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A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems.

Science (New York, N.Y.)

Systems Theory, Sociology, Social Environment, Public Policy, Humans, Ecology, Conservation of Natural Resources, Animals

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      Abstract

      A major problem worldwide is the potential loss of fisheries, forests, and water resources. Understanding of the processes that lead to improvements in or deterioration of natural resources is limited, because scientific disciplines use different concepts and languages to describe and explain complex social-ecological systems (SESs). Without a common framework to organize findings, isolated knowledge does not cumulate. Until recently, accepted theory has assumed that resource users will never self-organize to maintain their resources and that governments must impose solutions. Research in multiple disciplines, however, has found that some government policies accelerate resource destruction, whereas some resource users have invested their time and energy to achieve sustainability. A general framework is used to identify 10 subsystem variables that affect the likelihood of self-organization in efforts to achieve a sustainable SES.

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      Most cited references 12

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      The tragedy of the commons.

      (1968)
      The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality.
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        The struggle to govern the commons.

        Human institutions--ways of organizing activities--affect the resilience of the environment. Locally evolved institutional arrangements governed by stable communities and buffered from outside forces have sustained resources successfully for centuries, although they often fail when rapid change occurs. Ideal conditions for governance are increasingly rare. Critical problems, such as transboundary pollution, tropical deforestation, and climate change, are at larger scales and involve nonlocal influences. Promising strategies for addressing these problems include dialogue among interested parties, officials, and scientists; complex, redundant, and layered institutions; a mix of institutional types; and designs that facilitate experimentation, learning, and change.
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          A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas.

           Elinor Ostrom (2007)
          The articles in this special feature challenge the presumption that scholars can make simple, predictive models of social-ecological systems (SESs) and deduce universal solutions, panaceas, to problems of overuse or destruction of resources. Moving beyond panaceas to develop cumulative capacities to diagnose the problems and potentialities of linked SESs requires serious study of complex, multivariable, nonlinear, cross-scale, and changing systems. Many variables have been identified by researchers as affecting the patterns of interactions and outcomes observed in empirical studies of SESs. A step toward developing a diagnostic method is taken by organizing these variables in a nested, multitier framework. The framework enables scholars to organize analyses of how attributes of (i) a resource system (e.g., fishery, lake, grazing area), (ii) the resource units generated by that system (e.g., fish, water, fodder), (iii) the users of that system, and (iv) the governance system jointly affect and are indirectly affected by interactions and resulting outcomes achieved at a particular time and place. The framework also enables us to organize how these attributes may affect and be affected by larger socioeconomic, political, and ecological settings in which they are embedded, as well as smaller ones. The framework is intended to be a step toward building a strong interdisciplinary science of complex, multilevel systems that will enable future diagnosticians to match governance arrangements to specific problems embedded in a social-ecological context.
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            Author and article information

            Journal
            10.1126/science.1172133
            19628857

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