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International research team develops model for processes of social-ecological change


Human beings and nature have been closely interconnected throughout history; they constitute a joint “social-ecological system”. Population growth, advances in technology, and urbanization are profoundly changing these systems around the globe.

Researchers at the Universities of Cape Town, Kassel, and Göttingen have developed a modelling framework for comparing the causes and consequences of these processes at different scales worldwide. The results have been published as a cover story in the scientific journal Nature.

Aerial view of a vegetable market in Boubon (Niger)

(photo: Buerkert, Soumana/Uni Kassel)

For centuries, agrarian societies had to use their immediate surroundings in a manner that would ensure maximum sustainability because their very survival depended on it. However, urbanization and industrializa-tion have fundamentally changed the relationship between human beings and nature.

These changes are becoming increasingly significant as population and economic growth continue and accelerate worldwide. According to the team of authors, “new regulations and institutions are necessary in order to avoid overex-ploitation of natural resources.”

The framework that the authors propose can be used to compare social-ecological systems at various scales, such as individual households, land use systems, cities or entire nations. As long as sustainable use of an ecosystem stabilizes the social system and vice versa, this state is called a "loop".

In contrast, a "trap" is characterized by overexploitation and progressive degradation of the ecosystem, which can ultimately lead to the collapse of social order. In addition, the researchers distinguish between rural systems (green loop / green trap) and urban systems (red loop / red trap).

The authors use three case studies to illustrate this modelling framework: There is a wealth of data on agri-cultural and economic development in Sweden over the past 250 years, which provide evidence of a suc-cessful transition from a green loop to a red loop – in other words, from a balanced rural system to a bal-anced urban one.

In Niger, a country which at the start of the 1960s still relied on rural agro-pastoralism and displayed characteristics of a green loop, population growth and urbanization are increasingly leading to a green trap. In the greater Beijing area, in recent decades one of the most rapidly expanding agglomerations worldwide, there are indications of an ecological crisis that could turn the city from a red loop into a red trap unless corrective action is taken soon.

“To understand changes in social-ecological systems we need to develop interdisciplinary theories of inter-dependent ecological and social processes,” the researchers explain. “Only with such theories will we be able to recognize decisive changes in time and intervene in a manner that is ecologically sustainable and socially just in the long term.”

The English-language magazine Nature is one of the world’s most highly regarded scientific journals.

Original publication: Graeme S. Cumming, Andreas Buerkert, Ellen M. Hoffmann, Eva Schlecht, Stephan von Cramon-Taubadel and Teja Tscharntke. Implications of agricultural transitions and urbanization for ecosystem services. Nature 2014. DOI: 10.1038/nature13945.

Contact addresses:

Prof. Dr. Andreas Bürkert
Universität Kassel
Ökologische Agrarwissenschaften
Steinstraße 19, 37213 Witzenhausen,
Telefon (05542) 98-1228 oder -1251

Prof. Dr. Stephan von Cramon-Taubadel
Universität Göttingen
Department für Agrarökonomie und Rurale Entwicklung
Lehrstuhl für Agrarpolitik
Platz der Göttinger Sieben 5
37073 Göttingen, Telefon (0551) 39-22872

Weitere Informationen:

Sebastian Mense | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft

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