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Understanding Indicators and Monitoring for Sustainability in the Context of Complex Social-Ecological Systems

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Type: Book Chapter
Author: Haider, Jamila L.; Iribarrem, Alvaro; Gardner, Toby; Latawiec, Agniezka E.; Alves-Pinto, Helena; Strassburg, Bernardo
Book Title: Sustainability Indicators in Practice
Publisher: De Gruyter
Location: Warsaw, Berlin
Page(s): 23-36
Date: 2015
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/10030
Sector: Theory
Subject(s): social-ecological systems
Abstract: "It is widely accepted that ecosystems across the world are increasingly affected by humans. Many earth system scientists contend that we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which humans exert a dominating influence on many key earth system processes. Research on the characteristics of this new era emphasizes that a) the world is interconnected and thinking of a given study system as being made up of both social and ecological attributes that interact in complex and adaptive ways can help us make sense of these interactions; and b) the speed of environmental change introduces novel institutional challenges, such as the need to grapple with cross-scale interactions where the activities of one community or society can have far reaching effects on another, thousands of kilometers away.This perspective provides the starting point for why and how, in our view, sustainability indicators should be developed in a way that takes account of the complex and continuously changing nature of the systems they are trying to assess. This chapter begins with a general introduction to some of the key concepts that have emerged from thinking about complex adaptive systems. These concepts highlight some of the considerations that should underpin any attempt to monitor changes in a set of focal attributes that cannot be disentangled from the wider system within which they exist. We then provide a brief introduction to social- ecological systems thinking that explicitly recognizes the highly interdependent and cross-scale nature in which social and ecological attributes of a system are often connected. We posit that social-ecological systems thinking can provide invaluable guidance in designing monitoring and evaluation systems for assessing how different (interconnected) social and ecological attributes of a system are changing as we monitor progress towards, or away from, sustainability. In adopting such a systems approach we conclude with a discussion on the ways in which sustainability indicators themselves, as interdependent parts of the system they are designed to measure, can ultimately change perceptions of values and goals (for better or worse) regarding how that system should be managed."

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