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 ES Home > Vol. 9, No. 1 > Art. 19

Copyright © 2004 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Folke, C. and L. Gunderson. 2004. Challenging complexities of change葉he first issue of Ecology and Society. Ecology and Society 9(1): 19. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol9/iss1/art19/


Challenging Complexities of Change葉he First Issue of Ecology and Society

Carl Folke1 and Lance Gunderson2

1Stockholm University2Emory University

Published: June 30, 2004


“Protect and communicate the accumulated knowledge and experience needed for change.” C. S. Holling

It seems as though both the pace of change and scope of transformations in our world are accelerating. The scales at which ecological issues of climate, resource availability, and management occur range from the local to the regional, through biomes to the planet. Recent weather patterns in the US—200 tornadoes in 2 days—bring new meaning to the phrase “winds of change.” The US is making lots of mistakes as the emerging world leader, entraining and directing regime shifts around the world, exerting “top-down control.” Bottom-up change is not the amount of money left over after drinking, but rather how small changes cascade toward larger and larger scales—whether they are peace protests or fisheries collapses. As Buzz Holling reminds us in this issue, change is most times a combination of both. And although these cross-scale interactions are a major source of complexity, they are not the only source.

As we learn more and more about these systems, we realize that the human components—social, political, economic—add other dimensions of complexity. Understanding and governing these complexities are prerequisites for seeking and sustaining our future.

This is the arena that we (editors and colleagues in the Resilience Alliance) have scoped as being critical for our scholarship. In defining that territory, we have described the journal as follows: “Ecology and Society is a journal of integrative science for resilience and sustainability. We encourage submissions on topics relating to the ecological, political, and social foundations for resilient and sustainable social–ecological systems over the short and long term, on scales ranging from local to global, and across scales.”


Last year at this time, the executive committee of the journal was engaged in a deep debate about the content and direction of the journal: should we keep the name Conservation Ecology or not? One large concern in these discussions was whether the name change and broadening of the focus of the journal to reflect more linkages between the ecological and social components would dilute the scholarship. After looking through the “first” issue of Ecology and Society, all we can say is WOW!

We think (without being too paternally biased) that this issue offers a collection of stunning articles. They seem to aggregate around three groupings:

  • Investigations of traps and management pathologies, and ways out of those traps,
  • Measuring linkages between social dynamics and ecological responses across a wide range of systems—from pelagic communities in oceans to montane vegetation, and
  • New insights and observations.

Traps and Exits

Linking Ecological and Societal Change from Oceans to Mountains

New Views, Insights and Visions

There are also five articles published in the three special features in progress in Ecology and Society that truly reflect the new direction and focus of the journal. Two of them investigate the imprint of urban sprawl on diversity and ecosystem dynamics and the remaining three articles draw on people’s experiences with community participation and illustrate the significance of social and cultural processes in adaptive management and governance. These articles clearly illustrate that splitting the social and the ecological into two separate parts in the analysis of resilience and sustainability is no longer a fruitful path.

Special Feature Articles


The lead paper of this issue, Spatial Complexity, Resilience, and Policy Diversity: Fishing on Lake-rich Landscapes by Carpenter and Brock, is a truly interdisciplinary analysis of a spatially coupled social–ecological mosaic. The authors illustrate that one-size-fits-all policies, and management of lakes as if they were independent systems, lead to vulnerability across the entire landscape. Janssen and Scheffer propose that decisions based on past investments rather than expected future returns caused vulnerability and ultimately the collapse of ancient societies. A similar lock-in pathological trap is described by Allison and Hobbs in their analysis of the Western Australian Agricultural Region.

In contrast, Carpenter and Brock find that multiplicity of flexible management regimes can increase the resilience of a spatially heterogeneous social–ecological system. They show a potential way out of social traps, with major implications for current environmental and resource management. And they make explicit use of the potential of a web-based journal in their contribution. Failing, Horn and Higgins add to these insights by demonstrating the utility of combining expert judgment processes and stakeholder values with adaptive management as a policy alternative within broader decision-making situations.

We leave it to the reader to experience the remaining excellent contributions of the first issue of Ecology and Society. Provocative statements, insights, and findings are numerous. They include a critique of over-reliance on data collection and top-down intervention at the expense of the local social dimension in tropical forestry. They illustrate that global markets and lack of effective institutions drive the depletion of tropical forest species, such as mahogany, and create social alienation and conflicts through misuse of land for such cash crops as oil palm. They address the effects of climate change on ecosystem functioning and associated land use, and the fragmentation effects of roads on animal behavior and reproduction. Other topics include the limits of a protected areas approach and the need to account for scale issues in this context; the fisheries-induced decline of top predators, accompanied by increases in intermediate and lower trophic-level animals; and the impact of tourism on the very resources that it depends upon, including the risk of introducing invasive pathogens.

A contribution from a Young Scholars dialogue addresses the barriers to and need for progress in ecology. Social scientists provide a framework for robustness analysis of social–ecological systems. Buzz Holling, the founder of this journal, provides a thought-provoking Perspective, the first contribution to Ecology and Society's series on Panarchy.

Currently, there are three special features in progress. The Urban Sprawl and Traditional Knowledge in Social–ecological Systems features will close in the fall of 2004. The third feature, Strengthening People’s Adaptive Capacity for Ecosystem Management and Human Wellbeing, has recently opened. It is a special feature on the sub-global assessment of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (http://www.millenniumassessment.org), edited by Christo Fabricius, Rhodes University, South Africa.

As editors, we are happy and privileged to be part of the stimulating process of publishing scholarly contributions that provide new insights to and understanding of interdependent social and ecological systems, and that can make a difference. We are indebted to the authors for submitting their work to Ecology and Society, and to members of the editorial board and the qualified reviewers for their efforts in ensuring that the standards of the journal are met. New discoveries in integrated science for resilience and sustainability lie ahead of us. We are experiencing an exciting journey!


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a comment, follow this link. To read comments already accepted, follow this link.

Address of Correspondent:
Carl Folke
Center for Transdisciplinary Environmental Research (CTM)
and Natural Resource Management Group,
Department of Systems Ecology,
Stockholm University,
S-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden
Phone: +46 8 164217

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