Dianneke van Wijk and Prof. dr. Wolf Mooij, NIOO-KNAW/WUR – 8 December 2020

On the role of social-ecological models in achieving the futures we want


For decades we, and with us many others, have heard the warnings of overexploitation, environmental pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss summarized as the ‘the ecological crisis’. More recently, we read the book “The Collapse of Western Civilization; A View from the Future” by historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, 2013 and we were struck by their conclusion:

“The case of Western civilization is different [from other civilizations that have collapsed] because the consequences of its actions were not only predictable, but predicted. Moreover, this technologically transitional society left extensive records … permitting us [now, in the year 2393,] to reconstruct what happened in extraordinarily clear detail. While analysts differ on the exact circumstances, virtually all agree that the people of Western civilization knew what was happening to them but were unable to stop it. Indeed, the most startling aspect of this story is just how much these people knew, and how unable they were to act upon what they knew. Knowledge did not translate into power.”

There we are, trained as environmental and ecological scientists and with inter- and transdisciplinary aspirations, aware of the announced catastrophe ahead. But what are we doing to change the course of our future? How can we produce actionable knowledge for knowledgeable action?

In our search for transdisciplinary science that contributes to achieving the futures we want, we here focus on social-ecological models (SEMs) as promising transdisciplinary knowledge integrators. SEMs differ from common economic dominated approaches as they put more emphasis on social and environmental dimensions of sustainability. We show that SEMs can be considered from multiple scientific viewpoints: as conceptual reflections of social and natural realities, formally and technically constructed tools and art expressions. Examples of SEMs demonstrate how they can integrate multiple scientific disciplines. Moreover, SEMs provide tools to facilitate the integration of scientific and non-academic knowledge and perspectives. In well developed transdisciplinary settings, SEMs can support stakeholder engagement and empowerment, and advance decision-making processes. We propose to take advantage of the diversity in knowledge, perspectives and approaches to be able to deal with the complexity of social-environmental systems and sustainability challenges. The diversity in perspectives on SEMs make them versatile tools to support sustainability transitions towards the futures we want.

Nature of Life seminars

Date       :   8 December 2020

Time       :   15.45 hours

Location:   Online