Coupled Socio-Ecosystems

Historically, ecosystems and socio-economic systems have generally been studied as distinct, self-contained kinds of system, with ecologists seeking primarily to understand the processes explaining the distribution and abundance of organisms in the absence of human interference, and social scientists regarding the non-human world as mere raw material for human purposes. However, there are now few if any ecosystems on Earth which have not been substantially affected by human agency, while phenomena such as ozone depletion, soil erosion and possible climate change demonstrate the dangers of neglecting ecology in studying socio-economics. We must therefore seek ways to understand how the socio-economic and ecological aspects of the world system interweave in coupled socio-ecosystems. In the FEARLUS project, we take the view that recent attempts to develop a science of complex systems, which stress the similarities between spatially distributed systems and processes of various kinds, offer a promising way forward --- although as will be made clear, we also recognise the differences between ecological and socio-economic systems.

The science of complex systems is still in the process of formation, and terminology is not standardised. We therefore lay out here how we use certain terms, without claiming that our usage is the only possible or correct one.

  • Complex objects and processes (computers, stars, ant colonies, ecosystems, economies) have a structure of several levels.
  • In complex systems (stars, ant colonies, ecosystems, economies):
    • Lower-level elements have significant autonomy.
    • Construction is by self-organisation rather than being controlled or directed from outside.
    • Agents (ants, people, populations, firms) are lower-level elements that perceive and differentially respond to aspects of their environment.
  • In complex adaptive systems (ecosystems, economies), performance of the agents varies, and responds to changing conditions through one or both of:
    • Learning.
    • Selection and replacement.