This message seems to be popping-up continuously and forcefully in much of the research articles I’ve been reading lately. And I agree – certainly land-use lies at the heart of the sustainability question, since it is a means of food and income production as well as a main source of impacts to ecosystems. Something I read far less often (still looking if you have suggestions!) is a holistic framework for understanding the complex causes and consequences of land-use and livelihood changes.
The factors driving rural household land-use and livelihood decisions are incredibly complex – originating and acting both locally and globally, and often creating both rapid and slow changes in incentives and constraints. For example, see this post about both fast and gradual changes occurring in Chinese food systems. Researchers, practitioners, and policy-makers alike are thus left with huge gaps in understanding of how land-use and livelihood changes come about, and you can forget about accurately predicting such changes and how they might influence environmental and/or livelihood sustainability.
Thinking about this challenge led me back to some of my earlier work in complex system science. In particular, I revisited one of my earlier papers about ‘induced coupling‘ – an idea that faster and slower processes sometimes become ‘coupled’ and lead to dramatic systemic changes. So I tried my hand at throwing together a simple version of what this might look like for a coupled land-livelihood system.
The red, downward arrows represent ‘entrainment’, or ‘slaving’, of the dynamics of lower-level variables by higher-level variables. The green, upward arrows represent processes of ‘self-organization’, or ‘revolt’, in which the dynamics of lower-level variables influence those of higher-level variables. Dashed arrows represent processes that link variables operating at the same time scales. If you would like to know more about this type of framework, referred to as hierarchical complex systems modeling, I will direct you to work by my friends and colleagues Brad Werner and Dylan McNamara (2007).
Now, the recognition that processes, or ‘drivers’, across multiple scales influence land-use and livelihood decisions is nothing new. However, rarely are temporal scales used as the organizing framework. This viewpoint has the potential to explain why certain drivers have different influences in different contexts due to the relative frequencies of interacting processes.
OK, great … so what? Beyond the potential to advance our fundamental understanding of the causes and consequences of livelihood and land-use changes, such a perspective could help craft policy interventions that address not only short-term needs of rural land-users, but also the effects of long-term challenges to sustainability and well-being.
As always, please feel free to yell at me on twitter @nickmags13 if you disagree, or if you prefer to disagree with me on a more regular basis don’t hesitate to follow this blog or subscribe to the RSS feed or email list. 😉