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This article examines whether some response strategies to climate variability and change have the potential to undermine long-term resilience of social–ecological systems. We define the parameters of a resilience approach, suggesting that resilience is characterized by the ability to absorb perturbations without changing overall system function, the ability to adapt within the resources of the system itself, and the ability to learn, innovate, and change. We evaluate nine current regional climate change policy responses and examine governance, sensitivity to feedbacks, and problem framing to evaluate impacts on characteristics of a resilient system. We find that some responses, such as the increase in harvest rates to deal with pine beetle infestations in Canada and expansion of biofuels globally, have the potential to undermine long-term resilience of resource systems. Other responses, such as decentralized water planning in Brazil and tropical storm disaster management in Caribbean islands, have the potential to increase long-term resilience. We argue that there are multiple sources of resilience in most systems and hence policy should identify such sources and strengthen capacities to adapt and learn.

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Government officials and other decision makers increasingly encounter a daunting class of problems that involve systems composed of very large numbers of diverse interacting parts. These systems are prone to surprising, large-scale, seemingly uncontrollable, behaviours. These traits are the hallmarks of what scientists call complex systems. This report is devoted to the proposition that the insights and results achieved through scientific analysis can be used to design and implement better governmental policies, programmes, regulations, treaties, and infrastructures for dealing with complex systems. In a complex system, it is not uncommon for small changes to have big effects; big changes to have surprisingly small effects; and for effects to come from unanticipated causes. Given the accumulating scientific accomplishments of complexity scientists, the OECD Global Science Forum asked an essential question: How can the insights and methods of complexity science be applied to assist policymakers as they tackle difficult problems in policy areas such as health, environmental protection, economics, energy security, or public safety?

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Adaptive governance is an emergent form of environmental governance that is increasingly called upon by scholars and practitioners to coordinate resource management regimes in the face of the complexity and uncertainty associated with rapid environmental change. Although the term “adaptive governance” is not exclusively applied to the governance of social-ecological systems, related research represents a significant outgrowth of literature on resilience, social-ecological systems, and environmental governance. We present a chronology of major scholarship on adaptive governance, synthesizing efforts to define the concept and identifying the array of governance concepts associated with transformation toward adaptive governance. Based on this synthesis, we define adaptive governance as a range of interactions between actors, networks, organizations, and institutions emerging in pursuit of a desired state for social-ecological systems. In addition, we identify and discuss ambiguities in adaptive governance scholarship such as the roles of adaptive management, crisis, and a desired state for governance of social-ecological systems. Finally, we outline a research agenda to examine whether an adaptive governance approach can become institutionalized under current legal frameworks and political contexts. We suggest a further investigation of the relationship between adaptive governance and the principles of good governance; the roles of power and politics in the emergence of adaptive governance; and potential interventions such as legal reform that may catalyze or enhance governance adaptations or transformation toward adaptive governance.

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Towards sustainability, it is important to understand the dynamics of socio-ecological systems, as complex adaptive systems. An essential aspect of such complex systems is nonlinearity, leading to historical dependency and multiple possible outcomes of dynamics. Regime shifts, the reorganization of the structure and processes shaping a complex adaptive system, are large, abrupt with persistent changes. Regime shifts in socio-ecological systems have large impacts on ecosystem services, and therefore on human well-being, as they can substantially affect the flow of ecosystem services that societies rely upon, such as the provision of food, clean water or climate regulation. Resilience is the ability to absorb disturbances, to be changed and then to re-organise and still have the same identity (retain the same basic structure and ways of functioning). It includes the ability to learn from the disturbance. Resilience shifts attention from purely growth and efficiency to needed recovery and flexibility. Growth and efficiency alone can often lead ecological systems, businesses and societies into fragile rigidities, exposing them to turbulent transformations. The aim of resilience management and governance is to keep the complex system within a particular configuration of states (system ‘regime‘) that will continue to deliver desired ecosystem goods and services. The adaptive capacity in social systems, the existence of institutions and networks that learn and store knowledge and experience, create flexibility in problem solving and balance power among interest groups, play an important role. Complex systems with high adaptive capacity are able to re-configure themselves without significant declines in crucial functions. A consequence of a loss of resilience, and therefore of adaptive capacity, is loss of opportunity. Resilience is key to enhancing adaptive capacity: learning to live with change and uncertainty; nurturing diversity for resilience; combining different types of knowledge for learning; and creating opportunity for self-organization towards socio-ecological systems sustainability.

This Reading it is not a linear course list, rather for dialogical rhizomatic learning; will be followed by others on related topics. To access the paper, follow the link.

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Anthropogenic pressures on the Earth System have reached a scale where abrupt global environmental change can no longer be excluded. We propose a new approach to global sustainability in which we define planetary boundaries within which we expect that humanity can operate safely. Transgressing one or more planetary boundaries may be deleterious or even catastrophic due to the risk of crossing thresholds that will trigger non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental- to planetary-scale systems. We have identified nine planetary boundaries and, drawing upon current scientific understanding, we propose quantifications for seven of them. These seven are climate change; ocean acidification; stratospheric ozone; biogeochemical nitrogen (N) cycle and phosphorus (P) cycle; global freshwater use; land system change; and the rate at which biological diversity is lost. The two additional planetary boundaries for which we have not yet been able to determine a boundary level are chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosol loading. We estimate that humanity has already transgressed three planetary boundaries: for climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, and changes to the global nitrogen cycle. Planetary boundaries are interdependent, because transgressing one may both shift the position of other boundaries or cause them to be transgressed. The social impacts of transgressing boundaries will be a function of the social–ecological resilience of the affected societies. Our proposed boundaries are rough, first estimates only, surrounded by large uncertainties and knowledge gaps. Filling these gaps will require major advancements in Earth System and resilience science. The proposed concept of “planetary boundaries” lays the groundwork for shifting our approach to governance and management, away from the essentially sectoral analyses of limits to growth aimed at minimizing negative externalities, toward the estimation of the safe space for human development. Planetary boundaries define, as it were, the boundaries of the “planetary playing field” for humanity if we want to be sure of avoiding major human-induced environmental change on a global scale.

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The term Anthropocene, proposed and increasingly employed to denote the current interval of anthropogenic global environmental change, may be discussed on stratigraphic grounds. A case can be made for its consideration as a formal epoch in that, since the start of the Industrial Revolution, Earth has endured changes sufficient to leave a global stratigraphic signature distinct from that of the Holocene or of previous Pleistocene interglacial phases, encompassing novel biotic, sedimentary, and geochemical change. These changes, although likely only in their initial phases, are sufficiently distinct and robustly established for suggestions of a Holocene–Anthropocene boundary in the recent historical past to be geologically reasonable. The boundary may be defined either via Global Stratigraphic Section and Point (“golden spike”) locations or by adopting a numerical date. Formal adoption of this term in the near future will largely depend on its utility, particularly to earth scientists working on late Holocene successions. This datum, from the perspective of the far future, will most probably approximate a distinctive stratigraphic boundary.

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Ecological regime shifts are large, abrupt, long-lasting changes in ecosystems that often have considerable impacts on human economies and societies. Avoiding unintentional regime shifts is widely regarded as desirable, but prediction of ecological regime shifts is notoriously difficult. Recent research indicates that changes in ecological time series (e.g., increased variability and autocorrelation) could potentially serve as early warning indicators of impending shifts. A critical question, however, is whether such indicators provide sufficient warning to adapt management to avert regime shifts. We examine this question using a fisheries model, with regime shifts driven by angling (amenable to rapid reduction) or shoreline development (only gradual restoration is possible). The model represents key features of a broad class of ecological regime shifts. We find that if drivers can only be manipulated gradually management action is needed substantially before a regime shift to avert it; if drivers can be rapidly altered aversive action may be delayed until a shift is underway. Large increases in the indicators only occur once a regime shift is initiated, often too late for management to avert a shift. To improve usefulness in averting regime shifts, we suggest that research focus on defining critical indicator levels rather than detecting change in the indicators. Ideally, critical indicator levels should be related to switches in ecosystem attractors; we present a new spectral density ratio indicator to this end. Averting ecological regime shifts is also dependent on developing policy processes that enable society to respond more rapidly to information about impending regime shifts.

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There is a long and rich tradition in the social sciences of using models of collective behavior in animals as jumping-off points for the study of human behavior, including collective human behavior. Here, we come at the problem in a slightly different fashion. We ask whether models of collective human behavior have anything to offer those who study animal behavior. Our brief example of tipping points, a model first developed in the physical sciences and later used in the social sciences, suggests that the analysis of human collective behavior does indeed have considerable to offer.

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Technology contributes both positively and negatively to the resilience of ‘social-ecological systems’, but is not considered in depth in that literature. A technology-focused literature on socio-technical transitions shares some of the complex adaptive systems sensibilities of social-ecological systems research. It is considered by others to provide a bridging opportunity to share lessons concerning the governance of both. We contend that lessons must not be restricted to advocacy of flexible, learning-oriented approaches, but must also be open to the critical challenges that confront these approaches. Here, we focus on the critical lessons arising from reactions to a ‘transition management’ approach to governing transitions to sustainable socio-technical regimes. Moreover, we suggest it is important to bear in mind the different problems each literature addresses, and be cautious about transposing lessons between the two. Nevertheless, questions for transition management about who governs, whose system framings count, and whose sustainability gets prioritised are pertinent to social-ecological systems research. They suggest an agenda that explores critically the kinds of resilience that are helpful or unhelpful, and for whom, and with what social purposes in mind.

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Recently, Early Warning Signals (EWS) have been developed to predict tipping points in Earth Systems. This discussion highlights the potential to apply EWS to human social and economic systems, which may also undergo similar critical transitions. Social tipping points are particularly difficult to predict, however, and the current formulation of EWS, based on a physical system analogy, may be insufficient. As an alternative set of EWS for social systems, we join with other authors encouraging a focus on heterogeneity, connectivity through social networks and individual thresholds to change.