The Anthropocene is characterized by its dynamics. Understanding social-ecological system dynamics is a major research priority for sustainable management of landscapes, ecosystems and resources. We examine the human and natural systems as parts of a larger whole – and focus on understanding their interactions, and recognizes that human and natural systems are closely intertwined, and views people as an integral part of ecosystems. Without improved information on the long-term and complex interactions between causal factors and responses, it will be difficult to answer key questions about trends, rates of change, tipping points, safe operating spaces and pre-impact conditions.Taking an integrative, evolutionary approach means to view change as the product of interactions between different system variables through time.
Key social-ecological system behaviours we can learn from the past:
How rapidly are the individual elements and drivers of the system changing?
Are there any familiar patterns of change that indicate path-dependency?
Fast and slow processes
Which variables represent the ‘fast’ processes in the system, and which the ‘slow’ ones?
What are the typical modes of behaviour (e.g. cyclical, high frequency variability) for each driver and ecosystem response variable?
Where are the positive feedback loops in the system?
Which responses can be explained by linear bivariate or multivariate analyses of drivers, and which cannot?
Where does the current social-ecological system lie within an applicable conceptual model of change, such as a Kuznets curve or adaptive cycle?
Thresholds and regime shifts
Is the current system state stable or in transition?
Has the system already passed a threshold to an alternative state?
What type of transition is likely for this type of system?
Safe and just operating spaces
What guidelines can be given for development that seeks to maintain specific ecosystem conditions within sustainable limits while ensuring that just social conditions are met for all?
Early warning signals
Do the long-term fluctuations show evidence for increasing variance, skewness or autocorrelation that might represent growing instability?
What do the likely interactions between variables at a given time tell us about the network structure (topology)?
How have baselines changed naturally?
How far removed are the current drivers and ecosystem states, processes or services from baseline (low or pre-impact) levels?
Which past experiences should be learned from or avoided in order to reach sustainable management?
Which parts of the landscape or ecosystem have historically been durable, insensitive or resilient in the face of social and biophysical (e.g. climate) drivers, and which have not?
Which social-ecological analogues (from any location) serve as potential successful templates for modern governance, policy and management?