An individual contribution to synthesis into the proposed research agenda linking biogeophysical and socioeconomic systems

Peter Taylor, 7 June 2000, with subsequent minor revisions
(Prepared during an NSF agenda-setting workshop in 2000)

Q: Why should society want research on linkages between biogeophysical (BGP) and socioeconomic (SE) systems?
A: So that vulnerability of BGP and SE systems can be reduced and adaptability enhanced. Indeed, effective research on vulnerability and adaptability of BGP & SE systems (in relation to each other) is part of the adaptability of SE systems.

Proposed title for Program:
“Vulnerability and Adaptability in Biogeophysical and Socioeconomic Systems”

a. Any overview under this title would make the interdisciplinarity clear, that is, the program is about BGP in relation to SE systems (and vice versa). Similarly, it would make clear that adaptability is in response to vulnerabilities.
b. Putting aside the specific suggested title, the program should have a title that conveys something that non-scientists would be able quickly to appreciate its constructive orientation. That is, that conveys that the program is not about self-servingly getting more $$ for scientists.

To be conceptually and expositorily powerful each component should be expressed in a way that conveys its connection or potential contribution to the unifying theme expressed in the title. As a step towards this end I have spelled out the rationale of Ann Kinzig’s five categories (from PM on Day 3 (6/7)) in relation to reducing the vulnerability of linked BGP & SE systems and enhancing their adaptability. I hope this is helpful in the process of reworking and renaming the components:

1. “Dynamics of coupled socio-ecological systems” includes
a) Vulnerability of BGP systems in relation to changes in SE systems; and
b) Adaptability (actual) of SE systems (“cultural norms”) in relation to SE-induced vulnerability of BGP systems (“settlement patterns”, “urban development”).

2. “Coping with change, uncertainty, and complexity” includes more of 1a & 1b. perhaps emphasizing more of the SE vulnerability over SE adaptability.

3. “Ecosystem services” is about potential adaptability of SE systems that might reduce BGP vulnerability, because measuring ecosystem services creates the possibility of valuing them in a changed SE system. (Aside: Since the mid-80s “biodiversity” has also been wielded to try to increase social valuing of something(s) so as to reduce BGP vulnerability. Interestingly, the term has been invoked very little at this workshop.)

4. “Environmental dimensions of human health, welfare, and security” includes vulnerability of people and groups (SE systems) in relation to vulnerability of BGP systems.

5. “Communicating scientific knowledge” is about contributing to adaptability of/through SE systems (individual decision/attitude/norm-making, institution-building-formal & informal-and policy-making/ implementation). In this light the component could be reworked to refer to knowledge use by different agents (a.k.a. “knowledge construction”). The ways different agents use knowledge must be understood in order to design better environmental communication (2-way) and even to redesign the research done into BGP and linked SE-BGP systems.

a. A stronger place could be made for SE and associated BGP vulnerability in relation to SE dynamics around inequality.
b. It would be inconsistent for a program concerned about SE adaptability not to build in an explicit self-conscious process of learning and of changing research definitions in response (see the last parts of the preamble and of 5). This means more than the standard evaluation of program. It requires a research component on “giving voice” to subordinate and emergent strands of knowledge-making-both lay & specialist.
c. One emergent aspect of “Northern” SE systems is a significant increase in many spheres of social life of facilitated participation in visioning, problem-solving, and action-planning. My personal take is that this has the potential for enhancing SE adaptability to BGP vulnerability without nearly as much need for specialist knowledge (model-making etc.) as most Tempe participants assume (Ludwig’s paper excepted).


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