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Ecology for Transformation

Worldchanging guest writers David Zaks and Chad Monfreda are graduate research assistants at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at UW-Madison where they work on understanding how human activities affect the biological and physical systems of our planet.

vieques.jpg Ecology has long been a descriptive science with real but limited links to the policy community. A new science of ecology, however, is emerging to forge the collaborations with social scientists and decision makers needed for a bright green future. Stephen Carpenter and Carl Folke outline a vision for the future of ecology in their recent article, Ecology for Transformation. You need a subscription to access the full article, so we'll quote them at length:

Scenarios with positive visions are quite different from projections of environmental disaster..Doom-and-gloom predictions are sometimes needed, and they might sell newspapers, but they do little to inspire people or to evoke proactive forward-looking steps toward a better world. Transformation requires evocative visions of better worlds to compare and evaluate the diverse alternatives available to us ... Although we cannot predict the future, we have much to decide. Better decisions start from better visions, and such visions need ecological perspectives.

'Ecology for Transformation' offers the perspective of resilient social-ecological systems. Simply put, it recognizes that ecosystems and human society are interdependent, and that they need the capacity to withstand and adapt to an increasingly bumpy future.

Examples of resilient social-ecological systems abound in all kinds of notoriously difficult to manage areas, like natural disaster response and rangeland management. Resilience sounds great, but how do we get there? Fortunately Carpenter and Folke offer a theoretically robust three-part transformative framework:

1. Diversity
2. Environmentally sound technology
3. Adaptive governance

Diversity constitutes the raw material we can draw from to create effective technologies and institutions. It reflects the wealth of genetic and memetic resources at our disposal, in the form of biodiversity, landscapes, cultures, ideas, and economic livelihoods. We need to foster diversity as an insurance package for hard times because...

...crisis can create opportunities for reorganizing the relationships of society to ecosystems. At such times, barriers to action might break down, if only for a short time, and new approaches have a chance to change the direction of ecosystem management. To succeed, a particular approach or vision must be well-formed by the time the crisis arises, because the opportunity for change might be short-lived.

Environmentally sound technology ranges from incremental advancements in energy efficiency to innovative economic tools like natural capital valuation and markets for ecosystem services. Diversity and technology should sound familiar enough to WorldChanging readers. Ecology for transformation, however, goes on, to challenge us to engage in adaptive governance that recognizes the reality of constant change. The authors define adaptive governance as:

Institutional and political frameworks designed to adapt to changing relationships between society and ecosystems in ways that sustain ecosystem services; expands the focus from adaptive management of ecosystems to address the broader social contexts that enable ecosystem based management.

Governance is much broader than what we normally think of as government and encompasses all of the actors who shape the way we work, live, and interact. Communication across various scales, from individuals to institutions, is vital for effective governance. Many of the management and governance structures currently in place are static, but an 'adaptive' approach promises more sustainable outcomes by negotiating uncertainty and change.

An example of adaptive governance comes from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, by way of Folke et al., that highlights community-based ecosystem management.

About 12 million people live around the Laguna Lake in the Philippines. The governance was compartmentalized and non-participatory before the authorities formed 33 River Rehabilitation Councils (RRCs), which included several stakeholders. The RRCs can be regarded as bridging organizations that are able to address social as well as ecological drivers and make comprehensive and effective responses to declining trends. The scientific community played an important role in the formation of RRCs.

As we plan and implement the next generation of ecological monitoring networks and scientific assessments, inventing technologically effective and democratically fair outcomes is critical. Incorporating technology and governance in an ecological framework has the capability to strengthen social-ecological networks, from the local to the global. The themes running through WorldChanging come close to this idea, but we should begin to think through it more deliberately. What do you see that might put us on the adaptive path?

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