatively different levels. Within the ecological domain we have basic geological processes taking place in the hydrocycle, mineral cycles, atmosphere, and various biological processes. Within the social domain we have technology and industrial infrastructure, economic, social and cultural institutions. All of these levels are interacting and coevolving. Added to this socio-ecological systems exist on all scales from an individual to an agricultural farm to a metropolitan area to a nation state to the whole global economy and the supporting biosphere. The natural environment is deeply embedded within the socio-cultural fabric of societies around the world. What may at first glance look like an industrial problem of inefficiency, pollution or over-usage, is often really a socio-economic issue and when we expand that we find behind it is really a cultural one.2
The theory and science of socio-ecological systems is then focused on these two subsystems and how they interact. So we will firstly provide some generic description of these two major subsystems before going on to talk about their interaction. Like all complex systems both ecologies and economies are regulated on the macro scale by a set of feedback loops. But the internal dynamics of each system is governed by a different set of feedback loops.
Natural ecosystems are governed by the laws of thermodynamics, the input of energy from the sun and earth’s core drives the whole system as it is processed through networks of connections within abiotic and biotic processes. A complex system that has co-evolved over millions of years. Through this coevolution, negative feedback loops have developed that work to stabilize the system on various levels. Ecosystems in all phases will attempt to move away from thermodynamic equilibrium, selecting the components and the organization that yields the highest flux of useful energy throughout the system and the most energy stored in the system, corresponding to the highest level of what is called ascendancy.
The social component is what we might call an economy, consisting of both social institutions and technology infrastructure, also called a sociotechnical system. An economy is an engineered construct produced by human beings for human beings. This industrial ecology has also evolved over a long period of time, according to the logic of providing humans with the things that they need and want in an economical fashion and in congruence with the set of cultural and social institutions of those societies. Today on the macro level this is done primarily through the vast supply chain networks of our global economy and regulated by public policy and increasingly market mechanisms. These market mechanisms recognize value in terms of utility which is correlative to the desire or want of some economic agent. Here the regulatory feedback loops are structured around industrial supply and demand.
The interaction between these two systems involves the exchange of energy, matter, and information. Human society and economy is deeply dependent upon the natural environment and this flow of natural resources of all kind from the ecosphere to the economy is called ecosystems services. These include broad categories of services like provisioning, such as the production of food and water; regulating, such as the control of climate and disease; supporting, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination; and cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits. Inversely we can look at the exchange from the economy to the biosphere, which involves both energy, materials, and information. Economies, as dissipative systems, take in large amounts of energy and materials and export waste materials back to the ecosystem, but as we previously talked about humans can also now be understood as the regulators of earth’s systems. Human society plays a fundamental role in designing ecosystems around the planet, we have essentially replaced many natural regulatory processes with those that we have engineered, whether we are talking about altering hydro-cycles through irrigation, nutrient cycles through agricultural, carbon cycles through combustion, the movement of biomass or other, we engineer all of earth’s systems on almost all scales.
Complex systems, such as socio-ecological systems, are regulated by distributed feedback loops, for a system to be under regulation or under control means that it has negative feedback counterbalancing the different forces. We can see these feedback loops everywhere in economies and ecologies, if you want a new car you have to pay for it, this is a negative feedback loop, if a creature wants food it has to expend resources to intercept it, this is a negative feedback loop. A system becomes out of control when these negative feedback loops become broken and we see this often with socio-ecological systems. Where humans can gain economic value from the natural environment without the economic expenditure to counterbalance it, thus the system stays developing off in that direction becoming unbalanced. But equally, it happens the other way round where economic activity breaks some natural feedback loop and some element within the ecosystem is released from that natural feedback loop that stabilizes it, such as with invasive species where we put a creature into an environment without any natural predator, leading to a destabilization of the ecosystem.3
Human society and economy have evolved with the natural environment over thousands of years. Starting out like all other creatures subject to the same natural feedback loops and regulation within the ecosphere. But through successive technological and economic transformations, we have developed engineered environments with their own set of internal economic feedback loops, its own value system that has become largely decoupled from that of the natural environment. In order for the feedback loop to work, there has to be some uniform value, so what we take from one side we take from the other to create the balancing loop. In order to be able to relate the two systems in some relevant way and enable feedback to regulate it, we need to define some common metric of value. And this in many ways defines a big part of the challenge presented today, trying to correlate value between the two systems and quantify it. We understand to some extent what economic value is but defining what exactly the value of an ecosystem service is would appear to be much more complex. What we are trying to do though is by valuing ecosystems services be able to manage them through economics. By incorporating the value of these things into economic accounting try to make people financially accountable for their effects on the natural environment.4
Ecosystems services only really define the ecosystem’s value in relation to human utility, but ecosystems require the functioning of many internal subsystems in order to enable the functioning of the whole system. Plants might need nitrogen fixing microbes that will themselves be of no economic value but are still required to maintain that ecosystem in a functional state. This intrinsic value required to maintain the ecosystem in a functional state so that it can render services, can not be easily given immediate economic value, it is in a sense a public good and requires an associated socio-cultural framework for supporting it. The derivative value of the ecosystem may be given immediate economic value but the primary value that supports the maintenance of the ecosystem is of a different kind and may require social and cultural coordination. This is described by the so-called tragedy of the commons.
The Tragedy of the Commons
The tragedy of the commons, or social dilemma, is a dynamic where it is in the best interest of each individual to overuse a resource unless everyone else also does likewise. The dilemma arises when members of a group share a common good, such as an ecosystem, when this common good is rivalrous and non-excludable, meaning that anyone can use the resource but there is a finite amount of the resource available and it is therefore prone to overexploitation. The tragedy of the commons has proven to be a core dynamic within the management of many socio-ecological systems around the world, from the management of forestry to pasture and in particular fisheries many of which have collapsed due to overexploitation and lack of solutions to the social dilemma.
The Social Contract
In the relationship between a society and its ecosystem, there is invariably going to be some commons in the form of ecosystem functions that are required to deliver the ecosystems services, such as clean water so that people can go fishing or clean air. These are most effectively managed through social and cultural frameworks of coordination. Traditional societies through their close interaction with their local ecosystem and strong social and cultural integration were able to live sustainable for prolonged periods using traditional social institutions to manage the commons. With the industrial revolution, many of these traditional socio-cultural institutions were disintegrated, and the modern nation state became the new form of social contract that has in many ways taken over this function providing the social institutions for managing the commons. But over the past few decades as economies have developed beyond national boards into an increasingly integrated global economy with an associated effect on the global biosphere, there are now many questions remaining as to whether the nation based social contract is still fit for service within this new global context. The tragedy of the commons is essentially a failure of trust, coordination and social institutions. When everyone can trust everyone to cooperate then often an optimal global outcome can be achieved, but it requires some form of social contract to achieve that and those social contracts are enabled by strong social institutions of some kind.
Socio-ecological systems are highly complex in that they involve not only technology, economic frameworks, and the social institutions, but also a strong cultural dimension that can not be simply ignored and may be found behind many of the most important issues. For many people around the world the ecosystem within which they inhabit forms an integral part of their way of life and interpretation of reality. That interpretation forms the basis for how they interact with the natural environment, some societies revere their natural environment while others would appear to care little about it, and this cultural aspect plays a big part in the whole dynamic within the socio-ecological system.5
All individuals and groups have a schema with which they interpret their environment, a somewhat coherent belief system about how the world is and their place within it. On a cultural level, people live their lives based on a narrative that is emotionally and conceptually appealing and endorsing, it doesn’t have to be logically consistent. For example, we have been communicating the theory of biological evolution for over a century now, but forty percent of Americans don’t adhere to it, not because of its logical inconsistency but because of its lack of consistency with their preexisting schema. People, groups and whole societies go on functioning by creating narratives that offer then a coherent picture of how the world works at a level of complexity that they can deal with. If something doesn’t fit into this narrative or is simply too complex a story, the human psychology is not short of mechanisms for filtering it out. People may well simply ignore data and information and create or adopt simple narratives that protect them from a reality that they do not wish to deal with. Thus how people interpret information and how it is turned into culturally accepted narratives can be an important part of how the overall socio-ecological system works.