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Shaping knowledge on the links between environment, economy and society

The Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS), a global research project of Future Earth, is hosting its second programme-wide conference in November 2017 in Oaxaca City, Mexico. To learn about this event, visit the conference website here.

You can read the special issue of Ecology and Society here.

Social-ecological research views the environment, economy and society as being inseparably linked. Many advances in sustainability science and practice are currently being inspired by such social-ecological thinking. For example, there is a growing recognition among many groups that people are dependent on nature and have ethical obligations toward other living creatures. Governments have  also commenced new initiatives that recognise these linkages. They include the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project, Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and national ecosystem assessments in countries like the United Kingdom and Sweden.

Nevertheless, the conservation and development challenges of the 21st century remain huge. International research has shown that many of the ecosystem services that humans depend on for their health, cultures, livelihoods and more are declining as a consequence of institutional failures. We are seeing increased social and environmental stresses, shocks and surprises. Coral reefs that have existed for centuries, for example, may become overgrown by fleshy algae in the space of a few years and then remain dominated by algae for decades.

The danger is that these challenges will outpace humanity’s efforts to transform toward sustainable stewardship of social-ecological systems, from cities to coral reefs. Because of these risks, the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS), an international research network, focuses on providing motivation and stimuli for social-ecological research and practice in areas where progress is most urgently needed.

Researchers in the PECS networks work together with stakeholders on a participatory “scenario” planning project in the Ciénaga Grande of Santa Marta region of Colombia. Photo: Berta Martin-Lopez

More than 150 researchers and practitioners from the PECS network have contributed to a newly wrapped-up open-access issue of the journal Ecology and Society. The issue includes 15 studies that provide an initial overview of the research that some PECS projects and working groups are carrying out around the world. These papers delve into how PECS researchers are bringing a crucial understanding of the links between society and ecology to ecosystem services research; how they are developing scenarios of the future; how they are bringing together case studies from across the globe; and how they are coordinating international social-ecology research.

Ecosystem service research with a social-ecological twist

One key feature of many PECS projects is a focus on understanding how social and ecological factors come together to produce ecosystem services. The question is then how better management and governance of ecosystem services – such as water quality regulations or different farming methods – can improve the resilience of human communities and the surrounding environment.

For example, in one of the studies from the special issue, Megan Meacham and co-authors explore how researchers can predict where you can find ecosystem services in a region based on social and ecological factors. They focused on the Norrström drainage basin in Sweden, an area that is home to Stockholm. The researchers found that they could predict the availability of some ecosystem services, such as pollination by insects, by simply knowing if an area was a forest, a built-up area or a farm. However, the distribution of other ecosystem services, especially cultural services like hunting or appreciating nature, were better predicted by socio-economic data. In other words, many services cluster close to urban areas or to high-income neighbourhoods and towns. The team’s findings suggest that the tricky business of assessing ecosystem services requires merging multiple types of information that span the ecological and social sciences.

In another study in the special issue, researchers Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne and Garry Peterson examined how the issue of scale can affect how we understand ecosystem services. They looked, in particular, at the Mont Saint-Hilaire region of Canada, a mostly-agricultural area that sits to the east of Montreal. The researchers found that how closely researchers look can determine the services that humans are receiving from ecosystems. If you examine the entire region, these ecosystem services are diverse: People appreciate nature, hunt for deer and farm for crops. But if you zoom into just the area owned by a single pig farmer, the benefits largely come down to the income that farmer can earn.

Those differences can create what the researchers call “mismatches.” The quality of the water that people drink, for example, depends on the decisions that farmers, city dwellers and local governments make across an entire watershed. Many regulations, however, can change from town to town, making the management of water inconsistent across a watershed.

Raudsepp-Hearne and Peterson recommend that researchers consider such issues of scale before they start to map out the ecosystem services in an area.

Scenarios – looking to the future

Another common feature of many PECS projects is the use of participatory “scenario” planning in order to evaluate alternative futures of social-ecological systems. This is important because while it’s obvious that the management of social-ecological systems requires long-term thinking, the future dynamics of those systems are highly unpredictable – cities can expand in unexpected ways or new industries can emerge, as seen during the boom in natural gas drilling in North America. Scenarios are plausible stories that integrate the views of diverse stakeholders like local governments or community members with research to probe how the future of a social-ecological system might unfold from existing patterns, new factors and alternative human choices.

Several of the papers in the special issue describe the scenarios developed within their specific case-study regions. Elisa Oteros-Rozas and colleagues take a broader, birds-eye view in their study reviewing 23 cases of participatory scenario planning in a wide range of case studies affiliated with PECS. They find that developing scenarios in collaboration with diverse communities has enriched management and research of social-ecological systems. These exercises, for example, can create a dialogue between groups with different types of knowledge and raise stakeholders’ awareness of drivers of change that require long-term planning.

In many cases, however, researchers don’t know the longer-term potential of scenario planning to promote collective action because of a lack of systematic evaluation and monitoring. The authors see this paper as a starting point to build an international community of practice that can share methods, issues and insights in order to improve the practice of participatory scenario planning. That may include through assessments of ecosystem services and biodiversity by IPBES.

Comparisons across cases and social-ecological systems

One of PECS’s strengths, and a great contribution to Future Earth, is that the network coordinates syntheses and comparisons of social-ecological research across scales, projects and case studies. The special issue showcases several studies that looked at multiple cases to put forward recommendations on how to make ecosystem service assessments more policy relevant and how to improve the practice of transdisciplinary research.

In one of these studies, Patricia Balvanera and colleagues surveyed the leaders of 25 PECS affiliated projects, spanning 42 social-ecological study cases across 25 countries. They sought to identify the key features that contribute toward successful research design and implementation of place-based social-ecological sustainability research (PBSESR). Place-based research addresses the particularities of specific landscapes, seascapes or coastal regions and explicitly includes the social-ecological dynamics of those regions. The study confirms a number of earlier findings, such as the importance of focusing on solution- and transformation-oriented research, adapting the research questions to the local social-ecological context and having frequent engagement with stakeholders and partners.

The study also confirms the consistent challenges in this type of research, including the complexities inherent to social-ecological systems, the need for long periods of time to initiate and conduct this kind of research and power asymmetries both within the research team and among stakeholders. Asymmetries can occur, for example, when researchers value one type of expertise, such as scientific knowledge, over others, such as indigenous knowledge. The authors suggest five sets of recommendations regarding strategies to foster the success of PBSESR. They include the key role of learning from failures. Also important is merging international and locally-relevant perspectives on social-ecological issues through inclusive approaches that actively reward respectful and collaborative behaviours within the scientific community.

Coordinating international social-ecological research

Ultimately, the success of PECS will depend on the continued participation of excellent researchers and projects who are motivated to link their research to the PECS network. Two papers in this special issue, for example, lay out paths for other large international research networks to share insights and identify critical opportunities for coordinated research with PECS. They include the International Long-Term Ecological Research network (ILTER) and UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme.

The impact of PECS is enhanced through its membership in large global sustainability research platforms, such as Future Earth. What is exciting about Future Earth is that it is, in essence, a network of networks aimed at intensifying the impact of research and finding new ways to promote sustainable development at global, regional, national and local levels. Just like Future Earth, PECS explicitly recognises that human activities have already transformed the Earth system. Furthermore, both Future Earth and PECS stimulate research that supports deliberate transitions and transformations toward global sustainability.