Photo: Håkan Ignell/Azote

Advancing sustainability through a social-ecological perspective

The concept of social-ecological systems describes how social systems and ecological systems are inherently interlinked. Advances in sustainability science and practice have been inspired by this growing recognition.

During a visioning-workshop in September 2014, a group of PECS-researchers and members of the PECS Science Committe met and asked: (1) what are the key ways in which advances in sustainability science and practice have been inspired by growing recognition of the interlinked nature of social–ecological systems (2) what are the priority areas in which further efforts are required to improve our understanding of social–ecological systems, and foster progress towards sustainable development.

The resulting paper, led by Joern Fischer (who also has a great summary piece on his blogexternal link) is published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability.external link

In the first half of the paper we point out four important ways in which the social-ecological systems approach has begun to shift research and practice only in the past two decades:

Advance 1: Recognition is growing that humanity depends on nature – it’s no longer a small community that understands that humanity fundamentally needs nature (and has an ethical obligation towards it).

Advance 2: The need for solutions to sustainability problems has increased communication and collaboration across disciplines, and between science and society – interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are growing rapidly, especially in a sustainability context.

Advance 3: Conceptual and methodological pluralism is increasing in an effort to better understand complex social-ecological systems – scientists increasingly seek to understand systems through multiple modes of enquiry.

Advance 4: Appreciation of social-ecological systems is beginning to influence major policy frameworks – although there is a long way to go still, national assessments and international frameworks now explicitly recognize social-ecological linkages.

In the second part of the paper we identify four interlinked priorities for researchers and decision makers:

Priority 1: Social-ecological interactions between regions need to be better understood, and institutions should be developed to govern such interactions – this is the issue of “teleconnections”, which are common and important, but poorly understood and governed.

Priority 2: Both researchers and decision makers must pay greater attention to long-term drivers that gradually shape social-ecological systems – these long-term drivers continue to be (largely) ignored and include inconvenient issues such as dominant value, political and economic systems.

Priority 3: The interactions among power relations, equity, justice and ecosystem stewardship need to be better understood – this is the issue of who is in control and who benefits from ecosystems, and includes greater attention to major global injustices.

Priority 4: Commitment is needed by governments and society at large to support the development of a stronger science-society interface – we have only just begun to link science with society through transdisciplinary processes, but a step change is needed to bring about major changes.
… and major changes are what we need.

As we say in the paper: Despite the progress that has been made, “there is a real danger that the growing challenges of the Anthropocene – such as climate change, global social injustices, and biodiversity loss – will outpace the progress that is being made.”

PECS - Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society

Stockholm Resilience Centre

Stockholm University
SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden
Visiting address: Kräftriket 2

+46 734 60 70 68


The Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS), is a core project of Future Earth. It aims to integrate research on the stewardship of social–ecological system and the relationships among natural capital, human wellbeing, livelihoods, inequality and poverty.