Theoretical basis

In the second half of the 20th century changes occurred more rapidly than in any other time in human history (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Human societies depend on the services that ecosystems provide for the production of food, goods and the maintenance of sanitary conditions. Current strategies for the use ecosystems compromise their sustainability in the medium and long term. To associate this pattern only to a lack of interest by governments and industries is an oversimplification, since an alternative socio-economic development may not exist or be unavailable in the political or management sphere when required.
Social development is supported in networks of socio-economic interactions, acquisition, processing, distribution, disposal and recycling of materials and other goods and services provided by ecosystems. These in turn are the result of a complex web of interactions within multiple components that comprise them. Natural and socio-economic systems are intimately intertwined; however they have been independently analyzed by natural science, social science and art for much of mankind’s history. The inconsistency of this epistemological dichotomy is being overcome by the analysis of complex systems created by the interaction of multiple systems or subsystems (Ostrom, 2009). In this context, the analysis of SES (social and ecological systems) main structural features and operation is a theoretical framework to overcome the current inability to solve different problems at the local, national and global scale.
Different theoretical frameworks or theories have addressed different components of SES. Economists have made advances in the understanding of flow dynamics and capital accumulation; sociologists in the structure of human interactions and its relationship to the political-economic and geographical environment in which they are inserted; geographers and land use experts in the understanding of territorial changes and the design of strategies for their management; physicists and mathematicians have made significant advances in complex systems dynamics; and ecologists as regards the functioning of ecosystems and the services they provide. However, the necessary synthesis between these theoretical frameworks – developed in parallel without communication between them – is a very recent endeavour; it has not yet achieved the required depth to provide tangible solutions to many of the impending problems (McGinnis & Ostrom, 2014). At this stage, it is crucial to develop initiatives that involve a wide academic spectrum, with different well-represented areas and a constant feedback.

Complex systems involve a large number of elements that interact nonlinearly and have the potential to accumulate changes over time and eventually produce abrupt transitions to sometimes unwanted new conditions (Scheffer 2009). The study of complex systems emphasizes the importance of systemic and comprehensive approaches to SES management. A complex system is defined more by the interactions between its parts that the parts themselves. Interactions between system components create properties that cannot be predicted based on the individual parts, a phenomenon known as emergence (Holland, 1999; Manson, 2001). Given the strong interactions between human societies and ecosystems, there is a consensus (of growing acceptance) that ecosystems are better understood and managed as joint socio-ecological systems (Berkes and Folke, 1998; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005; Liu et al., 2007; Norberg and Cumming, 2008; McGinnis and Ostrom, 2014). This means that SES management draws on systemic approaches that address social, ecological and economic dimensions in an integrated way.

Complex systems main characteristics create limitations on the ability to understand, predict and control SES (Pilkey and Pilkey-Jarvis, 2007; Roe and Baker, 2007). The decision regarding desirable trajectories, or to avoid critical thresholds and incorporate uncertainty and risk in decision-making, cannot be implemented exclusively on the basis of expert analysis. It requires consultation and dialogue with relevant users to include them in policy design and decision-making processes (Cortner and Moote, 1999; Bocking, 2004, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005).

The resilience of complex systems can be understood as an approach to organize and manage the SES by focusing on the capacity for renewal, reorganization and development, where disturbances (e.g. extreme weather events) are part of the system dynamics and represent opportunities for change or innovation (Gunderson and Holling, 2002; Walker et al., 2004; Folke 2006, Walker and Salt, 2006).

According to O'Brien et al. (2009) the “resilience thinking” approach establishes three fundamental principles:

  • Environmental problems cannot be analyzed or understood in isolation from their social context.
  • Uncertainty and surprise are attributes of complex systems and we must learn to live with them.
  • Change is inherently complex; therefore, problems such as global change cannot be addressed on a single level of organization.

Scenarios and projections of future global changes may be used as a guide for adaptation, but there will always be uncertainties and surprises, especially since natural system changes are not the only factors that cause changes in SES. Economic, political, social and cultural changes also reveal uncertainties and complex adaptive responses. Adaptation and transformation require the management of new or changing information (e.g. sea level rise) and multiple types of knowledge and uncertainties.

Beyond theoretical aspects, this approach has developed practical and successful strategies in relation to increasing SES resilience. The most successful strategies in this area include: (1) learning to live with change and uncertainty; (2) increasing the diversity of all SES components (diversity of economic objectives, diversity of natural resources used, diversity of actors involved, etc.); (3) combining different types of knowledge and learning; and (4) creating opportunities for self-organization and links between different levels (e.g. between national and local spheres) (Folke et al., 2003, 2005).

How do we organize?

SARAS Institute has developed an academic organization very different from traditional university schemes, in a nutshell, our organization involves researchers from many different disciplines and backgrounds that are grouped in working networks based on the analysis of theoretical problems (see network on early warning signs) or analysis of specific cases (see network related to Laguna del Sauce). Both components are critical to knowledge creation or to finding solutions to old problems. From this point of view, SARAS institute considers the distinction between basic and applied research a false dichotomy.

Get Involved

SARAS Institute is a network of networks; any researcher or artist with an interest in our theoretical approach may get involved in our networks or propose the creation of new working networks. Please contact our Scientific Director, Dr. Nestor Mazzeo.


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About Saras

The South American Institute for Resilience and Sustainability Studies (SARAS) is an emerging transdisciplinary institute designed to generate critical insights allowing South America to build sustainable futures. It seeks integration across a broad range of knowledge using innovative approaches and integrating social and natural sciences, mathematics and arts.

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