Socio-Environmental Systems In Transition


I think one of the biggest lessons I
learned during this symposium was from the people who tend to work over long
time periods and what they reminded us is that communities are always in
transition Tamara Ticktin talked about the
incredibly agrodiverse fields of communities in Fiji and she said we know
these systems are wonderful and sustainable and resilient because people
have lived here for millennia successfully. Challenges that we faced
together as a group that have to do with our interface with nature have been
unimportant in constructing our brains. That our hominid lineage has always
employed cognition to respond to such challenges and that to some degree this
has always worked. We’re still here with our big brains learning from our
mistakes will often mean considering how to do things differently and then
starting to do things differently. Foresight, modeling, and analysis are
examples of the sorts of cognitively difficult needs we must harness in this task. As an archaeologist I tend to deal with societies that are on a much
smaller scale than our current global systems which are of course just a
immense. It’s advantageous to study these small-scale systems and the challenge
then is to understand to what degree if any we can take what we learn from
observing how these small scale models behave to scale up for larger systems.
Bringing people together with diverse methodological and theoretical
perspectives does not inhibit discovery it actually fosters creativity. Our field
as researchers I think we’re in flux right now partly because of the demands
of the world itself. We’ve got a lot more to explain and systems are more complex
than they were even 50 years ago at the same time our institutions, our
universities and the research institutions within which we work, are
under a lot of fiscal stress and yet I think we one of the things we should
really remember is how incredibly privileged we are to be able to study
this stuff. I mean one of the things our job does is puts us in contact with
communities who are struggling every day to get medicine, to get clean water ,to
get access to land to plant food on, and that sort of keeps me humble to the fact
that the struggles we face you know in a global perspective are not
trivial but they are they need to be put in perspective. One of the things that
I’ve seen at this conference that’s very heartening is that it truly has been
boundary spanning with respect to the people who are here, but also I think
with respect to the problems that we’re looking at because the problems are in
general very difficult problems. We are now for the first time I think beginning
to develop the sorts of mechanistic models simulation tools and the like
that will allow us to cope with such high levels of connectedness in a fairly
disciplined way. One of the really interesting surprises was the ways in
which socio-environmental systems in transition are not necessarily
transitioning to some sort of worse stage. A lot of the researchers talked
about situations where there were they were surprised by unexpected outcomes
for example under stress from market forces a community starts planting more
trees not less or a road gets built and inspires more long-term intensive
sustainable agriculture. It’s really important I think to emphasize those
stories where you hear that humans are ingenious, creative, and respond to change
in unexpected and often very positive ways.

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