Monday, February 20, 2012

Transformation, Vulnerability and Resilience

Emilio Moran poses an interesting question, what makes social ecological systems more vulnerable and less resilient?, in his recent article Transformation of social and ecological systems. The bulk of the article is a rather sweeping history of humanity aimed at emphasizing the unique nature of our current situation. In the conclusion, quoted after the break, Moran identifies the factors he sees as responsible for making current systems more vulnerable and less resilient: Hypercoherence, loss of redundancy, loss of trust and a sense of community, and the misuse of information by decision-makers.  Read on .....

The question must be asked: what makes social ecological systems more vulnerable and less resilient? Hypercoherence, loss of redundancy, loss of trust and a sense of community, and the misuse of information by decision-makers. In studying the evolution of social ecological systems it is clear that as we went from direct interaction with the resources that provided for us to ever greater distancing between the decision makers and environmentally significant consumption, social systems developed hypercoherence or an effort to continue to give specific decisions all the way down the chain of decision makers, rather than give greater autonomy for decisions to local decision makers. This results in a loss of biodiversity, misallocation of resources such as water for irrigation, and in general a loss of a capacity to deal with social and environmental variability.

Loss of redundancy is also related to hypercoherence, as it reflects a system’s effort to achieve efficiency to the point of not making allowances for error, new information, and the importance of non-economic values such as reciprocity, resource sharing, redistribution, bartering, which are important to a system’s capacity to respond rapidly and to deal with unexpected conditions. We are perhaps least at risk when we deal within our families, one domain where one is most likely to still find those most fundamental, and inefficient, patterns of trust, reciprocity, consultation, and a sense of being part of a community of shared values.

Most damaging to the resilience of social ecological systems may very well be the loss of trust and reciprocity that has taken place over the years as our systems have grown large and distant from the concerns of individuals far from the centers of power and wealth. Increasingly complex social ecological systems make efforts to use information effectively but as the systems grow larger they are often forced to aggregate the information to such a degree (so that decision makers at very high levels can understand it), that the consequences of those decisions will often result in considerable unintended negative consequences to many parts of the social or ecological system. This contributes to a loss of trust by citizens in their government, given the statements that claim that a policy is in the best interest of citizens, and is followed by clear negative consequences. Without trust it is very difficult to have a community of shared values, and thus to act in the best interest of the system.

To ensure the resilience of social ecological systems it will be necessary to do away with hypercoherence and return systems to a capacity to adjust their decisions to the highly diverse information about social and ecological system variables. It will be necessary to increase redundancy in systems so that multiple agents can make decisions in the best interest of competing elements of society. A major task will be to begin to restore trust and reciprocity by building community institutions wherein trust can be restored through making decisions which incorporate the diverse interests of civil society.

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