4.4. Socioecological systems 

The previous sections looked at human systems, using energy and food systems as examples. They are also good examples of how non-human elements are intertwined with human systems: for example, agricultural outputs require functioning ecosystem processes such as pollination or processes to keep the land arable. In the last decade, the term socio-ecological system has become established for such hybrid systems. 

In the scientific literature, there is a relatively robust consensus on what is meant by socio-ecological systems: socio-ecological systems are most often defined as complex systems composed of human and non-human entities and the relationships and networks of interactions between them. Such a definition really only tells us that we should understand social and ecological beings as belonging to the same system, somehow. However, although socio-ecological systems have been increasingly discussed over the last 15 years, it is still unclear what the relationship between the social and the ecological actually is and how it should be approached.

It is still very typical that the social and ecological systems are treated as two separate subsystems, interconnected through links such as ecosystem services, and that the perspective is either nature-centred or human-centred. This can also be a somewhat successful approach. However, from a systemic perspective, this limits the possibility of taking into account the interconnectedness of humans with ecosystems, which manifests itself as a series of interactions between humans and elements of the biophysical environment that are constantly evolving over time.

This issue, simple in itself, is complex and ultimately raises some very difficult philosophical questions. In this section, the issue is approached not only through the more abstract conceptual discussion, but also by using a simple hypothetical example involving fish and fishing. The question is whether the social and the ecological are seen only as interacting subsystems, as when human activities - e.g. agriculture - affect an ecological system - e.g. a water body - causing changes in conditions and thus changes in food webs and the abundance or decline of fish species. Or whether the focus is on the benefits that nature provides (ecosystem services) to humans, for example through nutritious food or recreational (fishing) opportunities. Or whether the ecological system influences the foundations of the social system, such as the emergence and development of local communities and cultures based on fishing, generated by abundant fish stocks. 

The last of these examples already points more to the intertwining of the social and the ecological. Local fishing culture refers to the influence of fish and fishing on the minds of fishermen (and other community members) - or in the terms used above, on their beliefs or identities and experiences, as well as on community norms that continue to influence how ecosystem processes in local waters are disturbed or protected. Similarly, ecosystem services are now seldom provided to humans only by 'nature'. Increasingly, ecosystem services (or benefits) are services provided to humans by ecosystems that have been shaped by humans in various ways. The vast majority of fish stocks in Finland, for example, are characterised by stock management: people catch fish (or their offspring) stocked by other people, and a separate industry is created for this purpose. Similarly, we don't actually go out to enjoy 'unspoilt nature' because there is hardly any left - quite often, the enjoyment of nature is also linked to man-made infrastructure and (tourism) services.

One extreme form of social and ecological interconnectedness might be the experience of nature as 'sacred' shared by individuals and communities, which is often - at least in the West - associated with some indigenous cultures. Of course, a similar experience is also associated with Western experiences of certain places, often places of residence, where the activity itself is perceived as good in that it contributes to dwelling in a familiar environment. This is characterised by a symbiotic relationship with one's environment rather than a one-sided benefit from it.

Studying socio-ecological systems is also complex

The internalisation that socio-ecological systems are complex is a necessary prerequisite for understanding them. At the same time, it poses major challenges in developing and selecting strategies for studying these systems. 

If we consider our hypothetical fish example, it is relatively easy, in general terms, to delineate the key social and ecological processes that influence, say, the evolution of fish stocks. On the one hand, there are the ecosystem processes that develop through the interaction of different species (non-human). These processes are subject to constant variation and change, also due to factors beyond human control, which can lead, for example, to a reduction in the production of young of a fish species.

Similarly, it is easy to understand that fishing pressure on a species can change the balance of an ecosystem in a completely new way, but this can also occur through other natural ecosystem processes operating at different time scales, as discussed earlier in the course. In non-human nature, responses to changes in conditions are more straightforward than in the human systems described in this section of the course. The weakness of this thinking, of course, is that we don't actually know what capabilities different organisms have. But we can safely assume that the ability of fish to reflect on their circumstances and behave strategically is limited in comparison to that of humans.

Similarly, in general, it is easy for us to understand that economics and politics (as well as other subsystems of society, such as the legal system) have a major impact on what happens to fish stocks. For example, when fish stocks decline and catches fall, fish prices rise, which reduces demand and reduces the pressure to catch. Or, conversely, a decline in fish stocks causes a tightening of regulation, which also causes a reduction in fishing pressure. If the social world operated through such textbook mechanisms, socio-ecological systems would not be so complex. 

All economic models have to make some assumptions about, for example, the information available or the rationality of the actors, which describe our reality with varying degrees of success. Perhaps fishing pressure will not fall because fishermen will not give up their profession, but will continue to fish more vigorously as stocks decline. Perhaps it is because there are no other sources of income. It could also be that there have been large investments or that fishermen have a strong identity as fishermen. Or perhaps more intensive marketing is being used to market more expensive fish to new groups of consumers, perhaps as a health benefit or luxury; there are also cases where changing the name of the fish to something that seems more "delicious" has been enough to increase demand.

As noted earlier in this course, regulation is not as straightforward as described above either. There are a considerable number of other interests and information beyond the sustainability of fish stocks involved in the development of regulation. Regulation may occur too slowly for its stated purpose, or it may be poorly targeted. It can also leave enough loopholes to allow, for example, fishing pressure or any of a number of other possible human activities that in our example have a negative impact on water status to continue long enough for a major change to take place in the ecosystem, for example in species relationships - and the combined effect of all of these to be, for example, the collapse of a fish stock.

It may be that with simple process tracing - a method that simply looks at the evolution of different system processes from a point in time - we can successfully explain, for example, why a fish species collapsed. Such an analysis would certainly help us to understand much more about the dynamics of the system under consideration. But history never ends. In our hypothetical situation, the system would now be in a new dynamic state. Except that the ecosystem would be structured differently: perhaps fishing communities would have ceased to exist, fishing culture would have changed, economic models (which not only describe but also change the world) would have been modified, and failed regulators in various organisations would have been reassigned to new roles.

The point here is that systems are in a constant state of change - although we often only notice change when it is big enough or sudden enough. In our example of the fish stock collapse, we might well have found (after the fact) the relevant social and ecological processes that would have contributed to the collapse in the first place. Not least because we could look for the "usual suspects": factors within the ecosystem and those directly influencing it from the social system (fishing pressure), as well as those indirectly influencing the former, such as economic incentives and failed regulation.

Not only might we have been able to look at the norms or rules (which we could also call structures here) that condition fishermen's behaviour - that is, those that enhance and undermine fishing opportunities - but we might also have been able to look at the fishermen themselves. As we have already mentioned many times earlier in the course, human beings are not just creatures that follow economic-rational rules. We could have looked at fishermen's own understanding of their situation, their experience of the norms that different communities (or organisations) impose on them, their networks, and factors that only fishermen themselves are experts in but which, for example, are not taken into account at all in regulatory decision-making.

But we would still have a very poor understanding of the dynamics of the system. Although we have taken into account ecosystem processes and economic and political subsystem processes, we have not paid attention to the interconnectedness of these processes. Moreover, we have focused on entities and processes that we can, at least in principle, observe directly. Some might point out that such an analysis is perhaps laborious but not yet very complex. In the ontological framework of observation adopted in this course, it can be said that the world is not yet exhausted by these directly observable entities and processes. In what follows, we will address these issues through power and its different dimensions or 'faces' (see box below).

Not all power is visible

Power is a complex concept: when we try to find a simple definition of it, some of the things we think of as power seem to escape our way of defining it. At the same time, power would seem to have dimensions that we do not easily recognise as power at all.

Three faces of power

A well-known and already classic way of understanding power is Steven Lukes' interpretation of the three "faces" of power. This is not to suggest that power is reduced to these dimensions, but these dimensions will suffice for the purposes of this course. In what follows, these dimensions of power will be approached through the questions that describe them, drawing on the interpretation of Professor Heikki Patomäki:

The first dimension of power is the most familiar way for us to understand power. It means, as it were, "direct power". The idea is to ask who gets their way in the face of opposition, even when there are differences of opinion and conflicting interests.

The second dimension of power concerns the realm of "non-coalitional decisions". This dimension concerns the question of who sets the political agenda. In other words, it is a question of what is decided in the first place. On the one hand, this is close to the first dimension, when one considers that someone has interests that one does not want to bring up for consideration, but which are actively kept off the decision-making table. On the other hand, it is close to the third dimension, when actors completely overlook the fact that other aspects, perhaps serving their interests better, should have been put on the political agenda.

The third dimension involves conflicts that are completely hidden (but possible). We all have a limited capacity to understand even those aspects that serve our own interests. We internalise in our beliefs - or habits - many things as given, as they are, without understanding how to question them. In Lukes' view, the ultimate form of power is to prevent people from experiencing things as wrong by shaping their perceptions, habits of thought and preferences to accept their role as it is under the existing circumstances. So who or what has defined and maintains the status quo and the 'correct' ways of judging it?

The power framework in the box above allows us to look at socio-ecological systems in general and our hypothetical example of fish stocks in particular. The first dimension of power presented asks who creates the conditions under which ecosystems as part of socio-ecological systems are degraded or flourish. Critical nodes in this analysis can be found at the local, regional, national and international levels, if only because, for example, governance of resource use is distributed across these levels. For the sake of simplicity, the national level is considered here, since national legislation largely provides the framework within which the 'lower' levels operate - even though a large amount of national legislative power has been transferred to the EU level, for example in Finland.

In important nodes of democratic systems, such as legislation on the use of fish stocks, all stakeholders should have a say. However, in practice, those with sufficient resources to exert influence, such as the power to make demands on behalf of a broad and sufficiently coherent group, are the most influential. It has also been observed that, not only at the individual level but also in organisations, routines explain practices: since no one person can manage large sets of issues involving a potentially large number of stakeholders, it is easier for administrations to work in partnership with those interest groups with whom they have (successfully) worked before. This is particularly true of so-called corporatist systems such as Finland's.

In practice, this leads to a concentration of power - it is not the interests and values of 'everyone' that are reconciled, but those of a smaller privileged group. This is of course a rough generalisation, and in practice the situation can vary widely from country to country, policy area to policy area and issue to issue. However, the point is that answering the question of the first dimension of power - who exercises direct power - is not always particularly difficult. Of course, this is linked to the political power relations in question, which in democratic systems are at least within the control of all of us who are of voting age. It is typical that as political power relations change, so too does the amount of influence of the economic and other interest groups linked to the parties.

The second power question, who or what keeps issues off the political agenda, is typically more difficult for us to answer because this activity leaves less of a paper trail, for example. Often, of course, we can infer from the power relations at play whose interests are also served by such agenda exclusions.

The third dimension, however, is of particular interest to us because it opens up a view of the directly unobservable elements that make all human systems complex, but which at the same time produce regularity in our actions. 

In the discussion of food regimes above, reference was made to the third food regime, which has a neoliberal undertow. One of its key features is the abandonment of aggregate planning in favour of market orientation. It is quite difficult - if not impossible - to say where such social undercurrents, which are changing societies in a very powerful way, come from, how they spread and why they are being adopted as norms, possibly on a very large scale, across different sectors of society and by different individuals. The international rise of environmentalism, as discussed in the 'Introduction to Planetary Welfare' course, can just as well be seen as such a undercurrent, which is why almost everyone in Finland recognises - even if they do not accept - environmentalism as part of the social debate. These are the norms that condition our actions in different contexts: by adopting an instrumental or intrinsic approach to nature, we relate to it as a rule (and not just in relation to fish stocks, for example). Not only do norms influence us, we influence norms: by acting in accordance with a norm, we reproduce it or act against it, we (in a small way) change the norm.

The third dimension of power draws attention to the fact that, in order to examine complex systems and to find explanations for the phenomena that occur in them, we may have to look for influencing factors in subsystems that previously seemed very insignificant and in factors that we cannot even directly observe. This is complex.

In conclusion

Socio-ecological systems are complex sets of interactions and networks between people, organisations and non-human elements. They have the emergent properties discussed in the initial parts of the course, such as resilience and adaptability, and non-linear evolution due to, for example, feedbacks. Socio-ecological systems, like other systems, are in a state of constant change, faster or slower, and although it is very difficult to predict their evolution - among other reasons, because different system processes have a mutually reinforcing or weakening effect - they are not chaotic but also have emergent organising elements that generate persistence.

The concept of socio-ecological systems in general reminds us that human systems as a whole are embedded in natural systems. Looking at energy and food systems, it is easy to see that human systems as a whole would not function at all without these deeply embedded subsystems. At the same time, however, it is worth noting that not all human subsystems are equally intertwined with natural systems. For example, although justice, religion or education systems have obvious links with natural systems, they are not, like food and energy systems, intertwined with ecosystem processes in their core processes.

Historically, it is also easy to see non-linear developments in human systems. Often these historical tipping points are accompanied by technological innovations. As explained in the Introduction to Planetary Well-being course, the steam engine played a major role in the accelerated industrialisation of the 19th century, which irreversibly set human systems on a new path. But the steam engine could only act as the engine of this development once British society was organised in the right way.

Similar observations - linked to the previous one - can be made about the food system. For example, the Haber-Bosch method (see the 'Introduction to Planetary Well-being' course), which can be used to produce nitrogen fertilisers, played an important role in the new post-war growth of industrial agriculture - and thus in the transition to a new energy regime - when the growing urban population, with industrialisation, had to be fed by a reduced rural workforce without a corresponding increase in the area under cultivation.

Of course, the current ecological crisis also underlies a growing interest in examining the interconnectedness of social and ecological systems. In this debate, resilience has the exciting feature that, while ecological systems are hoped to be resilient in order to withstand the pressure of change from human subsystems, human systems are hoped to be less resilient in order to become less ecologically stressful. In energy systems, for example, this is particularly evident. Existing energy regimes - often concentrated in terms of production systems and power - tend to retain key actors and their established operating logic (often e.g. the economy of scale) and to orient change to fit the structures of the existing system. Environmental and other social movements, on the other hand, often believe that it is the key established actors and operating logic - the regimes - that need to change.

Naturally, various (sustainability) crises are always accompanied by a struggle about the state of the present, what it should be like and how it should be changed - in other words, crises involve power in all its dimensions. The analysis of power is thus a central angle of analysis in the study of socio-ecological systems. It is also central because the sustainability crisis and its resolution is not only about how power is distributed, but also about how much power there is. The essence of the sustainability problem can be interpreted as a question of power, or in the words of Heikki Patomäki (2020)

When we speak of the Anthropocene, we are referring to the fact that the total power of human society has grown so great that the life systems and physical flows and formations of the planet are increasingly dependent on humans.

Although the interconnectedness of man and nature - and one relatively new variant of this relationship, conceptualising it through a socio-ecological system - has been explored in the social sciences for decades, this work is still in its infancy. In the literature on socio-ecological systems, this is repeated time and again. However, it is clearly a field of research that is attracting increasing interest. In these efforts, the planetary well-being framework is one attempt to bring together and develop an interconnected systems approach between ecological and social.

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Last modified: Tuesday, 16 May 2023, 6:46 PM