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Emergence Unites Ecology and Society

Ronald L Trosper, University of British Columbia

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The effort to combine analysis of ecosystems and social systems requires a firm theoretical basis. When humans are present in an ecosystem, their actions affect emergent structures; this paper examines forms of emergence that account for the presence of humans. Humans monitor and regulate ecosystems based on their cultural systems. Cultural systems consist of concepts linked in complicated ways that can form consistent world views, can contain inconsistencies, and may or may not accurately model the properties of a social–ecological system. Consequently, human monitoring and regulating processes will differ, depending on cultural systems. Humans, as agents, change or maintain pre-existing material and cultural emergent structures. The presentation is illustrated with a case study of fire-prone forests. The paper shows that explicit attention to emergence serves very well in unifying the following requirements for social–ecological analysis: coherent and observable definitions of sustainability; ways to link ecological and social phenomena; ways to understand cultural reasons for stability and instability in dynamic social–ecological systems; and ways to include human self-evaluation and culture within dynamic models of social–ecological systems. Analysis of cultural emergent structures clarifies many differences in assumptions among the fields of economics, sociology, political science, ecology, and ecological economics. Because it can be readily applied to empirical questions, the framework provides a good way to organize policy analysis that is not dominated by one or another discipline.

Key words

analytical dualism; complexity; critical realism; ecological economics; emergence; social–ecological systems; sustainability
Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087