I recently began really digging into the literature on “social-ecological systems” (SES) theory because I have a real love/hate relationship with it and I want to figure out once-and-for-all what I can take from it and what I think is best left behind.
Here’s the general framework, as I understand it: SES theory is based in complexity and systems theories. It is an attempt to overcome nature/culture dualism by looking at the ways that social systems and ecological systems are “linked.” It is inter- and transdisciplinary in practice, and much of the prescriptive emphasis is on increasing “resilience” within social-ecological systems. This is done, generally, by taking a more ecosystems approach to management and through the creation of more democratic management institutions.
This all sounds good in the abstract, and, practically, I think most of the results are probably what I would advocate. But there’s something still that rubs me the wrong way about it, and I need to figure out if I’m just being overly critical or if there are legitimate concerns about this approach.
It’s hard to articulate exactly what my problem with SES theory is, but I think it comes down to the framing of these “linkages” as “systems.” Most of the “systems” SES folks are interested in do not function as systems in my opinion. They are certainly linked, but not in a way that produces the kinds of emergent properties that we typically associate with systems. For example, I’ve spent the last four years researching the bait worm industry in Maine and its role in transporting invasive species to the Mid-Atlantic. Is this a social-ecological system? I wouldn’t characterize it as such, but an SES theorist might simply because there are social processes and ecological processes that are influencing and affecting one another. I could be okay with that, but it ends up being more than just a definitional issue, I suspect.
Framing the bait worm industry as a “system” erases its heterogeneity, and the processes – intentional and unintentional – that produce it. Instead, the system is said to be fluctuating around certain points of equilibria – even when it is out of equilibrium, it would, ideally, be moving towards one of those various states. There is a kind of teleology to this even if there is not a single telos, and it washes away the desires and intentions of the beings who compose the system in place of the “intentions” of the system itself. For example, if the system were more “resilient” if the social system were fascist, then would our interest in democracy override our desire for resilience? It doesn’t seem likely to come up, in part because “resilience” is defined in such a way that it excludes fascism as an option. It seems tautological in that sense.
In place of SES theory, I have been thinking about proposing an alternative in a kind of performative or enacted ecology. This theory would maintain the basis in complexity, but forego systems. Instead, it would work under the assumption that ecologies are heterogeneous, composed of both humans and non-humans – but not socials systems and ecological systems – and that the ecology is composed over time through the (heterogeneous) relationships between these actors. There are no equilibria around which the ecology fluctuates, and there is no assumption that “resilience” is worth pursuing – there are only myriad actors with many different interests continually negotiating a tenuous coexistence, and always subject to change and uncertainty. So if the social structure is fascist, but the ecosystem is resilient in relation, then there would still be reason to seek out a non-fascist, resilient ecology. Furthermore, we must take into account the desires and intentions of all of the beings who compose the ecology, because the ecology has no intentions of its own – there is no right or natural way(s) for the ecology as a whole to be. Instead, we have to look to the beings and their relationships to understand what needs to change and what should stay the same.
In the case of the bait worm ecology, we can see that the relationship between humans and worms is not very good for the worms (because they are overharvested) and that this will eventually lead to problems for the humans. We can also see that the relationship between the transported organisms and the Mid-Atlantic environments (or those organisms who compose the environments) might not be very good for those environments. However, changing the way the people in the industry package and ship the worms might disrupt their livelihoods, leading to disruption in the angling communities, etc.
There is a place for science – both social and natural – in this conception of performative ecology, but that place is never outside looking in. The role of the sciences is to perform the ecologies by producing feedbacks between different actors within them. For example, the biologists on the project mentioned above provided a feedback between the species being transported and the people involved in the industry. We – the anthropologists – tried to provide feedback between the scientists and the people in the industry, and also – to some extent – between the people in the industry and the anglers who buy the bait (and presumably introduce the organisms into the new environment by disposing of them improperly). In other words, our role is to build relationships that didn’t exist before, improve (or, perhaps, destroy) relationships that aren’t working well for the participants. All throughout, we are engaging in our own relationships with others, which adds another layer of complexity to the situation. Our very presence introduces new feedbacks, and, as a result, a new tenuous coexistence must be negotiated – from an SES perspective, this might look like the creation of a new system or the system “flipping” to a new domain of attraction, but to me it looks like a set of actors continually negotiating their relationships and performing their ecology differently.
So my questions for my readers are: Am I making a genuine critique of SES theory or is this just a straw man? Is the performative ecology I propose actually different (in practice) from SES or is it functionally the same thing? If it is worthwhile, do you have any suggestions for how I can better articulate this alternative? Is there anything you would add or anything you see wrong with what I’ve proposed?