Social Ecological Systems Humans as Key Ecosystem Components

Humans are a major force in global change and drive ecosystem dynamics, from local environments to the entire biosphere. At the same time, human societies and global economies rely on ecosystem services. As such, human and natural systems can no longer be treated independently because natural and social systems are strongly linked. Accumulating evidence suggests that effective environmental management and conservation strategies must take an integrated approach, one that considers the interactions and feedbacks between and within social, economic, and ecological systems. As a result, the concept of coupled 'social-ecological systems' has become an emerging focus in environmental and social science and ecosystem management. Social-ecological systems are considered as evolving, integrated systems that typically behave in nonlinear ways. The concept of resilience - the capacity to buffer change - has been increasingly used as an approach for understanding the dynamics of social-ecological systems. Two useful tools for building resilience in social-ecological systems are structured scenario modeling and active adaptive management.

Models of linked social-ecological systems have been developed to inform management conflicts over water quality, fisheries, and rangelands. These models represent ecosystems coupled to socioeconomic drivers and are explored with stakeholders to probe the management decision-making processes. Alternative scenarios force participants to be absolutely explicit about their assumptions and biases, thereby improving communication between stakeholders and exposing the ecological consequences of various management policies.

Adaptive management is an approach where management policies themselves are deliberately used as experimental treatments. As information is gained, policies are modified accordingly. This approach helps isolate anthropogenic effects from sources of natural variation and, most importantly, considers the consequences of a human perturbation on the whole ecosystem. In contrast, basic research on various parts of an ecosystem leads to the challenge of assembling all the data into a practical framework. Yet, biotic and abiotic ecosystem components are not additive, they interact. Due to these interactions, the dynamics of an ecosystem cannot be extrapolated from the simple addition of an ecosystem's components. Adaptive management examines the response of the system as a whole rather than a sum of its parts. Furthermore, this approach involves adaptive learning and adaptive institutions that acknowledge uncertainties and can respond to nonlinearities. In sum, structured scenario modeling and policy experimentation are tools that can be used to examine the resilience of social-ecological systems to alternative management policies and conservation strategies.

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