Tipping points and social-ecological systems


There has been a fair bit of commentary of late with respect to a looming tipping point, whereupon some social-ecological systems will collapse because they will no longer be able to withstand the pressure placed upon them by humankind. A recent article published in Nature is certainly generating some interest, and it occurred to me that it may be sooner rather than later that the resilience theorists will have their moment in the sun (if you will excuse the pun).

In essence, what this group tells us is that nature is pretty resilient, but there comes a point where it will simply not take any more abuse, a threshold is crossed, and the social-ecological system enters a new regime, where there is no going back to the old regime; e.g. once land becomes desertified it is a process that is difficult to reverse. If — as the Nature piece documents — by 2025, humans will have modified half of all the land on Earth, and by 2060, 70 percent of the earth’s surface could be covered with human development, then clearly if we are to sustain ourselves and coexist with other species with the natural capital we have at our disposal, we need to think far more strategically about the management of social-ecological systems.

For a prime example of legislators doing the exact opposite, read this article on the measurement of sea level rises in North Carolina. Extraordinary as this may sound, while scientists are predicting that the sea level along the coast of North Carolina could rise by about a metre by the end of the century, policymakers plan to deal with the issue by writing a law requiring projections only be based on historical data, appeasing business interests in the state that are worried gloomy predictions about climate-induced sea level rise will make it harder for them to develop the coast line.