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article imageSocial Science and Natural Science Working Together to Save the Earth

By Bob Ewing     Sep 14, 2007 in Environment
A paper written by 16 international social and natural scientists examines the complex characteristics that are involved when humans and natural systems couple up, using six case studies from around the world.
What impact does human behaviour (both negative and positive) have on the Earth? This is a question that we need to ask if we want to understand our relationship to Nature. We also need to ask what impact the earth has on human behaviour.
A recent study that was undertaken by a team of 16, internationally renowned, natural and social scientists are examining these two, connected questions. The team has just published a paper in the Sept 14 issue of the journal Science that synthesizes complex characteristics when humans and natural systems couple up, using six case studies from around the world.
The paper titled “Complexity of Coupled Human and Natural Systems.” states that in order to understand “the complex world and for good science to transform to good policy, specialization must ease up.”
“In the past, natural scientists such as ecologists often excluded humans from considerations, while social scientists usually ignored the impact of natural systems on the humans, although humans and natural systems interact with each other as coupled systems.
"As the world is becoming increasingly connected in various ways, there is an urgent need to integrate natural sciences and social sciences to understand global challenges and develop feasible policies for effective solutions to complex problems.” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, lead author of the paper and Rachel Carson Chair in Ecological Sustainability at MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.
Both rural and urban areas were represented in the case studies as were both developed and developing countries as well as various ecological, socioeconomic, political, cultural and geographic settings. The cases studies provided excellent information for comparing and contrasting complex aspects of systems in five continents – Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and South America.
The case studies were all from regions that are facing pressing environmental and human challenges, for example:
in Kenya, forests give way to croplands, cropland soil degradation causes more poverty and more poverty leads to more deforestation;
in China, tourism, residents and pandas vie for real estate;
in Washington State’s Puget Sound, single-family housing crowds rich bird habitats;
in Wisconsin’s Northern Highland Lake District, recreation affects sensitive fish habitats
The international team examined each case study from all angles by at landscape patterns, wildlife habitat and biodiversity but also socioeconomics, policies, governance and social networks.
Complex ecological and socioeconomic patterns and processes over time and across space were examined, as the team sought to understand often why policy didn’t produce the expected outcome.
In Wisconsin, for example, an indigenous population is in competition with recreation, the plan adopted introduced smelt as a food source for game fish like walleye. The result of this introduction was that the plan backfired when the smelt gobbled the young walleye, decimating the population.
“Everyone wants to preserve parts of the past, but not the same parts, so people have different visions of the future. These differences drive the politics of change in the region. Our research uses the Northern Highland of Wisconsin to understand key aspects of change in a region where ecosystems and society are closely connected.” ,” said Steve Carpenter, a co-author of the paper and Stephen Alfred Forbes Professor of Zoology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Brazil demonstrates the complexity of the coupled system “and is particularly informative with regards to how people from different social and environmental backgrounds act in a humid tropical environment,” said Emilio Moran, another co-author of the paper and Distinguished Professor and Rudy Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University.
“Even 50 years ago, the world population was only 40 percent of today’s population; humans used fewer resources and didn’t have as much environmental impact as today. Now resources are getting more and more limited. The number of households is increasing much faster than population size, and the demands for resources and consumption are skyrocketing. A lot of things are getting closer to the threshold. If you have a little bit more, the whole system may collapse." Liu said.
Another co-author of the paper, William Taylor, another paper co-author and chairperson of the MSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife said "The future of a sustainable environment demands that scientists and policymakers understand the coupling of human and natural systems. Without such understanding and systems thinking, we are doomed to degrading environments, reduced biodiversity, social instability and an overall decline in the quality of life. I am optimistic that the approach of coupling human and natural systems will provide the road map for enhancing our abilities to develop the needed governance systems to ensure a socially and ecologically sustainable future."
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