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A holistic approach to studying social-ecological systems and its application to southern Transylvania

Jan Hanspach, Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University Lüneburg
Tibor Hartel, Department of Environmental Sciences, Sapientia University
Andra I. Milcu, Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University Lüneburg
Friederike Mikulcak, Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University Lüneburg
Ine Dorresteijn, Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University Lüneburg
Jacqueline Loos, Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University Lüneburg
Henrik von Wehrden, Institute of Ecology, Faculty of Sustainability & Centre for Methods, Leuphana University Lüneburg; Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology, Austria
Tobias Kuemmerle, Geography Department, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
David Abson, FuturES Research Center, Leuphana University Lüneburg
Anikó Kovács-Hostyánszki, MTA Centre for Ecological Research
András Báldi, MTA Centre for Ecological Research
Joern Fischer, Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University Lüneburg


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Global change presents risks and opportunities for social-ecological systems worldwide. Key challenges for sustainability science are to identify plausible future changes in social-ecological systems and find ways to reach socially and environmentally desirable conditions. In this context, regional-scale studies are important, but to date, many such studies have focused on a narrow set of issues or applied a narrow set of tools. Here, we present a holistic approach to work through the complexity posed by cross-scale interactions, spatial heterogeneity, and multiple uncertainties facing regional social-ecological systems. Our approach is spatially explicit and involves assessments of social conditions and natural capital bundles, social-ecological system dynamics, and current development trends. The resulting understanding is used in combination with scenario planning to map how current development trends might be amplified or dampened in the future. We illustrate this approach via a detailed case study in southern Transylvania, Romania, one of Europe’s most significant biocultural refugia. Our goal was to understand current social-ecological dynamics and assess risks and opportunities for sustainable development. Our findings show that historical events have strongly shaped current conditions and current development trends in southern Transylvania. Moreover, although external drivers (including EU policies) set the general direction of regional development trajectories, local factors, including education, leadership, and the presence of bridging organizations, can enhance or counteract their effects. Our holistic approach was useful for generating an in-depth understanding of a regional social-ecological system and could be transferred to other parts of the world.

Key words

ecosystem service bundles; landscape sustainability science; Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society; regional scale; Romania; scenario planning

Copyright © 2014 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087