Across the social-ecological divide

Linking Social and Ecological Systems
November 20, 1998

In 1993, the Beijer Institute of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences initiated a major research programme, Property Rights and the Performance of Natural Resource Systems. This book is the result of work undertaken in a sub-project of this programme, based on research in a variety of small-scale ecological systems throughout Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe. There are 16 chapters, all but two of which examine specific ecological and associated social systems in some detail.

This is a scholarly work, with an international focus, providing detailed ethnography and analysis of local and regional resource management systems. It should prove useful to ecologists, some anthropologists, cultural geographers and ecological economists. Others, including perhaps many environmental economists, sociologists, political scientists and development specialists, might find the approach difficult to translate into their intellectual discourse, occasionally a little precious and often very teleological.

The intellectual point of departure for the volume is the limited scope and applicability of conventional resource management science. The editors aver that "Iresource management science was geared for the efficient utilisation of resources as if they were limitlessI" They compare this approach with their own, in which "Iresource management is necessary butI it requires fundamentally different approachesI The volume seeks to integrate two streams of resource management thought that fundamentally differ from the classic utilitarian approach. The first is the use of systems approaches and adaptive management, with their emphasis on linkages and feedback controlsI The second stream of thought is that improving the performance of natural resource systems requires an emphasis on institutions and property rights." The editors go on to emphasise the need for a social science of resource management, which, they feel, has not been generally recognised.

The use of systems theory and property rights constitute the book's core ideas and approach - and they are carried through in each of the detailed studies. The editors' and contributors' approach is born of strong conviction. Translated into a slightly different language it constitutes strong, rather than weak, sustainability. It is argued that not only are social and ecological systems linked, but "the delineation between social and natural systems is artificial and arbitrary", and they use the terms social-ecological system, and social-ecological linkages, to convey their position. Much of the rest of the terminology employed is also borrowed from ecological systems theory: feedback, resilience, threshold, surprises, human-made capital, natural capital and cultural capital. The editors talk of "institutional failure" rather than market failure, although the failure of the market to reflect fully the value of these small-scale ecosystems and their local populations is clear from almost every page. Within their approach, evidence is provided of the integral nature of cultures, the ability of the resource management system to respond to feedbacks from the environment and, the need to eliminate "Ithe barrier between research and management". The systems-based, interdisciplinary, non-reductionist spirit that permeates this book represents a significant contribution to the understanding of human/nature relations. However, it also carries with it some old problems as well as some new ones.

The first problem is the failure to deal adequately with the level of convergence occurring in global economies and societies. Many of the chapters conclude a rigorous and illuminating analysis of spatially limited resource management systems with the observation that they are being placed under pressure from the outside, from the national state, regional economic organisations and the global market. The existence of much richer varieties of property ownership and management in the real world of small-scale ecosystems does not negate the effects of the increasingly monolithic market and political institutions behind cultural and environmental globalisation. It would have been useful to have discussed, for example, the role of the media, of multinationals or international non-governmental organisations.

Second, once the systems approach is adopted it is difficult to identify a role for the existing bodies of knowledge in the social sciences. There are many discourses that do not easily accommodate themselves to the rather functionalist ontology of systems reasoning. Most of the social sciences feel they were delivered at birth from the clutches of the natural sciences, and are correspondingly jealous of their intellectual independence. This independence has been bought at considerable cost - few social scientists, other than economists, are heard within the corridors of international resource management. It is arguable that the editors have performed a much-needed service by side-stepping most social science, but they may also have done so at some cost.

The third problem is the most serious. It is that the editors and contributors constantly fall foul of the functionalism and teleology of systems thinking. In the first chapter it is hypothesised that "successful knowledge and resource management systems will allow disturbances to enter on a scale that does not disrupt the structure and functional performance of the ecosystem and the services it provides". The problem with this statement is that the ability to withstand these "disturbances" is cited as evidence of the system's "success". This volume would have carried the argument if it had examined aspects of resource management within the global economy, and in the light of the failure of governments and international institutions to rise fully to the challenge of helping to manage sustainable ecosystems. These questions lie at the margins - the wider "linkages" that remain uncharted in this book.

Michael Redclift is professor of international environmental policy, Keele University.

Linking Social and Ecological Systems: Management Practices and Social Mechanisms for Building Resilience

Editor - Fikret Berkes and Carl Folke
ISBN - 0 521 59140 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 459

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