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Ecosystem research
Ecosystem research

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Published by: wickedpeanut on Apr 20, 2010
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Copyright © 2007 by the author(s). Published here under license by the Resilience Alliance.Folke, C., L. Pritchard, F. Berkes, J. Colding, and U. Svedin. 2007. The problem of fit between ecosystemsand institutions: ten years later.
 Ecology and Society
, part of a Special Feature onScale and Cross-scale Dynamics
The Problem of Fit between Ecosystems and Institutions: Ten Years Later
 , and Uno Svedin
ABSTRACT. The problem of fit is about the interplay between the human and ecosystem dimensions insocial-ecological systems that are not just linked but truly integrated. This interplay takes place acrosstemporal and spatial scales and institutional and organizational levels in systems that are increasingly beinginterpreted as complex adaptive systems. In 1997, we were invited to produce one of three backgroundpapers related to a, at that time, new initiative called Institutional Dimensions of Global EnvironmentalChange (IDEG), a research activity of the International Human Dimensions Program of GlobalEnvironmental Change (IHDP). The paper, which exists as a discussion paper of the IHDP, has generatedconsiderable interest. Here we publish the original paper 10 years later with an extended introduction andwith reflections on some of the issues raised in the original paper concerning problems of fit.
The issue of linking ecosystems to socioeconomic-cultural ones is of central importance for the analysisunderlying almost any action related tosustainability. Without a proper understanding of the link in its local, regional, national, continental,and global contexts, it is impossible to move intothe challenges of sustainable development in itsthree interdependent dimensions: ecological,economic, and socio-cultural. The issues have to beaddressed in all three dimensions and not only in amore limited space of two or, even worse, only onedimension. These dimensions are truly integrated ina system with numerous interactions. It is here thatthe issue of “fit” emerged more than a decade ago,i.e., the way in which these dimensions interplayand depend on each other. Some may interpret thisas a rather trivial issue of a technical methods kind,but the binding together and synthesizing work needed requires deep reflections on the character of these systems and the ways in which they canconnect to a new systemic totality. This normallyhas to be done in a specific geographical space, beit on a micro level or a macro level, whilerecognizing the drivers of change internally andexternally. This is what is meant by the problem of “fit.”In the mid-1990s, this issue was highlighted andanalyzed by the authors of the current paper (Folkeet al. 1998
). The results were widely disseminatedin a document issued by the International HumanDimensions Program (IHDP) in 1997–1998. Theaim of the current publication is to make the originalpaper, whose text is presented in italics, accessibleto a wider audience. We have inserted a fewadditions to and reflections on the original text. Alot of work has been published on the problem of fit during the last decade. We do not intend toprovide an update or review the issue. The volumeof IDGEC (institutional dimensions of globalenvironmental change) in progress (Young et al.2007) raises the issue and includes a paper with afew of the original authors (Galaz et al. 2007).Members of the Resilience Alliance have addressedthe topic (e.g., Gunderson and Holling 2002, Berkeset al. 2003, Norberg and Cumming 2007), as havestudies on institutions and common pool resources(e.g., Costanza et al. 2001, Ostrom et al. 2002,Brown 2003). In addition, several papers have beenpublished in
 Ecology and Society,
including in thespecial features on cross-scale institutions, editedby David Cash (Cash et al. 2006), and exploringresilience, edited by Brian Walker and colleagues.We start the introduction on the definition of “fit”as it was seen a decade ago in the original document(Folke et al. 1998
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences,
Stockholm Resilience Center, Stockholm University,
Evangelical Environmental Network,
University of Manitoba,
Swedish Research Council for the Environment
Ecology and Society
Young and Underdal (1997) describe the issue inthe following way: “The problem of fit asserts that the effectiveness and the robustness of socialinstitutions are functions of the fit between theinstitutions themselves and the biophysical and social domains in which they operate.” Althoughthis [1998] paper will address the social domain of institutions, our main focus will be on institutionallinkages to the biophysical domain. By institutions we mean the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction and theway societies evolve through time (North 1990). Institutions are made up of formal constraints(rules, laws, constitutions), informal constraints(norms of behavior, conventions, and self-imposed codes of conduct), and their enforcement characteristics; thus they shape incentives in humanexchange, whether political, social, or economic. Institutions, such as property rights (the structureof rights to resources and the rules under whichthose rights are exercised) are mechanisms peopleuse to control their use of the environment and their behavior toward each other (Bromley 1991). Theylink society to nature, and have the potential tocoordinate the human and natural systems in acomplementary way for both ecological and humanlong-term objectives (Hanna et al. 1996). They alsohave the potential to inhibit adaptive responses toecosystem changes, and to combine to create
gridlock and confusion in environmental management.
Our approach seeks to endogenize the role of socialinstitutions in large-scale biophysical systems, bylooking at human systems as subsystems of theecosphere. Human systems are dependent on the
structure and functioning of ecosystems. Ecosystems
generate essential natural resources and ecologicalservices (Odum 1989, Daily 1997). The capacity of ecosystems to provide this support is increasinglythreatened, not only at local scales, but also at regional and global scales (Jansson et al. 1994).This is a consequence of the rapid extension of human domination, particularly during this century(Vitousek 1994). The internationalization and globalization of human activities, the growth of thehuman population, and the large-scale movementsof people have generated novel ecological and social dynamics at regional and even planetaryscales (Turner et al. 1990). Processes have becomeso interwoven that many actions, although local inorigin, are regional and global in their effects(Turner et al. 1990, Ekins et al. 1994, Holling 1994). Incremental changes in land use, for example,influence climate change, regional biodiversity, and the evolution of new diseases (Houghton et al. 1996,Skole and Tucker 1993, McMichael et al. 1996).Understanding and coping with such complexlinkages becomes an analytical and observationalchallenge, with the numerous feedbacks acrossscales in time and space, throughout the entiresystem of humans and nature.The present state of the world has beencharacterized as one in which human management is dominant, whereas over the course of humanhistory humans have been “managed” by their environments, both biophysical (the natural, pace-setting cycles of seasons, plagues, etc.) and social(economic epochs, cultures, etc.; Holling and Sanderson 1996). This contrast has been extended into an explicit critique of modern resourcemanagement institutions (Ludwig et al. 1993),where it is suggested that institutions should be“managed” by environmental conditions. Clearlythere is a co-evolutionary nature to the fit betweeninstitutions and their environment. It is no longer  fruitful to separate humans and nature, nor is it useful to fight endless disciplinary battles between“social” and “natural” science. However, few have analyzed the interactionsbetween social systems and key structuring processes in ecosystems. In many volumes onresource management and environmental studieshumans have been treated as external to ecosystems. By contrast, studies of institutions have mainlyinvestigated processes within the social system,treating the ecosystem largely as a “black box.” Analyses of institutions seldom explicitly deal withlinkages to functional diversity, key structuring processes, and resilience (capacity to survivedisturbance) in ecosystems.The problem of fit is about these linkages, and is the focus in this paper. While a general use of the word  fit has to do with suitability for a task, another useof the word “fit” in English refers to a match of sizes, e.g., if the shoe fits, then it is a good match for the foot. Social and ecological systems and  processes have sizes too: they have spatial and temporal dimensions (Clark 1987). The questionthen arises: How does the scale (temporal, spatial, functional) of an institution relate to the ecosystembeing managed, and does it affect the effectivenessand robustness of the institution? Functional scales(Lee 1993) would in most contexts be called “scope,” that is, the variety of processes that arecovered by a given institution.
Ecology and Society
We start the paper (Section II) with a description of a few properties of ecosystems that haveimplications for human use and management. Next we discuss the lack of fit between conventionalmanagement and ecosystem properties (Section III)and the social and economic causes behind ecosystem deterioration (Section IV). Followingthat are some real-world examples of institutions for ecological management and some socialmechanisms that seem to provide an institutional fit to ecosystem processes and functions (Section V).Thereafter we discuss adaptive management and theissue of nested institutions for environmentalmanagement (Section VI). We end the paper by proposing a few research challenges in relation tothe problem of fit between ecosystems and institutions (Section VII).
The perspective of the human system as a dominantsubsystem raised in the introduction in the 1998paper has expanded and become a high-prioritysystems issue in the research literature on naturalresource management, climate change, andsustainability. We have learned that we now live inthe era of the Anthropocene (Crutzen and Stoermer2000) in which Earth system processes from localto global scales are strongly shaped by humanity (e.g., Steffen et al. 2004, Foley et al. 2005). As isenvisaged by the discussions in the climate changedomain, a further and now stronger scientific basis
exists, not the least codified by the Intergovernmental
Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), after the pastdecade for the importance of the human driver ingreenhouse gas phenomena and their relationshipto global change. Based on such insights, thebalance of focus between mitigation and adaptationhas also started to shift, through, for example, thework of the Tyndall Centre in the UK. Much morehas now been said on the globalization phenomenain relation to local situations, includingsocioeconomic drivers of change (e.g., Lambin etal. 2003, Berkes et al. 2006), but the dominant work on economic and social globalization still lacks theconnection to the biosphere and ecosystem capacity.The scaling issue has been further elaborated upon,both in general and in terms of a stronger focus onthe regional level, not least in terms of “bestpractices worldwide.” Institutional research inrelation to natural resource and ecosystemmanagement has continued its progress (e.g., Younget al. 2007). Overall, progress has been made on thefit problem, although the bulk of research on societaldevelopment, sustainable development, and humanfutures still treats social and ecological systems aslargely separate entities. We plea for a moreintegrated view to confront the challenges of globalchange. Below we will expand on these items andothers whenever they appear through writings in the“old” text.
 An ecosystem consists of plants, animals, and microorganisms that live in biological communitiesand which interact with each other and with the physical and chemical environment, with adjacent ecosystems, and with the water cycle and theatmosphere (Odum 1989). Ecosystem propertiesthat have implications for institutions are related toenergy and material stocks and flows, the temporaland spatial variability of those resources, and thecomplex and dynamic ways in which the underlying processes relate to one another, with ecologicaldisturbance playing an especially important role.
Ecosystems as life-support systems
 Ecological systems play a fundamental role insupporting life on Earth at all hierarchical scales.They are essential in global material cycles like thecarbon and water cycles. Ecosystems producerenewable resources (food, fiber, timber, etc.) and ecological services. For example, a fish in the seais produced by a marine food web of plants, animals,and microorganisms. The fish is a part of theecological system in which it is produced, and theinteractions that produce and sustain the fish areinherently complex. Ecological services are also
generated by ecosystems; these include maintenance
of the composition of the atmosphere, ameliorationof climate variability, flood control and drinkingwater supply, waste assimilation, nutrient recycling,soil generation, crop pollination, pest regulation, food provision, biodiversity maintenance, and alsomaintenance of the scenery of the landscape,recreational sites, and aesthetic and amenity values(Ehrlich and Mooney 1983, Folke 1991, de Groot 1992, Daily 1997). Natural systems at genetic,species, population, and ecosystem levels allcontribute in maintaining these functions and services.

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