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Schoon, M., C. Fabricius, J. M. Anderies, and M. Nelson. 2011. Synthesis: vulnerability, traps, and transformations—long-term perspectives from archaeology. Ecology and Society 16(2): 24. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol16/iss2/art24/
Synthesis, part of Special Feature on Long-term Vulnerability and Transformation Synthesis: Vulnerability, Traps, and Transformations—Long-term Perspectives from Archaeology
1Arizona State University, 2Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University
In this synthesis, we hope to accomplish two things: 1) reflect on how the analysis of the new archaeological cases presented in this special feature adds to previous case studies by revisiting a set of propositions reported in a 2006 special feature, and 2) reflect on four main ideas that are more specific to the archaeological cases: i) societal choices are influenced by robustness–vulnerability trade-offs, ii) there is interplay between robustness–vulnerability trade-offs and robustness–performance trade-offs, iii) societies often get locked in to particular strategies, and iv) multiple positive feedbacks escalate the perceived cost of societal change. We then discuss whether these lock-in traps can be prevented or whether the risks associated with them can be mitigated. We conclude by highlighting how these long-term historical studies can help us to understand current society, societal practices, and the nexus between ecology and society.
Key words: archaeology; robustness; trade-offs; transformation; vulnerability
One of the challenges faced in the development of a broad, interdisciplinary, synthetic theory of the dynamics of social–ecological systems (SESs) is confronting the theory with data. Each data point is a complete social–ecological system. As such, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to conduct controlled experiments. One alternative is to confront the theory with multiple, qualitative case studies. Although such case studies cannot be used to formally validate the theory, they can be used to identify broad drivers, characterize relationships among system components, and relate these to particular outcomes and system characteristics that can then be compared with theoretical predictions. An example of this approach in the context of resilience theory is a special feature of Ecology and Society that appeared in 2006. This special feature used 15 contemporary case studies to critically assess the then state of the art in resilience theory and to explore how to manage for resilience in complex social–ecological systems and move beyond traditional command and control management structures.
However, these 15 case studies were limited in their capacity to address one key aspect of resilience theory: the long-term evolution of SESs (over centuries) through adaptive cycles of change. The long-term studies that are the focus of this special feature shed light on factors that affect how societies organize around the resource systems on which they rely, and provide, a posteriori, insights on how they may cope with uncertainty and change. The archaeological cases discussed in this special feature provide long-term empirical studies needed to gain insight regarding how societies may move through the adaptive cycle over time frames far longer than conventional resilience and vulnerability studies.
Further, by looking across multiple temporal scales in assessing adaptations and transformations, researchers gain insight into how what is perceived as a transformative event from a local or short-term perspective may appear as a more gradual adaptation at a larger scale. Conversely, a slowly dwindling population may appear stable to an observer within the population, but may result in a transformative shift at a societal level when viewed on a larger time scale. Likewise, a shift in the geographical scale may change perspectives of what constitutes adaptation or transformation. We see the larger temporal scale of the cases in this special feature as providing insight into the continuum of adaptation and transformation. Specifically, the perception of where along the continuum a change occurs depends on the scale at which the change is examined. Whereas the initial creation and build-up of social and physical infrastructure can help people thrive in a wide variety of environments, these long-term studies show how slow accretion of rigidity in societal infrastructure may eventually lead to relatively rapid transformation. The capacity to adapt to novel change and shocks is compromised by commitments to specific forms of social and physical infrastructure. Physical infrastructure strongly conditions the nature of interactions between people and the environment and among people. Social infrastructure, in concert with physical infrastructure, conditions the structure of human relations and can increase connectedness of social networks. Beyond a critical threshold, both may lead to institutional rigidity and “stickiness.” Commitment to specific forms of infrastructure generates inertia that is maintained through a prolonged K-phase in the adaptive cycle. In effect, this can be viewed as a form of path dependency from which change is difficult. Along with another key slow driver, increases in human population density, this inertia may severely constrain the capacity of societies to respond to rapid change, precipitating rapid and dramatic transformations.
The articles throughout this special feature highlight the subtle interplay among social and physical infrastructure, stability, and adaptation or transformation. The stability domains created by the slow processes represented in the cases are typically associated with the suppression of particular classes of variation, e.g., interannual fluctuations in resource availability, and social domains, e.g., power relations, or equality. Construction of infrastructure to ameliorate variability in some conditions “necessarily” creates vulnerabilities to other conditions or other classes of shocks. That is, societies face robustness–vulnerability trade-offs in their choices about investment in infrastructure. Over the long term, these trade-offs can be viewed as shifting vulnerabilities between time scales, favoring the present over the long term, or between groups of people, that is, insiders as opposed to others, or between classes.
Here, we hope to accomplish two things: 1) reflect on how the analysis of the new archaeological cases presented in this special feature adds to previous case studies by revisiting a set of propositions reported in the 2006 special feature, and 2) reflect on four main ideas that are more specific to the archaeological cases: i) societal choices are influenced by robustness–vulnerability trade-offs, ii) there is interplay between robustness–vulnerability trade-offs and robustness–performance trade-offs, iii) societies often get locked in to particular strategies, and iv) multiple positive feedbacks escalate the perceived cost of societal change. We then discuss whether these lock-in traps can be prevented or whether the risks associated with them can be mitigated. We conclude by highlighting how these long-term historical studies can help us to understand current society, societal practices, and the nexus between ecology and society.
In 2006, a special feature of Ecology and Society was published that critically assessed resilience theory against 15 contemporary case studies and attempted to extract lessons about how to manage for resilience in complex social–ecological systems that move beyond traditional command and control management structures. Anderies et al. (2006) synthesized the findings of 15 case studies exploring resilience in social–ecological systems, and concluded with 10 propositions for managing resilience. Using the archaeological cases, we explore whether there is evidence for these propositions in practice and, if so, their implications over very large time scales. The case studies in the current special feature did not set out specifically to test these propositions, and in some cases the archaeological record sheds no light on particular points (e.g., points 7, “understanding underlying mental models” or 9, “recognizing windows for transformation” that are more relevant for managers that actively confront challenges of managing for resilience. In what follows, we step through each of the propositions that our cases appraise.
The capacity of social configurations to cope with change depends on the magnitude and abruptness of environmental and social change and, importantly, on the decisions taken or “responses” (sensu Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005) to such change. This special feature considers the following strategies for reducing vulnerability: 1) migration (Anderies and Hegmon 2011, Spielmann et al. 2011), 2) social networking and trading (Janssen 2011, Nelson et al. 2011b), 3) engaging in a diversity of social practices (Nelson et al. 2011a), reciprocity by sharing resources with others (Spielmann et al. 2011), and 4) conserving and storing food and water resources (Anderies and Hegmon 2011, Janssen 2011, Spielmann et al. 2011). However, our case studies show that, in hindsight, prehistoric societies sometimes made choices that increased rather than decreased their vulnerability. Note, robustness–vulnerability trade-offs are very subtle, particularly with changes in slow variables. It is difficult for people in any society to detect the new vulnerabilities they are creating until they experience them. At that point, transformation is already underway and people may be unable to respond. Further, this observation calls into question whether either past or current decision-making procedures can effectively make sustainability decisions on large time scales, let alone on intergenerational time scales. However, understanding long-term trade-offs and processes can enhance our ability for decision making that impacts long-term resilience.
Individuals and social groups make choices, in part, on the basis of a trade-off between the perceived social costs of a decision and the perceived material benefits derived from it. The perceived social cost of a decision or choice, i.e., the “sacrifices” made by either exerting additional energy, incurring additional risks, or forfeiting existing options and opportunities, are weighed up against the perceived benefits, i.e., the immediate advantages for human well-being. There are always fundamental trade-offs between robustness and performance. These are much easier to see than robustness–vulnerability trade-offs. However, there are always winners and losers, and the social problem of distributing benefits and costs is significant. Thus, people face, at a minimum, a two-level problem of navigating robustness–performance trade-offs and the more subtle, frequently imperceptible, associated robustness–vulnerability trade-offs.
Not only does the navigation of this two-level problem directly confront a more easily perceived trade-off between robustness and performance with the frequently less understood trade-off between robustness and vulnerability, but it also faces two further challenges. First, the time scales relevant to these two trade-offs pit the short-term and rapid decision making regarding performance against the longer term vulnerability concerns that are often governed by slow-changing variables. The second issue surfaces when building robustness to relevant shocks runs counter to the immediate desires of society. Decisions to migrate (as in Anderies and Hegmon 2011), to trade (Janssen 2011) or to nucleate (Nelson et al. 2011a) may all be responses to system shocks and perceived vulnerabilities, or they may be decisions made for wholly different reasons such as individual or societal values and beliefs. Societies continually face the challenge of minimizing appropriate vulnerabilities and the balancing of trade-offs of both performance and vulnerability.
Each of the case studies in the special feature illustrates that, in certain contexts, strategies that inevitably reduce resilience become captivating despite the obvious costs and risks associated with them, that is, a lock-in situation (Scheffer and Westley 2007) with persistence of the K-phase of the adaptive cycle. This research highlights some interesting questions worthy of further research:
The five studies all note, to varying degrees, that the perceived cost of change escalates as a result of positive feedbacks related to four key factors: 1) rigidity and conformity, an aspect of social infrastructure, 2) population size, 3) investment in, and perceptions of, physical infrastructure, and 4) perceptions of external threats on perceived costs of change. At some point, a threshold is reached and people or groups no longer perceive that they have the liberty of choice; social, ecological, economic, or political circumstances force them into a limited suite of options. Scheffer and Westley (2007) argue that societies with high levels of conformity or peer pressure prefer inaction, used here in the sense of the inability to change/adapt. In such contexts, the perceived gains have to be extremely high before a rapid shift, from inaction to action takes over. This is not unlike a regime shift, sensu Walker and Meyers (2004). The social costs of inaction escalate rapidly as time passes. This results from increased investments in time, energy, psychological “buy-in,” and material resources in the “status quo” over time. The positive feedbacks result in a rapidly strengthening lock-in or trap from which “escape” becomes increasingly difficult.
Here, we discuss each of the positive feedbacks in the context of our case studies.
Some prehistoric societies experienced less severe consequences of underlying fundamental robustness–vulnerability trade-offs than did others, such as the Zuni contrasted with the Hohokam (Nelson et al. 2011b). What did the Zuni, knowingly or unknowingly, do to avoid such severe consequences? A multitude of adaptation strategies, including migration, exchange, resource usage patterns, storage, irrigation, and others, and a variety of institutional arrangements have led to a diversity of pathways to attempt to mitigate long-term vulnerability. The analysis of these long-term case studies suggests some common features of systems that at once increase their resilience and avoid lock-in traps.
In many cases, the role of diversity and flexibility of both social and physical infrastructure in increasing or building resilience emerges as a key to mitigating against lock-in traps. The cases presented identify how social diversity encourages novelty and the ability to adapt out of a prolonged K-phase before collapse. Examples show how flexible institutional design and a diversity of institutional arrangements can help prevent lock-in traps, how task specialization can create a diversity of viewpoints and ideas, and how disaggregation from high-density areas to more sparsely populated sites facilitates experimentation and a diversity of approaches for avoiding rigidity traps. Likewise, such disaggregation also provides a source of recovery for unsuccessful experimentation.
Managing across scales is also a frequently recurring theme for avoiding lock-in traps. This may occur through cross-scale institutions for trade, such as reciprocity and relation-building, which may reinvigorate a SES at one scale through innovation from narrower or broader scales. Similarly, vulnerability at one scale or locality may be reduced through migration and trade across a broader scale, shifting vulnerabilities spatially and temporally. This notion of shifting vulnerabilities also arises in the idea of using frequent small disturbances to “force” regular reorganization and, in the process, reducing vulnerability to less frequent, higher amplitude disturbances. This parallels Schumpeter’s ideas of periodic shake-ups and “creative destruction” for development. Schumpeterian creative destruction also links back to the ideas of radical experimentation and innovation as a necessary part of building resilience.
The contributors to this special feature all emphasize the goal of improving societal capacity for sustainability. They emphasize the value of resilience thinking and the importance of long-term empirical studies of resilience, robustness, and vulnerability in coupled social–ecological systems, particularly with social and/or institutional data, as a means to achieve this objective. By resilience thinking, the authors stress taking a holistic, forward-looking perspective (sensu Walker and Salt 2006). Echoing the lessons empirically exhibited in the cases of this special feature, Berkes (2007) highlights the importance of experimentation and learning, ecological and social diversity, and opportunities for self-organization as fundamental to achieving system resilience.
The studies presented here highlight how long-term historical studies can help us to understand current society, societal practices, and the social–ecological interface. Building and adapting today’s systems for long-term social–ecological sustainability requires learning from past successes and failures in long-enduring systems and being able to more accurately diagnose, experiment with solutions, and take action based on new learning.
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