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Social-ecological dynamics in the Anthropocene

The Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) was launched in 2011, and has since 2014 been a core project of Future Earth. The contribution of PECS to Future Earth is a focused and in-depth understanding of social-ecological systems, through a comparison of long-term case studies. PECS views social–ecological systems as interdependent and linked systems of people and nature, which are nested across scales. This reflects that people are part of ecosystems and shape them, from local to global scales, and are at the same time fundamentally dependent on the capacity of these systems to provide services for human wellbeing and societal development. Many recent advances in sustainability science and practice have been inspired by social–ecological research. At the same time several priority areas still exist, in which further efforts are required (Box 1).

PECS has been growing steadily over the past four years, and has endorsed many projects and working groups that together represent a diverse range of social and environmental situations across the planet. With PECS 2015 we wanted to gather researchers and stakeholders, from within and beyond the PECS network, to shared cutting-edge research insights on social-ecological dynamics in the Anthropocene. Having the first PECS conference in South Africa wasn’t a random choice. Our local host, the Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society (SAPECS) has had great success in growing a vibrant community of researchers and practitioners working in southern Africa. At the same time this region faces some of the key social-ecological challenges and interactions playing out in the Anthropocene.

As the conference unfolded I found myself constantly reflecting on whether we were seeing examples of the advances highlighted in Box 1, and whether we were making any progress in meeting the key priorities.

What struck me, as I moved between sessions, was how far many projects have come in stimulating deep collaboration across disciplines, and between science and society. As you read this blog piece, teams of transdisciplinary scientists are carrying out in-depth knowledge generation and learning exercises, in different contexts around the world, involving multiple stakeholders and institutions. Many conference participants approached me feeling inspired to be at a conference that so explicitly recognized the importance of transdisciplinary work. A new generation of young social-ecological scholars are seeing PECS as a space to coalesce into self-organized networks that are openly sharing different experiences and strategies on how to do transdisciplinary research. As Marja Spierenburg, the co-chair of the PECS Science Committee, said in the closing panel  – “Transdisciplinarity is an emergent property of collaboration, not a property of one person”. On the flip side, it is clear that this type of research still requires improved institutional support. Many researchers active in this area still face incentive structures that primarily reward disciplinary science that does not engage with society. A quantum change is needed in the design of both research strategies and incentive systems if research organizations are to meet the challenges presented by the Anthropocene.

Many sessions underscored how transdisciplinary methods and approaches are finally catching up with theory. We are becoming increasingly comfortable and well-versed in applying existing methods to sustainability problems in completely different circumstances and contexts – and learning from this process. For example, network analysis is being applied to problems in realms ranging from illegal fishing, watershed management and community resilience. Similarly, scenario planning is helping stakeholders prepare for an uncertain future in contexts ranging from agricultural development, urban growth and biodiversity conservation. However, we also need to develop new methods that are particularly suited to understanding social-ecological systems as integrated, complex adaptive systems.

I was also reminded, several times, of how social–ecological research is now beginning to influence global and national policy frameworks. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are a recent example of a key global policy framework adopting an integrated approach to sustainable development planning. In fact, one session at PECS2015 explicitly discussed how the SDGs could be implemented at regional and national scales. Importantly, the process of implementing the SDGs can be informed by existing examples (from the developed and developing world) of integrated social-ecological approaches to development planning.

It was also clear that power and justice issues are receiving more attention and are increasingly incorporated into social–ecological analyses. Power imbalances can really obstruct progress towards an inclusive governance of social-ecological systems, and an equitable access to and use of natural resources. To effectively navigate these issues, better knowledge is required about which conditions enable successful co-governance of natural resources, and about the roles played by new or external actors, to effectively redress power asymmetries while also promoting ecosystem stewardship.

A final reflection, was perhaps that 2015 should be dubbed “year of Transformation research”. Just like the Transformations 2015 conference in Stockholm, PECS2015 emphasized transformations towards futures quite unlike the present, and how they might be reached. For example, there was quite a buzz on the two sessions arranged by the The Bright Spots: Seeds of the Good Anthropocene project. The Seeds of a Good Anthropocene aims to counterbalance current dystopic visions of the future by identifying elements of a Good Anthropocene currently existing on the planet, and understand how these seeds grow into new, positive futures for the Earth and humanity. Seeds are being solicited specifically from different communities of research and practice around the world, and more openly through a blog. The outputs of the project include a database of seeds for analysis, a story-telling blog and new ways of doing scenarios. In fact it was striking how many projects are explicitly using scenarios to explore plausible trajectories in the Anthropocene.

The challenges of the Anthropocene are immense. There is a real danger that they will outpace our efforts to transform towards sustainable stewardship of social-ecological systems. However, I hope that the advances and priorities highlighted at the conference, can provide future motivation and stimuli for research and practice in areas where progress is most urgently needed. I look forward to another two years of fascinating PECS activities, until the next conference, which will be held in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2017. Until then, I want to thank all the participants – it was a real pleasure to have you all gathered in Stellenbosch.