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The nature of social-ecological linkages and their implication for the resilience of human-environment systems

Final Report Summary - SES-LINK (The nature of social-ecological linkages and their implication for the resilience of human-environment systems)

In our globalized society, there are virtually no ecosystems that are not shaped by people and no people without the need for ecosystems and the services they provide. People and nature are truly intertwined in what we refer to as social-ecological systems (SES). The SES-LINK project aimed to enhance understanding of how the nature of these close interactions and dependencies affect the resilience of SES and our capacity to govern them in a sustainable way. SES-LINK developed simulation models of key interactions and feedbacks between people and ecosystems in fisheries, agriculture and commonly shared resources. The resulting models are based on cases from the Baltic Sea fishery, small-scale fisheries in Mexico, lake restoration in Sweden, and poverty traps in agricultural landscapes. The models build on empirical understanding of phenomena such as the collapse of the Baltic Sea cod or persistent poverty and help us assess which social-ecological interactions and which conditions were critical for its occurrence. We have also engaged in empirical work to better understand how resource users, such as farmers in the Pamirs, or policy makers respond to social or ecological change. The modelling and empirical work iteratively informed each other to develop a general understanding of how and under which conditions particular human-nature interactions create phenomena such as persistent poverty, resource collapse or successful collaborative governance.

Our research demonstrates that the connections between humans and nature across scales are critical for the development and resilience of social-ecological systems. Understanding these interactions and mechanisms and how they produce e.g. resource collapse or a poverty trap can help identifying leverage points for sustainable future pathways. The type of the relationship between poverty and environmental degradation, for instance, determines which type of poverty alleviation strategy is likely to be successful. Similarly, the type of governance arrangement in small-scale fisheries influences how a small-scale fishery can cope with seasonal or random fluctuations in fish abundance. The SES-LINK project has highlighted the importance of the diversity of human individual and collective behavior for adaptive responses of SES to disturbance such as the impact of climate change. Particularly, the degree, timing and speed of how resource users and policy makers respond to environmental changes and crises and how these dynamics relate to the strength and speed of ecological feedbacks determines whether a resource collapses such as the Baltic Sea cod happens or whether a eutrophied lake can be successfully restored. Our results highlight the need to develop more nuanced understanding and effective policies that account for the interdependence between humans and nature, and how this interdependence and the complex dynamics they give rise to are shaped by the social and ecological conditions in a particular place. Our research has shown that simulation modeling is a valuable tool to facilitate combining empirical knowledge from different domains to explore these complex dynamics.