What are Social-Ecological Systems?

Blog Contributor: Lyndsay Bott

Defining Social-Ecological Systems

Social-ecological Systems (SES) can be described as a “system of people and nature”. While this may seem intuitive, the close connection between people and nature hasn’t always been central in environmental thinking.

This term social-ecological system was originally coined in the 1970s and is now used within many disciplines, such as the environmental sciences, social sciences, economics, business, and medicine, among others. Other authors have described SES as a system that connects two subsystems of social (human) and ecological (biophysical). These two subsystems are inherently interdependent. A more complex definition of SES is an “Integrated system in which human society and its multiple cultural, political, social, economic, institutional, and technological expressions interact with ecosystems (p.1). tend to identify a close relationship between two systems: the social and the ecological. The social component of SES typically deals with politics, history, economics, and ethics, among other institutions. The ecological component of SES deals with the natural habitats, animals, aquatic health, and changes in climate.

The Adaptive Capacity of Social-Ecological Systems

A social-ecological systems perspective provides a framework for understanding the complex dynamics occurring between environmental and societal changes. It highlights the intense dependency that society has on the natural environment. From a social-ecological systems perspective, uncertainty is an inherent part of all systems. A systems’ adaptive capacity describes its ability to respond to potential damage, take advantage of opportunities, or respond to consequences. The adaptive dynamics of social-ecological systems allow for the creation and success of governance systems. Click here to learn more about governance. The marking of a sustainable and long-term SES is the ability to adapt to many variables that arise over periods of time.

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom (winner of the Nobel prize) introduced the social-ecological systems framework. Based on decades of Ostrom’s empirical work on the commons, the framework provides guidance on how to assess the social and ecological dimensions that contribute to sustainable resource use and management across scales and contexts. SESs come in many different shapes and sizes, varying in scale and focus. According to the SES framework, the subsystems that make-up SESs can function independently, such as governance systems, users of a system, and the units produced by the system, but then join to produce complex social-ecological systems. When using fisheries as an example, the governance systems would be organizations that manage fishers, the users would be the fishermen, and the units would be the number of lobsters caught. All aspects of this social-ecological system example can act independently and have their own role to play, but then come together to produce a complex SES of fisheries. This example also illustrates the varying scale of SESs, as individually fishers and lobsters are small, but together form a large-scale system of fisheries. Therefore, all subsystems must collaborate and adapt to one another to effectively produce a sustainable SES. Understanding the complex nature of social-ecological systems can lead to ensuring their long-term resilience. To read more about the term resilience, click here.


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