Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

A Typology for Complex Social-Ecological Systems in Mountain Communities

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

A Typology for Complex Social-Ecological Systems in Mountain Communities

Article excerpt


Classification of social-ecological systems is an important first step for identifying and assessing factors that affect resilience and vulnerability of communities and their resources (Alessa et al. 2009; Ostrom, 2009; Ostrom & Cox, 2010) and determining potential interventions, such as those intended to enhance a system's resiliency (Cumming et al. 2005). A social-ecological system (SES) consists of human and biophysical components that are interconnected and linked through complex system feedbacks and dependencies (Berkes et al. 2003). Mismatch in the scales of SESs, in whole or in part and ranging from community- to landscape-level systems, is often an obstacle to comparative studies (Cumming et al. 2006; 2013). Existing typologies focus on SESs at such a broad level that it is not clear if unique qualities of environmental niches and community specificity can be easily addressed (e.g., Alessa et al. 2009; Ostrom, 2009; Ostrom & Cox, 2010). Information derived from large-scale studies is often not informative when assessing community resilience in specific regions, such as mountainous areas that are varying and complex landscapes characterized by large biophysical gradients and great fluxes in resource quality and quantity. Without robust tools to comparatively assess the resilience of communities located in specific types of landscapes, it remains a challenge to sustainably manage available valuable natural resources and the social and environmental changes that are expected in the near future.

Typologies of SESs have been developed as practical tools that can be used to classify SESs by applying information generated through conceptual models and existing datasets. By testing such conceptual models in the real world, typologies can help identify key characteristics, drivers, and dependencies within and among systems (Blair et al. 2014; Buergelt & Paton, 2014). Typologies allow for standardized characterization by using specific metrics, so that characteristics (e.g., vulnerability to environmental change) can be compared among communities and management decisions and planning can be conducted with greater standardization. Standardizing the metrics used to assess SESs makes possible scaling up from community to landscape levels so that cross-comparisons can be conducted at broader scales. As an analytical framework, SES typologies are effective in contrasting communities located in specific landscapes with shared biophysical features (e.g., mountains) as well as among landscape types (e.g., mountains and coastal areas) on much broader scales. To develop such a tool, existing SES typologies must be examined and refined in accordance with specific landscapes (e.g., Alessa et al. 2009; Ostrom, 2009).

This article's main goal is to evaluate the resilience of mountain-system communities using a modified version of the "Messy SES" typology (Alessa et al. 2009) and to offer recommendations for further development of typologies as a framework. The unit of analysis used to characterize SESs is a community and its associated resources. We apply the typology in this study to evaluate the resilience of 21 mountain communities located in the western United States. Based on our analysis, we offer recommendations for how the SES typology can be further refined for use in specific types of landscapes. With more enhancement and development, such typologies can be valuable for conducting cross-comparisons among different landscapes so that assessments of SESs can occur on a continental and global scale.


Why Typologies?

Human-environmental interactions are integral components of interconnected, large-scale systems -- the "ecological macrosystem" (Brondizio & Chowdhury, 2013; Heffernan et al. 2014). Such macrosystem processes, for instance climate change, have been linked to accelerating rates of natural disasters, economic crises, and livelihood vulnerabilities (Alley et al. …

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