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Copyright © 2006 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.
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Haberl, H., V. Winiwarter, K. Andersson, R. U. Ayres, C. Boone, A. Castillo, G. Cunfer, M. Fischer-Kowalski, W. R. Freudenburg, E. Furman, R. Kaufmann, F. Krausmann, E. Langthaler, H. Lotze-Campen, M. Mirtl, C. L. Redman, A. Reenberg, A. Wardell, B. Warr, and H. Zechmeister 2006. From LTER to LTSER: conceptualizing the socioeconomic dimension of long-term socioecological research. Ecology and Society 11(2): 13. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss2/art13/
Synthesis From LTER to LTSER: Conceptualizing the Socioeconomic Dimension of Long-term Socioecological Research
1Institute of Social Ecology, IFF Vienna, Klagenfurt University, 2Dept. of Cultural Analysis, IFF Vienna, Klagenfurt University, 3University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, 4INSEAD, Fountainebleau and IIASA, Laxenburg, 5School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Global Institute of Sustainability,, 6Centro de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexic, 7Department of History, University of Saskatchewan, 8Environmental Studies Programme, University of California, Santa Barbara, 9Finnish Environment Institute, SYKE, 10Dept. of Zoology and Limnology, University of Innsbruck, 11Institute of Social Ecology, IFF Vienna, Austria, 12Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Rural History, St. Pölten, 13PIK – Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research, 14Federal Environment Agency Austria, 15International Institute for Sustainability, Arizona State University, 16Institute of Geography, University of Copenhagen, 17INSEAD, Fountainebleau, 18Vienna Ecology Centre, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Vienna
Concerns about global environmental change challenge long term ecological research (LTER) to go beyond traditional disciplinary scientific research to produce knowledge that can guide society toward more sustainable development. Reporting the outcomes of a 2 d interdisciplinary workshop, this article proposes novel concepts to substantially expand LTER by including the human dimension. We feel that such an integration warrants the insertion of a new letter in the acronym, changing it from LTER to LTSER, “Long-Term Socioecological Research,” with a focus on coupled socioecological systems. We discuss scientific challenges such as the necessity to link biophysical processes to governance and communication, the need to consider patterns and processes across several spatial and temporal scales, and the difficulties of combining data from in-situ measurements with statistical data, cadastral surveys, and soft knowledge from the humanities. We stress the importance of including prefossil fuel system baseline data as well as maintaining the often delicate balance between monitoring and predictive or explanatory modeling. Moreover, it is challenging to organize a continuous process of cross-fertilization between rich descriptive and causal-analytic local case studies and theory/modeling-oriented generalizations. Conceptual insights are used to derive conclusions for the design of infrastructures needed for long-term socioecological research.
Key words: communication; governance; land use; long-term ecological research (LTER); long-term socioecological research (LTSER); scale; society-nature interaction; socioecological metabolism; socioecological systems.
In the past few decades, considerable effort has gone into setting up a network of research and monitoring facilities devoted to long-term ecological research (LTER). LTER projects focus on documenting, analyzing, and explaining ecological patterns and processes operating over long time spans and broad ecological gradients. In particular, one mission of LTER is to detect signals of global environmental change and their impacts on ecosystems across the world (Hobbie et al., 2003, NRC, 2004). Given the large amount of information on several ecosystem compartments required for LTER to be successful, the number and size of LTER facilities is limited. Traditional LTER focuses mainly at the local or “site” level, and on ecosystems under little or no human influence; the two Urban LTER sites are an exception.
The global extent of such natural or semi natural ecosystems, however, is comparably small (Sanderson et al. 2002), and is dwindling rapidly. Moreover, in order to mitigate, and appropriately react to, global environmental change it may be more important to understand the impact of global change on systems in which humans play a major role than to understand its effect on pristine areas (Wilbanks and Kates 1999). This concern challenges LTER to go beyond classical disciplinary research and engage in the production of knowledge useful for solving society’s sustainability problems, which require, as most researchers agree, the integrated efforts of both ecologists and social scientists. The LTER network recognized this challenge and convened a series of meetings and workshops, among them a broadly attended one in Tempe, Arizona, in 2000. That meeting resulted in a publication (Redman et al. 2004), which in many ways formed the starting point for the writing of this paper. Other related, parallel initiatives have been underway in the United States such as the human-environment regional observatory (HERO) program (http://hero.geog.psu.edu), and international efforts by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the International Human Dimensions Program (IHDP) such as the Land-Use Land-Cover Change (LUCC) project (http://www.geo.ucl.ac.be/LUCC/lucc.html), and its successor, the Global Land Project (GLP 2005, http://www.glp.colostate.edu/). A follow-up meeting of social scientists involved in LTER from across the United States in August 2005 reported that much still has to be done (Gragson and Grove 2006). Several scholars who participated in one or both of these activities are authors of this article and carry the accumulated experience of many of these efforts.
Figure 1 shows sustainability as a dynamic balance between socioeconomic demands on ecosystems, and the capacity of ecosystems to maintain resilience while supplying life-supporting services (Haberl et al. 2004). Sustainability thus challenges science to embrace new, interdisciplinary approaches that cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries, thus resulting in the endeavor of “sustainability science” (National Research Council 1999, Kates et al. 2001, Parris and Kates 2003a,b, Turner et al. 2003). Sustainability science moves beyond a conventional view that sees human activities as disturbances to otherwise properly functioning ecosystems and recognizes the distinction between local activities and global environmental change (Clark et al. 2004). For LTER to be useful in this context, it has to address socioeconomic concerns and integrate them consistently into both monitoring and analysis, implying a shift from a site-based to a regional approach, i.e., LTSER regions or platforms. A recent paper (Rivera-Monroy et al. 2004) based on 13 case studies demonstrates that such a concept improves the use of LTER for solving pressing environmental and sustainability problems.
To help integrate social science into LTER, the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna held a workshop jointly sponsored by the IHDP and IGBP programs in February 2005 (http://www.iff.ac.at/socec/events/workshopltser/). The participants jointly wrote this paper, which summarizes the workshop’s outcomes. A unique aspect of the Vienna workshop compared to United States LTER efforts was the substantial input of European researchers who not only bring different intellectual traditions, but also experience working at field stations whose definitions are more diverse than the relatively coherent United States LTER program.
Integrating socioeconomic issues shifts the research focus sufficiently to justify the new label of “long-term socioecological research” or LTSER (Fig. 2). LTSER focuses on socioecological systems, i.e., complex, integrated systems that emerge through the continuous interaction of human societies with ecosystems (Redman et al. 2004). Throughout this paper we use the term “socioecological systems” synonymously with other terms that have been used in the literature such as “coupled human-environment systems” (Turner et al. 2003, GLP 2005) and “coupled socio-environmental systems” (GLP 2005, Dearing et al., in press). LTSER not only investigates changes in the state of the environment, but also analyzes societal pressures on ecosystems and the forces driving them, while proposing measures that might alleviate these pressures. Conversely, the effect of ecological change on society, i.e., socioeconomic impact, is a legitimate subject of research. LTSER regards society-nature interaction as a dynamic process in which two autopoietic systems, society, and nature interact (Fischer-Kowalski and Weisz 1999, Weisz et al. 2001). Autopoietic, literally “self-creating,” systems are dynamic, self-organized entities that create and reproduce their structure through internal processes, maintain a boundary vis-à-vis their environment, and often evolve over time (Varela et al. 1974).
The key challenge for LTSER is thus to develop concepts for integrated analysis of socioecological systems, which requires interdisciplinary collaboration by scholars in the natural and social sciences and the humanities. Such an endeavor faces the following challenges:
We believe that a transition to sustainability (Kates and Parris 2003, Parris and Kates, 2003a,b, Clark et al. 2004) if possible, will require fundamental changes in society-nature interaction for which no historical analogues exist (Turner and McCandless 2004). The extent of these changes may be comparable to those associated with the transition from agrarian to industrial society. Historical studies seldom allow one to draw lessons by analogy. But one value of LTSER for sustainability science depends on its ability to capture a centuries-long perspective and to learn from the transition from agrarian to industrial modes of subsistence. Even in regions where the transition from the agrarian to the industrial regime is still underway, or has hardly begun, a centuries-long perspective is often possible thanks to colonial archives (Wardell et al. 2003).
In agricultural societies, limited by technology and high transportation costs, locales or regions, i.e., “hinterlands,” had to provide all or most functions necessary for the everyday life of the local population. Under industrial conditions, the spatial division of labor increased. This spatial expansion improved people’s ability to meet their needs and fulfill their social functions because the supply of goods and services was no longer constrained by local resource availability or costly transport. The connections between people’s way-of-life and their cultural landscapes weakened (Berglund 1991, Toupal 2003), and it became increasingly difficult to link local and regional ecologies with the behavior and consumption patterns of their human inhabitants.
To address these challenges, we first discuss conceptual requirements of LTSER, then present four core themes of LTSER studies: metabolism, land use, communication, and governance. Finally, we use these themes to discuss future directions of LTSER, identify future research needs, and make recommendations for an appropriate research framework.
Long-term socioecological research (LSTER) has been one important branch of ecological research during the past decades. For social science to integrate successfully into long-term ecological research (LTER), it is essential to offer a conceptual framework, a heuristic or operational model of society-nature interaction that reflects theoretical assumptions, guides methodology, and facilitates substantive interpretations. LTER sites and potential LTSER platforms are, appropriately, highly diverse. To develop a single overarching framework that would be effective everywhere, one has to argue on a generalized level, which might not prove effective. Challenges to sustainability differ depending on local natural resources and social structures. This is poignantly shown by the identification of syndromes of global change (Schellnhuber et al. 1997). Therefore, whereas all LTSER models have to address basic challenges, one of their prerequisites is to set the modeling effort at a suitable, but not too high, level of abstraction. Consequently, we recommend that a series of more specific conceptual or operational models be developed so that each reflects commonalities in a group of LTSER platforms characterized by shared interpretive objectives and socioecological conditions. Hence, the goal for LTSER platforms should be to develop specific LTSER models that are sensitive to the characteristics of their respective sites and research teams.
What we offer here is a set of meta-principles guiding the development of such models. This approach recognizes the widely different objectives and history of LTSER platforms around the world and gives flexibility to researchers, while maintaining coherence to ensure comparability of monitoring and analysis and to provide LTSER with a clear identity. The meta-principles refer to three domains: design, transitions, and research processes and participants.
LTSER meta-principles encompass the identification of themes for study. Building on previous efforts to develop conceptual frameworks for socioecological interactions (Holling 1986, Ostrom 1990, Boyden 1992, Lee 1993, Ayres and Simonis 1994, Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl 1997, Sieferle 2001, Waltner-Toews and Kay 2005), we identify four general themes which are central to any LTSER effort: socioecological metabolism, land use and landscapes, governance, and communication. All four issues require interdisciplinary approaches, as they are crosscutting issues focusing on interactions between social and natural systems. They receive more attention in the next section.
But where are the major driving forces of change, such as population, politics, or the economy, and why are they not the focus here? Organizing our thoughts along these lines could be misleading because the above-mentioned drivers are part of functionally differentiated societal subsystems, and fundamental barriers inhibit communication between such societal subsystems. Functionally differentiated subsystems treat all other subsystems as “environment,” but integration between them is difficult, if not impossible (Luhmann 1986). According to Luhmann, each subsystem of society is integrated by a specific communication code; e.g., power in politics or costs in the economy, and these codes are incompatible. Identifying key LTSER themes, which are not tied into one of the functionally differentiated subsystems, is necessary when studying interactions across such subsystems. This is not to deny the importance of any of those systems. Each of our themes calls for exploration of the role of economy, technology, politics, or even religion, but without prioritizing one above the other. Rather than mapping any of these subsystems in the four themes, e.g., talking about land use as an economic or political problem, the themes deserve attention in their own right.
LTSER focuses on interaction processes between social and natural systems. It would be an oversimplification to represent this process solely as either disturbance of nature by humans or as adaptation of humans to natural conditions. Instead, this interaction can be seen as a process of coevolution by two structurally coupled systems (Fischer-Kowalski and Weisz 1999). The conceptual framework needs to account for the fundamental differences between social and natural systems and to find ways to analyze their interaction. As observers we know that what we study is not nature as such. We suggest an approach to the study of natural systems that acknowledges this constraint. We do not wish to deny that cultural representations are useful for our interaction with the outside world.
Natural systems emerge through interdependencies between biophysical processes and may be characterized by describing material and energy flows (Odum 1959). By contrast, the analysis of social systems usually focuses on information flows through countless communication channels characterized by different codes (Luhmann 1986), and is often less concerned with biophysical flows (van der Leeuw and Aschan-Leygonie 2005). Fischer-Kowalski and Weisz (1999) suggested studying socioecological systems by viewing society as a hybrid between biophysical and symbolic realms. Fischer-Kowalski and Erb (2003) and Haberl et al. (2004) put this approach into practice by analyzing society’s material and energy flows. People incorporate experiences with nature into the symbolic realm of culture not directly, but by means of representation. Within the cultural realm, representations then guide subsequent actions. Although people can minimize the amount of direct physical labor employed in these actions by means of technological artifacts, the interaction remains a biophysical one (Winiwarter 1997). The metabolism of a society, its energy and material throughput, can be measured and accounted for (Fischer-Kowalski 1998, Fischer-Kowalski and Hüttler 1998). The communicative processes that shape this metabolism according to cultural preferences, which might be economically, religiously, or scientifically grounded, depend on the specific culture and can only be understood in cultural terms, e.g., the study of communication itself or of governance, as its political branch.
In both systems, natural and social, research has to cope with processes of markedly different velocities, occurring at the same place and time. It has to account for the cyclical or recurrent properties of some processes, and for feedbacks and nonlinearity (Gunderson and Holling 2002). Society and nature interact on several spatiotemporal scales, a process termed coevolution by those who approach it with a long time perspective in mind (Norgaard 1994, Weisz 2002).
Equally, LTSER research must permit the study of phenomena on different spatial and functional scales (Wilbanks and Kates 1999). Hierarchies of scale have to be accounted for in order to avoid scale mismatches. Similarly, changes in the perception of human relationships to nature, the ecological and social legacies of institutional and jurisprudential models introduced in the past, and of stochastic disturbance events need to be the subject of LTSER studies. Although there is an abundant literature reflecting scale problems (e.g., Allen and Starr 1982, Allen and Hoekstra 1992, Peterson and Parker 1998, Dovers 2000, Gibson et al. 2000), scale has so far received insufficient attention in existing LTER frameworks, as LTER operates mainly at the site level. This will be a major challenge, and LTSER must include multilevel phenomena as well as cross-scale interactions. Coevolutionary approaches encompass a concept of emergent properties, and the scale question might be integrated into such a framework by looking at emergent properties across scales (Norgaard 1994, Weisz 2002).
Existing LTER sites often link poorly, if at all, to socioeconomic monitoring efforts. Both social, e.g., census data, and natural properties, e.g., air, water quality, etc., are monitored, yet these data are largely ignored by LTER research. LTSER should define interfaces to incorporate regional monitoring systems and official statistics and should work with those collecting these data to refine approaches and archive results. Information on socioeconomic systems is patchy and can only be included in LTSER if consistency over time is ensured. Techniques developed by social historians will have to be included in the LTSER toolbox in order to tap these rich sources.
Socioecological transitions, i.e., fundamental changes in the relation between natural and social systems (Martens and Rotmans 2002, Raskin et al. 2002), are one result of coevolution meriting special attention. In order to understand the challenge of sustainability, such transitions are of particular importance. Transitions from the agrarian to the industrial mode of subsistence entail qualitative changes in the sustainability problems experienced by a society (Haberl et al. 2004). This very transition process is currently underway in developing countries, accompanied by soaring energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions (Haberl 2006). The industrial revolution expanded human alteration of the global environment to an unprecedented scale and extent (Steffen et al. 2004). Sustainability science must grapple with this transition, in the past and in the present.
Socioecological transitions are not only interesting from the viewpoint of sustainability issues such as energy consumption. They also represent fundamental linkages between social and ecological sciences. The relation a society has to nature is central to its entire makeup, to its social structure and to the type of events it will likely encounter and its coping strategies in response to such events (Godelier 1990, Turner 1992). Changes in societies are closely intertwined with ecological transformations. As Godelier has argued, to change society means to change its relationship to nature. Studying such processes over time allows researchers to evaluate the likely consequences of changes suggested by sustainability concepts.
There are at least two approaches toward the role of history in understanding our current socioecological situation. The first could be denoted as the “analogy” approach, characterized by its interest in case studies that have seemingly come to an end. Easter Island, the Mesoamerican Maya, or the Anasazi of Mesa Verde are prominent examples of past collapses (Diamond 2005). From such cases one can only draw rather abstract and general conclusions pertaining to our current situation. It has been argued that we are in a "no-analogy" situation today, with humans having become a geobiophysical force unparalleled in history (Turner and McCandless 2004, Steffen et al. 2004). Therefore it is of limited value to draw conclusions by analogy for sustainable development today.
The second, “legacy,” approach argues that history has to be studied because our current situation is dependent on our material and immaterial inheritance. In this framework, “completed” case studies are less interesting than histories of places and people that have a past, present, and future. Examples include communities having to cope with toxic legacies from mining, radioactive contamination, or massive soil erosion. As these legacies show, the coevolutionary trajectory of societies is shaped by their lasting interventions into nature. This creates the need to study the transformations of the geobiophysical arrangements that are at the center of our current practices (Schatzki 2003). Some of these transformations are called transitions because the character of the arrangements in terms of society’s metabolism changes drastically. As socioecological systems operate on short and long time scales, we need to study such processes over appropriately long periods.
LTSER will therefore be much more useful for sustainability science if it is able to monitor change over time and recognize the dynamics and impacts of transitions. Shifts from agricultural to industrial economies, from centrally planned to neoliberal politics, from biomass to fossil fuel consumption, from rapid population growth to population stagnation, or historical events such as the colonization of America by Europeans following Christopher Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic, are examples of grand transitions that profoundly modified relationships between social and ecological systems (Sieferle 1997, Turner and Butzer 1992, McNeill 2000). Other transitions may be equally important to consider for a more complete and nuanced understanding of socioecological systems. The ongoing transfer of organisms between Old and New Worlds since 1492 has profoundly altered social and ecological structures around the globe (Crosby 1972, Turner and Butzer 1992). Changing legal frameworks and international treaties, fundamental changes in perceptions and beliefs such as the growth of the modern environmental movement (Dunlap and Mertig, 1991), and overlooked transitions such as female empowerment over resources have transformed socioecological processes and patterns (Mies and Shiva 1993). Institutional and regime change can also disrupt or modify socioecological dynamics (Young 2002).
Baseline data are critical for gauging the temporal dynamics as well as the magnitude and character of transitions. Since social and ecological change can happen over very long periods, it is valuable to mine the past for data in order to detect and discern those transitions. The impacts of successive waves of investment and disinvestment in land use, for example, can be observed only through historical examination. Looking backwards is also critical for examining the impact of historical legacies (Foster et al. 2003) on present-day socioecological systems. Sites can be affected by a multiplicity of legacies: social, ecological, engineered, and institutional. Past ecological conditions, along with social, cultural, and legal structures influence current structures and functions of socioecological systems. The contemporary built environment is a cumulative landscape reflecting varying degrees of addition, erasure, and replacement. The relevance of these factors has to be assessed. A contextualizing approach will include the specificity of a site in terms of perceptions, impacts and responses, and the time lags between the latter two. Examination of legacies also provides a means to examine the unintended consequences of human action, the surprises that were not or could not be foreseen (Holm 2005).
Historical data and present-day monitoring can be used as an empirical basis for scenario building. A longe durée analysis provides a solid empirical basis and an opportunity for scenario or model validation (Leemans and Costanza 2005, Wardell and Reenberg 2005). It is well known that activities in the past are key to understanding the current condition of an ecosystem (Foster et al. 2003). Equally important, especially for a socioecological perspective, the past provides insight into the limits to ecosystem and human interactions. Moreover, the legacy of past decisions, especially when they involve land-cover change, landscape transformations, or the built environment guide future options by facilitating certain actions and erecting barriers to others (Gragson and Bolstad 2006). Therefore, analyses based on long-term studies are useful in guiding transitions in ways that lead toward sustainability, a fundamental policy goal of LTSER.
Research process and participants
The study of society-nature interactions as described above involves researchers trained in different disciplines. It is important that human society addresses the long-term consequences of its interaction with nature. LTSER is more useful to local people and to society at large if it is designed not just as another scientific exercise, but also as a transdisciplinary endeavor. This implies the involvement of local stakeholders (Pezzoli 1997, Brand 2000). Including stakeholders, however, inevitably raises concerns about the roles and self-interests of researchers in the research process (e.g., Waltner-Toews and Kay 2005). A self-reflective research process explicitly considers the perspectives of involved citizens, scientists, and managers, and the dominant narratives of each of these groups. Cybernetics has termed such a process a second order observation approach. In order to incorporate systematically the contradictory narratives of multiple groups, while enabling self-reflection, LTSER should incorporate processes of perception, valuation, communication, and response into its design. Although we strongly favor a systems approach in the basic research design, that alone will not suffice to include actors, communication, and governance. To tackle these issues LTSER needs to recognize the epistemological distinction between systems and agent-based approaches (Giddens 1984) and to find ways to relate both (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993). The functional scale problem addressed above means that different types of actors with unique characteristics have to be incorporated within LTSER, e.g., individuals, institutions, organizations, etc.
Such a research process facilitates effective knowledge transfer between the disciplinary domains of scientists, between scientists and policy makers, and between scientists and stakeholders. The problem of communication between different actors cannot be managed easily (Waltner-Toews and Kay 2005). The use of professional “translators” could help to overcome such problems.
Any long-term socioecological research (LTSER) project will have to analyze long-term changes in socioecological metabolism, i.e., biophysical flows governed by socioeconomic as well as by natural drivers, i.e., land use and landscapes, and governance, in particular, as it affects the use of natural resources and communication processes, especially those relevant for society-nature interaction. Although in every particular case emphasis can be placed on one or several of these themes, we feel that no LTSER project can completely omit even one, let alone several, of these themes. The following subsections briefly discuss the relevance of each theme, and relate it to the overall LTSER concept.
Biologists have defined metabolism as the sum total of the chemical processes that occur in a living organism, resulting in growth, production of energy, i.e., useful work, elimination of waste materials, transport, and reproduction (Beck et al. 1991). The analogy to social systems is obvious: The reproduction of human populations as well as economic production and consumption processes require material and energy flows that have, in their entirety, been denoted as “socioeconomic metabolism” (Ayres and Simonis 1994, Fischer-Kowalski 1998). All of these processes are subject to the laws of thermodynamics and other physical constraints, including land availability, but socioeconomic metabolism is also driven by human activities that are, in turn, directly or indirectly affected by communication processes and governance.
The metabolism concept as applied in recent decades in ecological economics, industrial ecology and human ecology has achieved agreed-upon, theoretically grounded definitions of boundaries between societal and natural flows (Fischer-Kowalski and Hüttler 1998, Eurostat 2001). One methodology linked to the metabolism concept is material flow analysis (MFA), which is now incorporated into the collection of official statistics (Eurostat 2002). This approach allows the definition of biophysical structures of society that are driven by human activities, and directly related to ecosystems through material and energy exchanges. In an LTSER context, the metabolism concept can be expanded by explicitly linking socioeconomic flows to the material and energy flows within regional ecosystems. The result is an integrative analysis of a region’s full socioecological metabolism, the grand total of socioeconomic and ecological biophysical flows. This in turn facilitates integrated analysis of natural and cultural drivers of change.
The principal measures of socioecological metabolism are physical entities, i.e., stocks and flows of materials and energy that are important characteristics of both ecosystems and industrial and social systems. The flows and stocks of greatest interest in the LTSER context include those of air, water, soil, living biomass, dead organic matter, nutrients, and toxic materials. Global and local biogeochemical cycles involving carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur, etc. can be, and have been, significantly affected by human activities. Long-term climate change is one of the likely consequences of global socioeconomic metabolism (IPCC 2001). Among the best known consequences are the acidification of the environment resulting from fossil fuel and biomass combustion, and eutrophication from intended as well as unintended release of nitrogen and other plant nutrients, a process that may contribute to biodiversity loss (Bobbink et al. 1998).
Besides agriculture and fisheries, extractive industries such as mining have the greatest impacts on socioecological systems. Urban agglomerations strongly affect socioecological metabolism (Brunner 1994, Lohm et al. 1994). River basins figure prominently in studies of socioecological metabolism, as catchments provide an easy delineation. Major studies of the Hudson River (Ayres and Ayres 1988, Ayres and Tarr 1990) and the Rhine (Stigliani and Anderberg 1993) provide examples. With the increasing capacity of mass transport, social metabolism becomes less and less regional, a fact that also holds true for river basins.
The Hudson-Raritan study discussed in Appendix 1 illustrates the phenomenon of disproportionality (Freudenburg, 2005 Nowak et al. 2006), and shows how industrial activity can leave a legacy of environmental harm for many decades after the activity itself has ceased. This study also shows how indirect methods can provide information at a regional level, for which direct measurements rarely exist. The metabolism approach can help researchers understand coupled systems. Above all, it disentangles the complex interactions of socioeconomic drivers such as economic structure and growth, or lifestyles from ecological drivers such as natural forces, e.g., volcanic eruptions, and human-induced, but external influences such as climate change for scales smaller than global.
An important advantage of the metabolism approach is that it applies on several spatial and functional scales. Although methodological uniformity is most developed at the national level, material flow analysis can work for supranational entities such as the European Union (Eurostat 2002) or for subnational entities such as economic sectors (Schandl et al. 1997), cities, or regions (Brunner 1994, Burke et al. 2002). However, because material- and energy-flow accounts always refer to a defined socioeconomic system, limits to spatial resolution exist. Territories used by socioeconomic systems do not necessarily correspond to “pixels” (Liverman et al. 1998), nor do socioeconomic systems confine their impact to their own territory. This is one important reason why metabolism studies in LTSER should be linked with explicitly spatial studies of society, i.e., nature interactions as described in the next section.
Land use and landscapes
Cultural landscapes emerge in historical processes through interactions between social systems and ecosystems. As results of coevolutionary processes, they are a biophysical expression of socioecological change through time (Haberl 1999). Cultural landscapes are dynamic; they change as socioeconomic and biophysical systems evolve at a variety of time scales. Dynamics of landscapes are interactive, with socioeconomic drivers affecting natural systems and natural systems driving human activities in a reiterative process (O'Rourke 2005). Cultural landscapes thus reflect the social and economic history of a region, including dominant economic activities and their spatial organization, settlement patterns, demography, mobility, and migration. These patterns and processes are, among others, shaped by communication, in particular by the way governance is executed, and simultaneously depend on ecological conditions such as geomorphology and climate and their changes over time (Luig and Oppen 2005).
Land use and its change over time is a critical factor creating landscapes (Gutman et al. 2004, Lambin and Geist 2006). In the absence of humans, land-cover patterns reflect natural conditions such as soil, climate, topography, hydrology, and biotic communities. Although dependent on these biophysical conditions, human use of the land results in significant changes to these conditions, often to the extent that human activities largely shape or even control a significant proportion of the biophysical patterns and processes on the landscape level. In cultural landscapes (Berglund 1991, Farina 2000, Buttimer 2001), land cover depends on natural and socioeconomic factors. Whereas biophysical processes, including flows of materials and energy, are relevant for their understanding, studies of cultural landscapes also address perceptions of spatial landscape patterns and their cultural representation (Tuan 1968, Ramakrishnan et al. 1998, Foster et al. 2003). Landscapes are thus socioecological systems, and the analysis of landscape change over decadal and centennial periods is crucially important to render LTSER useful for sustainability science (Leemans and Costanza 2005). For example, Appendix 2 demonstrates how a long time perspective can improve understanding of land-related phenomena, and thus aid in developing better management strategies.
One important parameter to be monitored, reconstructed, and studied, then, is the evolution of land cover over time, including its spatial patterns. Land cover is a readily observable property of landscapes that reflects both natural preconditions and human use. LTSER should strive to understand natural conditions and drivers of their change, socioeconomic conditions, and drivers of their change and the ecological, biophysical, and socioeconomic consequences of land-use and land-cover change (GLP 2005). Such studies refer to a range of socioecological systems, including agricultural, forestry, aquatic, and urban landscapes, and their interrelations. Drivers to be considered include demography, institutional forces such as economic structures, government regulation and subsidies, technology, and family dynamics.
In this context the issue of spatial scale is relevant. Trajectories of change are different at the plot, community, landscape, national, and global scales. Case studies suggest that during the past several centuries, forces driving landscape dynamics have often shifted from primarily local to regional, national, or international contexts (Bicik et al. 2001, Krausmann 2001, Krausmann et al. 2003, Wardell et al. 2003). Scale issues are also relevant for analyses of sustainability. For example, nutrient dynamics may appear sustainable at the field level, even when nutrient flows are out of balance at the village level (Krogh 1997). Under current patterns of human mobility, the global communication and trade sustainability of any particular community cannot be judged by analyzing only that particular place. Its spatial reach, or „footprint,“ can extend far beyond its boundaries. Many systems today are maintained by shifting costs elsewhere, in particular to developing countries. Dynamics of such systems cannot be understood from within the system (Fischer-Kowalski and Erb 2003, Wardell 2005). Concepts of sustainability also depend on temporal scale. What appears sustainable over years or decades may not be sustainable over centuries (Fresco and Kroonenberg 1992). Long-term historical studies can help to understand what is possible in terms of sustainability, and what rate of innovation of socioecological systems may be required.
Ecosystem services are of considerable socioeconomic importance (Daily 1997). Land use often maximizes certain services, e.g., biomass production, at the expense of others, e.g., regulation of water flows, biodiversity, resilience (Maass et al. 2005). Moreover, the economic or social value of services strongly depends not only on preferences, but also on the mode of subsistence, e.g., industrial vs. agrarian, market access, and the organization of the economy (Maass et al. 2005).
This means that LTSER transcends traditional LTER in the following respects: It offers a multiscale approach in both space and time. Results from all relevant habitats, including the full range from anthropogenic to pristine systems, have to be integrated into a larger picture. Besides well-established core research areas such as inorganic inputs and nutrient cycling, net primary productivity, organic matter, biotic communities, etc. already established in LTER studies, LTSER needs to consider a variety of social and economic variables including human demography, political and social institutions and organizations, economic structures, e.g., markets and processes, e.g., production and consumption, as well as perception and communication (Marcussen and Reenberg 1999, Reenberg 2001). How such factors may be integrated into interdisciplinary long-term socio-ecological studies to gain a more complete understanding than is possible by means of any single disciplinary approach in isolation, is demonstrated in the case study of the “Dust Bowl” included in Appendix 2.
Land-use studies within LTSER can draw from a wealth of methods such as ecological methods for landscape characterization and analysis (Zonneveld and Forman 1990, Naveh and Liebermann 1994), remote-sensing and GIS-based methods for land-cover and landscape classification (Liverman et al. 1998, Cunfer 2005), reconstruction of historical land cover based on historical maps and cadastral surveys (Bicik et al. 2001, Krausmann 2001), reconstruction of past, and assessment of present, material and energy flows based on historical and recent statistical data combined with cadastral maps and surveys (Krausmann and Haberl 2002, Cunfer 2004, Krausmann, 2004), or the use of interviews and surveys to characterize households and other important social agents that are molding land use and thus inform mapping of land cover and land use (Reenberg and Fog 1995, Moran and Brondizio 1998). Links to economics exist, such as through the quantification of monetary values of ecosystem services (Costanza et al. 1997, Bockstael et al. 2000, Loreau et al. 2002), although these methods remain controversial. Moreover, approaches from neoclassical economics can contribute considerably to improving our understanding of socioeconomic drivers of land-use change (Geoghegan et al. 1997, Pfaff 1999, Irwin and Bockstael 2002).
Governance and decision making
In order to support a transition toward sustainability, LTSER goes beyond LTER to explore the decision-making processes at different scales to understand conflict as a basis for reconciling divergent goals amongst stakeholders (Adams et al. 2003, Dietz et al. 2003), and to reduce the vulnerability of people, places, and ecosystems (Turner et al. 2003).
Local studies highlight the need for multiple approaches to grasp the complex spatial and temporal dynamics of environmental change (Bassett and Crummey 2003, Lambin et al. 2003, Maass et al. 2005), and the links between social, economic, and environmental change (Tiffin et al. 1994, Beinart and McGregor 2003). A key goal is to understand better the effectiveness of current ecosystem conservation and management. This requires identifying discrepancies between formal rules at different levels of governance, and discovering the gaps between formal and actual practice at each level of governance.
We suggest that one analytical focus be local actors, because they mediate the efforts of other actors at higher levels of governance (Rigg and Nattapoolwat 2001, Andersson 2004, Wardell and Lund 2006). As the analysis of local actors was a cornerstone of the Land-Use Land-Cover Change (LUCC) project (Lambin et al. 1999), and will remain so in the Global Land Project (GLP 2005), such a focus represents another important link between LTSER and land science. Local actors may modify, ignore, or even completely counteract instructions emanating from public policy and regulators. They are nevertheless affected by governance systems at higher scales of influence including national environmental laws, multilateral trade and environmental agreements, and by institutional and jurisprudential antecedents (Barton 2002, Adams and Mulligan 2003). Customary institutions are themselves dynamic and imperfect (Abraham and Platteau 2002). The production and consumption patterns of local actors, on the other hand, reflect economic structures and opportunities as well as technical solutions that are typically developed, established, and reinforced on higher socioeconomic levels. These economic structures, opportunities and technology choices today bear little relation to regional or local ecological conditions, but they guide and constrain decisions by local actors and generate local ecological impacts (Fischer-Kowalski and Erb 2003).
Within LTSER, good governance is understood as the combined effort of society to implement and enforce rules related to the provision of individual and collective goods and services to sustain local livelihoods without compromising ecosystem health. This requires understanding how access to, use, and exchange of resources are managed and negotiated in practice. An urgent overarching question is: How effective are public policies and attendant regulatory frameworks at achieving sustainable development? The following issues should be explored within LTSER frameworks to understand what happens in practice at the local level. (See the case studies on property rights in Bolivia and agricultural policy in Austria in Appendix 3.)
To grapple successfully with the coevolution of social and natural systems on local scales, LTSER requires teams of researchers who are familiar with the respective specific social, economic, political, and ecological contexts (e.g., Reenberg and Fog 1995, Reenberg 2001, Wardell 2005, Wardell and Reenberg 2005). The analysis of long-term socio-ecological change requires multiple sources of evidence to facilitate data triangulation. These may include the use of historical archives, archaeological and pollen records, oral histories, mapping of land cover and land use dynamics, and the use of existing research networks (Campbell and Sayer 2003, Poteete and Ostrom 2004). Oral traditions can provide useful explanations of relevant social or socio-political relationships. Social memories continue to inform, and to shape the strategies adopted by local resource users in negotiating rights of access to, and use of, land and resources (Hagberg 2003).
LTSER research faces an enormous complexity of actors, processes, interactions, and feedbacks. The difficulties are compounded by spatial and temporal, i.e., scalar, dynamics (Gibson et al. 2000a), local and national forms of governance that are increasingly challenged by the simultaneous transfer of authority to regional or other multilateral institutions, the incompatibility of goals, particularly in landscapes where several actors hold, and exercise different rights to use the same resource, and a persistently random element in human actions (Berry 1993).
Governance studies within LTSER should address past reductionist perceptions and environmental narratives associated with the role of humans in resource management. They should deconstruct the influence of those perceptions on contemporary policy, management, and conservation schemes. They should develop new, integrated socioecological models and illuminate long-term regional disparities. The International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) Research Network provides an example of how these complex issues may be addressed by an interdisciplinary research program (Gibson et al. 2000b). There is a need to harness indigenous knowledge, and to listen to interpretations of the local past, while embracing new technologies that help to understand patterns of social and environmental change (Bassett and Crummey 2003, Beinart and McGregor 2003, Hagberg 2003). While pressures on resources grow, local conservation and development projects are increasingly giving local resource users control over the resources on which their livelihoods depend. LTSER reminds us who the real custodians of the land are, and that conservation and equity are related objectives (Zerner 2002).
Communication, knowledge, and transdisciplinarity
Nature as such is inaccessible to us. It is, therefore, also meaningless, unless we assign significance to it. One of the mechanisms by which such significance is created is the distinction between resources and nature. People assign significance through the acquisition of knowledge about nature, a process that depends on communication. The processes of knowledge formation and communication are important to LTSER when dealing with the interface between social uses of nature, in its symbolized, cultural form, and impacts of humans on natural systems. Foucault (1971) discussed the intimate relation between knowledge and power in society. Based on his theory of discourse, Luke (1996) proposed an approach to define the role of environmental sciences in support of governance processes. We suggest incorporating the study of discourse, knowledge formation, and communication into LTSER on two levels.
In a less abstract form, interdisciplinary research teams have long been aware of the issue of communication, in particular when assessing perceptions of change. The change of communicative settings over time is a prime goal of understanding. Perceptions of environmental change vary among different groups (Ribot 1999, Grim 2001, Waltner-Toews et al. 2003). Efforts to conflate the past and present are notoriously difficult since they overlook changes in context that defined past environments, and the human conceptions of them. Nevertheless, narratives about social and environmental change are continually promoted and peddled to privilege specific institutions or particular interest groups (Roe 1991). Some dominant ideas still inform policy and shape the actions and strategies used by different resource users despite the lack of empirical evidence to substantiate them.
If one acknowledges the importance of communicative settings and the power structures created through them, the role of the researcher within LTSER must become a theme, too (Waltner-Toews and Kay 2005). LTSER is interdisciplinary due to its themes: metabolism, landscape, governance, and communication. It is transdisciplinary through its voluntary or involuntary involvement with policy issues. Rather than trying in vain to keep scholarly work detached from policy issues, we suggest a proactive approach that incorporates actor participation and communication. Within LTSER, human groups and individuals are not only objects of study, but actors capable of processing social experience and responding accordingly (Long and Long 1992). Consequently, LTSER has to reflect the fact that its scientific endeavor influences the course of future events.
The social sciences are relevant in gathering data for the construction of adequate pictures of human interactions with ecosystems (Endter-Wada et al. 1998), but they also provide tools for the involvement of scientists and the use of scientific findings in social contexts. A new kind of interaction is therefore expected between LTSER scientists and others that shapes communication processes to facilitate the use of research results (Beal et al. 1986, Röling 1991), and bridges gaps between stakeholders with different perspectives. Through the views and expectations of various actors, in particular those directly affected by socioecological problems, different pictures of a problem emerge that may not coincide with the pictures drawn by scientists (Waltner-Toews et al. 2003). This diverging understanding of problems by different researchers, and by other actors, creates barriers for dialogue and understanding, which are key obstacles to the establishment of partnerships (Walters 1998, Castillo and Toledo 2000).
Research on knowledge generation, communication and use shows that knowledge cannot be packaged, moved, opened, and then used (Beal et al. 1986). The use of knowledge is a complex transactional process, the success of which depends upon a potential user’s pre-existing knowledge, beliefs, and experiences. If users are to benefit from science, generators of scientific knowledge must work closely with them to identify problems, find solutions, and involve themselves in decision-making processes ranging from the local level to that of policy formulation (Funtowicz et al. 1998, Kates et al. 2001, Castillo et al. 2005). Such transdisciplinary research, that is, research that systematically includes users in the research process, yields innovative questions and methodologies. In addition, including local actors in long-term data collection such as monitoring (for social monitoring, see Appendix 4), is a cost-effective, empowering way to conduct research. Scientists and users must interact within novel scientific frameworks to define research agendas, set research questions, execute projects, and implement results.
Participatory and action-oriented research can offer LTSER interesting tools for the collective, collaborative, self-reflective, and critical generation of information that helps to solve socioecological problems (Chambers 1995). Participatory approaches, if carried out appropriately, can be liberating, empowering, and educational for stakeholders whose everyday livelihoods depend upon the management of ecosystems, as is the case in many developing countries, and can help bring local communities into the policy debate in a way that validates their knowledge.
The study of communication and the processes of knowledge formation becomes an integral part of LTSER, both as an aim of the study and as a reflective process for the research team. Implementing such an approach involves active participation by LTSER teams in transdisciplinary processes. From traditional radio to modern information technology, interpersonal and group communication serves to share information, to exchange views about problems, and to facilitate negotiations among stakeholders when conflicts arise (Adams et al. 2003). Communication interventions should be designed to enhance dialogue among stakeholders and to promote social learning (Maarleveld and Dangbégnon 1999).
In contrast to long-term ecological research (LTER) which, aside from a small number of urban LTER sites, mostly focuses on studying changes in ecosystems in which current direct human activities are thought to play a minor role, (long-term socioecological research) LTSER focuses on socioecological systems that emerge through the interaction of social and natural systems (Wilbanks and Kates 1999). Combining methods and approaches from various natural-scientific disciplines, LTER is already an interdisciplinary endeavor, but LTSER is far more demanding in this respect, as it also has to bridge the gaps between social and natural sciences and the humanities. Table 1 compares some of the key features of LTER and LTSER.
Although these challenges are significant, the four LTSER themes identified here provide a framework that can facilitate such a broadly interdisciplinary research agenda:
The issue of research facilities is important. Traditional LTER is organized around relatively small research sites, focusing on single habitats or catchments, often of tens to hundreds of hectares. LTSER requires a different approach, as socioeconomic systems are rarely organized in a spatially explicit way; this fact becomes especially obvious on smaller scales. For example, households are among the smallest relevant social units above the level of the individual, but apart from farm households they often do not have a meaningfully defined “territory.” In many socioecological studies, the village or municipality will therefore be the smallest unit of investigation, and higher levels, e.g., districts, provinces, nation states, etc., must not be neglected, as the growth in communication and transportation results in interregional dependency. Moreover, historical and contemporary statistical data, important sources of information within LTSER, only exist for administrative units that often must become the unit of analysis within LTSER. This fact contrasts with the ecological studies that define their units of analysis along natural discontinuities.
Wilbanks and Kates (1999:603) argue that agency, by which they mean intentional human action, is often intrinsically localized, whereas institutions and other regularized, formal social relationships are usually more encompassing and not spatially confined. LTSER therefore needs to transcend the site concept of traditional LTER and adopt a concept of “multifunctional research platforms” (Mirtl 2004), here referred to as LTSER platforms. Such platforms might be on a landscape scale, encompassing larger regions in the range of 10–1000 km2. LTSER platforms could encompass classic natural-science based LTER sites on which key parameters of important ecosystems or processes are continually monitored and would be complemented by (1) a long-term historical database extracted from archival and statistical sources that reconstructs important socioeconomic changes (Winiwarter 1999, Krausmann 2004, Gutmann et al. 2005) and (2) a socioeconomic monitoring system that traces important contemporary changes and aids decision-making processes (Fischer-Kowalski et al. 2004). Platforms should be seen not only as a physical infrastructure consisting of measurement equipment, etc., but rather as social processes, as attractors for innovative research. LTSER platforms would yield considerable added value by focusing research on a particular region and by integrating multiple cross-fertilizations between several research and monitoring activities and their respective teams. The definition and selection of platforms are therefore of significant importance to cover a broad spectrum of socio-ecological conditions in a network that spans larger regions.
Integration between LTSER platforms is another important issue. In a globalizing world, isolated landscape-scale studies would fail to address important issues. National and supranational levels must be considered as well, and cooperation between LTSER platforms, e.g., in the form of comparative studies or meta-analyses (Geist and Lambin 2002) are required. Especially important is the inclusion of pre-fossil fuel system baseline data and attention to the often-delicate balance between monitoring and analysis and modeling. It is essential that there be continuous cross-fertilization between rich descriptive and causal-analytic local case studies on the one hand, and theory and modeling-oriented generalizations on the other, at multiple scales.
Research networks such as the global, continental, and national LTER networks will play a crucial role in this process. Capitalizing on more than two decades of operative experience, important national networks are currently being redesigned. For example, the United States LTER is now adopting the so-called NEON concept (NRC 2004). Funded by the National Science Foundation, a network of universities in the United States has established a “Human-Environment Regional Observatory (HERO) Network” that can provide useful input (http://hero.geog.psu.edu/). Under the auspices of the European Commission, a European LTER network is currently emerging, facilitated by the EU project ALTER-Net (Delbaere 2005; http://www.alter-net.info). Several European countries have decided to establish national networks alongside the international process. All of these conceptual and design initiatives aim to include the human dimension. Such efforts help distinguish site-specific from general patterns and processes. Broad, general insights are crucial for the whole global change research community.
Integrated socioecological models will play a significant role in LTSER, for several reasons. First, on a landscape scale it is impossible to achieve an integrated picture of ecological processes with measurements alone, so modeling tools, including process-based ecosystem models and GIS models, will be important. Second, historical and statistical data are never sufficient to reconstruct past socioeconomic, let alone socioecological conditions. Various methods, ranging from crosschecks to full-blown integrated models will have to be applied to get a reasonably rich picture (Krausmann 2004, van der Leeuw 2004). Third, models are important tools to integrate social, economic, and ecological parameters in a consistent way, thus aiding interdisciplinary analyses. For example, agent-based modeling approaches have been combined with land-use studies (Parker et al. 2002) and may also be combined with stock-flow models to yield integrated representations of socioecological systems. Fourth, as one important goal of LTSER is to facilitate decision-making processes, models that immediately demonstrate the consequences of different decisions in an interactive process between researchers and stakeholders can be of great help.
LTSER will facilitate the transition to participation-oriented, sustainability science (Waltner-Toews and Kay 2005). The scientific community is part of the experiment of modern society, like it or not. The foresight to deal with current problems in a sustainable way cannot be achieved without long-term hindsight, and this is what LTSER can ultimately accomplish.
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ACKNOWLEDGMENTSWe thank our sponsors from the International Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change (IHDP) and the International Geosphere-Biosphere (IGBP) programmes. The workshop was a joint activity of the “Land Use and Cover Change” (LUCC) project hosted by IHDP and IGBP and the “Industrial Transformation” (IT) project hosted by IHDP. We are grateful for additional funding from Klagenfurt University. We thank Gerda Hoschek for her contribution to the organization of the workshop and two anonymous reviewers for comments that helped improve this article.
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