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The Historical Dynamics of Social–Ecological Traps

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Environmental degradation is a typical unintended outcome of collective human behavior. Hardin’s metaphor of the “tragedy of the commons” has become a conceived wisdom that captures the social dynamics leading to environmental degradation. Recently, “traps” has gained currency as an alternative concept to explain the rigidity of social and ecological processes that produce environmental degradation and livelihood impoverishment. The trap metaphor is, however, a great deal more complex compared to Hardin’s insight. This paper takes stock of studies using the trap metaphor. It argues that the concept includes time and history in the analysis, but only as background conditions and not as a factor of causality. From a historical–sociological perspective this is remarkable since social–ecological traps are clearly path-dependent processes, which are causally produced through a conjunction of events. To prove this point the paper conceptualizes social–ecological traps as a process instead of a condition, and systematically compares history and timing in one classic and three recent studies of social–ecological traps. Based on this comparison it concludes that conjunction of social and environmental events contributes profoundly to the production of trap processes. The paper further discusses the implications of this conclusion for policy intervention and outlines how future research might generalize insights from historical–sociological studies of traps.

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We would like to thank Oonsie Biggs and Elin Enfors for taking the time to discuss ideas for this article with us. Florianne de Boer also wants to thank Oonsie Biggs for inviting her to the Stockholm Resilience Centre in May 2012. We also would like to thank Aron Hejdstöm for making Figs. 37, and Fredrik Moberg for Fig. 8. Wiebren Boonstra is supported by a FORMAS Project Grant (No. 2009-252). Mistra supported the research for this paper through a core grant to the Stockholm Resilience Centre. The article is based on Florianne de Boer’s BSc honours thesis “Social ecological traps and agricultural involution – Comparison of their historical establishment and reinforcing mechanisms” which she completed June 2012 at University College Utrecht, the Netherlands.

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Correspondence to Wiebren J. Boonstra.

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Boonstra, W.J., de Boer, F.W. The Historical Dynamics of Social–Ecological Traps. AMBIO 43, 260–274 (2014).

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