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Learning to live in a global commons: socioeconomic challenges for a sustainable environment


Ecologists, economists and other social scientists have much incentive for interaction. First of all, ecological systems and socioeconomic systems are linked in their dynamics, and these linkages are key to coupling environmental protection and economic growth. Beyond this, however, are the obvious similarities in how ecological systems and socioeconomic systems function, and the common theoretical challenges in understanding their dynamics. This should not be surprising. Socioeconomic systems are in fact ecological systems, in which the familiar ecological phenomena of exploitation, cooperation and parasitism all can be identified as key features. Or, viewed from the opposite perspective, ecological systems are economic systems, in which competition for resources is key, and in which an evolutionary process shapes the individual agents to a distribution of specialization of function that leads to the emergence of flows and functionalities at higher levels of organization. Most fundamentally, ecological and socioeconomic systems alike are complex adaptive systems, in which patterns at the macroscopic level emerge from interactions and selection mechanisms mediated at many levels of organization, from individual agents to collectives to whole systems and even above. In such complex adaptive systems, robustness must be understood as emergent from selection processes operating at these many different levels, and the inherent nonlinearities can trigger sudden shifts in regimes that, in the case of the biosphere, can have major consequences for humanity. This lecture will explore the complex adaptive nature of ecosystems, and the implications for the robustness of ecosystem services on which we depend, and in particular examine the conditions under which cooperative behavior emerges. It will then turn attention to the socioeconomic systems in which environmental management is based, and ask what lessons can be learned from our examination of natural systems, and how we can modify social norms to achieve global cooperation in managing our common future. Of special interest will be issues of intragenerational and intergenerational equity, and the importance of various forms of discounting.

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Correspondence to Simon A. Levin.

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Levin, S.A. Learning to live in a global commons: socioeconomic challenges for a sustainable environment. Ecol Res 21, 328–333 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11284-006-0162-1

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  • Social Norm
  • Stable Strategy
  • Complex Adaptive System
  • Evolutionarily Stable Strategy
  • Adaptive Dynamic