Research Topic

Looking Through the Mesh of a Net: The Challenge of Socio-Ecological Systems

About this Research Topic

Growing environmental problems have been calling for more sophisticated research tools and more stringent regulations. Never before have we had as many tools at our disposal to make predictions and monitor the environment as we have today; also, the number and type of enforced regulations that now curb human activity is unprecedented. Nonetheless, it seems we are moving on a vicious circular path that exacerbates environmental problems instead of solving them. Solutions tailored for specific problems turn into new problems that require further solutions, both scientific and regulative.

Complexity is the central intellectual issue of this scenario and it is concerned with interdependencies that cross the classical boundaries of the domains in which scientific and operational knowledge have been settled. It turns out that ecological changes are associated with social and economic transformations, which, in turn, reflect their effects back on ecological functions and processes. Understanding these interdependencies requires a shift in focus from a “within-domain approach” to a global strategy in which the ecosystem, as a unit of investigation, is part of a larger system that embeds socio-economic dynamics. Therefore, the challenge is to find interdependencies among across-domain phenomena that may seem independent: what might be the effect of the peace agreement between government and guerrilla groups on Colombian rain forests? How might the pollution of coastal waters lead to inequality in the distribution of marine ecosystem services? How can genetic selection of plant varieties affect job opportunities for women? Could urban planning affect the incidence of vector-borne diseases? Causal connections between far-apart phenomena depend on how variables are connected to form long chains of effects and how effects spread along these chains, forming a network. In this network, environmental, social and economic feedbacks determine a “between-domain” dialectic that gives rise to trade-offs and synergies. We are far from understanding all these mechanisms and this may be why we are often caught by surprise (socio-ecological traps, mismanagement). Building social-ecological networks of appropriate nodes and links that can reproduce patterns of interdependencies is a non-trivial exercise, and any plausible interpretation of the causative mechanisms behind these interdependencies is tightly linked to how the network is designed.

Scholars have perceived the potential of the network approach to investigate socio-ecological systems and much effort has been directed to delineate the theoretical framework needed to set up how to use it in a practical way. We intend this Frontiers Research Topic as an arena for discussing these issues and showing how network science can respond operationally to the need of disentangling interdependencies in social-ecological systems.

In particular, we welcome papers that connect social and ecological domains through network science with a focus on the following general topics:
1) How social organization and dynamics affect the production and distribution of ecosystem services
2) In what way social constraints affect ecosystem resilience
3) Trade-offs and synergies between ecological and social sustainability
4) Environmental crises and social traps
5) Tipping points in socio-ecological systems


Keywords: complexity, feedback, interdependency, network, socio-ecological system


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

Growing environmental problems have been calling for more sophisticated research tools and more stringent regulations. Never before have we had as many tools at our disposal to make predictions and monitor the environment as we have today; also, the number and type of enforced regulations that now curb human activity is unprecedented. Nonetheless, it seems we are moving on a vicious circular path that exacerbates environmental problems instead of solving them. Solutions tailored for specific problems turn into new problems that require further solutions, both scientific and regulative.

Complexity is the central intellectual issue of this scenario and it is concerned with interdependencies that cross the classical boundaries of the domains in which scientific and operational knowledge have been settled. It turns out that ecological changes are associated with social and economic transformations, which, in turn, reflect their effects back on ecological functions and processes. Understanding these interdependencies requires a shift in focus from a “within-domain approach” to a global strategy in which the ecosystem, as a unit of investigation, is part of a larger system that embeds socio-economic dynamics. Therefore, the challenge is to find interdependencies among across-domain phenomena that may seem independent: what might be the effect of the peace agreement between government and guerrilla groups on Colombian rain forests? How might the pollution of coastal waters lead to inequality in the distribution of marine ecosystem services? How can genetic selection of plant varieties affect job opportunities for women? Could urban planning affect the incidence of vector-borne diseases? Causal connections between far-apart phenomena depend on how variables are connected to form long chains of effects and how effects spread along these chains, forming a network. In this network, environmental, social and economic feedbacks determine a “between-domain” dialectic that gives rise to trade-offs and synergies. We are far from understanding all these mechanisms and this may be why we are often caught by surprise (socio-ecological traps, mismanagement). Building social-ecological networks of appropriate nodes and links that can reproduce patterns of interdependencies is a non-trivial exercise, and any plausible interpretation of the causative mechanisms behind these interdependencies is tightly linked to how the network is designed.

Scholars have perceived the potential of the network approach to investigate socio-ecological systems and much effort has been directed to delineate the theoretical framework needed to set up how to use it in a practical way. We intend this Frontiers Research Topic as an arena for discussing these issues and showing how network science can respond operationally to the need of disentangling interdependencies in social-ecological systems.

In particular, we welcome papers that connect social and ecological domains through network science with a focus on the following general topics:
1) How social organization and dynamics affect the production and distribution of ecosystem services
2) In what way social constraints affect ecosystem resilience
3) Trade-offs and synergies between ecological and social sustainability
4) Environmental crises and social traps
5) Tipping points in socio-ecological systems


Keywords: complexity, feedback, interdependency, network, socio-ecological system


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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Submission Deadlines

26 June 2020 Abstract
21 September 2020 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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Topic Editors

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Submission Deadlines

26 June 2020 Abstract
21 September 2020 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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