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Social-ecological Systems and the Economics of Nature: A Latin American Perspective


Today, based on the best scientific knowledge available, the main concerns regarding nature are the rampant ongoing destruction of Earth’s ecosystems and the increasing global warming, which threaten the very survival of the human species. The main reason is that the current functioning of the complex global socioeconomic-ecological systems of the world is driving the planet, with high certainty, towards a completely unsustainable deterioration of its natural capital, biodiversity, and atmosphere. This is the result of the manipulation of the power mechanisms within the socioeconomic-ecological systems of every country by the small powerful elites with the purpose of appropriating for themselves the enormous economic rents generated by the overexploitation of the planet’s natural resources and ecosystems. The monumental challenges of climate change, global warming, and nature deterioration are just the physical symptoms of the underlying unsustainable operation of the world’s socioeconomic-ecological systems (or social-ecological systems as they are generally known today). On the other side, its social and economic symptoms are the billions of people living in poverty, without water, proper education, and health services, and the prevailing enormous inequities in the distribution of the world’s wealth and income. In this chapter, using the Latin American experience, we analyze why this is happening and how enormously difficult is to change the current functioning of the system. We conclude with a rather pessimistic view about the possibility of meeting the challenges that all of us, as the human species, face today. Our only hope seems to be to use the opportunity offered by the modern communication technologies to inform the people of every country about the large risks and dangers we are all exposed to, and mobilize them to take effective control of the decision-making mechanisms that today are in the hands of the small powerful elites. This is obviously a monumental task.


  • Social-ecological systems
  • Latin America
  • Complexity
  • Nature economy
  • Nature deterioration
  • Climate change

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-28452-7_10
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  1. 1.

    Robust differences imply that at least two thirds of climate models show the same sign of changes at the grid point scale, and that differences in large regions are statistically significant.

  2. 2.

    The IPBES is an independent intergovernmental body placed under the auspices of four United Nations entities and administered by United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

  3. 3.

    To achieve greater precision in such estimates is difficult because of the inherent bias in the fossil record, but the general direction of the trend is well supported (WCMC 2002).

  4. 4.

    For explanations of “non-rivalry” and “non-exclusion,” see any basic economics textbook, such as Samuelson and Nordhaus (2010), Mankiw (2012), or CORE TEAM (2019).

  5. 5.

    James Hansen was for 17 years Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (of the US National Aeronautics Space Administration), and currently is Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, where he directs a program in Climate Science, Awareness, and Solutions

  6. 6.

    They are Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela.

  7. 7.

    Public environmental policies and governance approaches implemented in the LAC region specifically are, among some others, the following reported by UNEP-WCMC (2016). (1) A range of low carbon sustainable development approaches. (2) Efforts to control illegal trade in wildlife. (3) A significant expansion of protected area coverage in recent years. (4) An increase in regional support for conserving migratory species. (5) The implementation of targeted species management and recovery programs.

  8. 8.

    Grau and Aide (2008) explain that increasing global food demand, particularly from Southeast Asia, accelerates deforestation in areas suitable for modern agriculture (e.g., soybean), severely threatening ecosystems, such as Amazonian rain forests, dry forests, and subtropical grasslands. They also argue that the demand for biofuels may become a much larger threat in the future.

  9. 9.

    The so-called Copenhagen Climate Summit was the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in the capital of Denmark in December of that year, and corresponded to the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 5th Meeting of the Parties (MOP 5) to the Kyoto Protocol

  10. 10.

    A clear example of this is the way that, on December 26, 2018, Donald Trump dismissed the “Fourth National Climate Assessment.” This study, produced by his own administration, involving 13 federal agencies and more than 300 leading climate scientists, warns about the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change and reports that climate change will cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars annually and damage health. Interviewed by reporters outside the White House about this report, Trump simply said, “I’ve seen it. I’ve read some of it, and it’s fine,” saying later, “I don’t believe it” (BBC 2018; Oprysko 2018).

  11. 11.

    This revolution, known as the “Glorious Revolution,” overthrew King James II of England by a union of English politicians with the Dutch stadtholder William III, Prince of Orange. The successful invasion of England by William with a Dutch fleet and army led to his ascension of the former to the throne as William III of England, after the Declaration of Right, leading to the Bill of Rights 1689. This English Bill of Rights, set out certain basic civil rights, laid down limits on the powers of the king, and set out the rights of Parliament, including the requirement for regular parliaments, free elections, and freedom of speech in Parliament. It additionally set out certain rights of individuals including the prohibition of cruel punishment and reestablished the right of Protestants to have arms for their defense within the rule of law. Moreover, the bill also included no right of taxation without Parliament’s agreement.

  12. 12.

    Capitalism is generally defined as “an economic system where private entities own the factors of production. The four factors are entrepreneurship, capital goods, natural resources, and labor.” (Amadeo 2018). In a capitalist economy, capital assets—such as factories, mines, and railroads—can be privately owned and controlled, labor is purchased for money wages, capital gains accrue to private owners, and prices allocate capital and labor between competing uses (Jahan and Mahmud 2015). The owners of capital goods, natural resources, and entrepreneurship exercise control through companies. The individual owns his or her labor (Amadeo 2018). It is interesting to notice how the ownership of natural resources is implicitly attributed to capitalists because it is simply accepted that companies exercise control over them, and companies are mainly owned by capitalists in the capitalist system. The same is done, when mines are defined as “capital assets,” jointly with man-made assets such as factories and railroads, without specifying if the mines include or not the related mineral ores or the fossil fuel resources. Obviously, these views differ from the notion that every inhabitant of planet Earth owns nature’s resources (natural resources or nature’s “commons”).


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Correspondence to Eugenio Figueroa B. .

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Figueroa B., E. (2019). Social-ecological Systems and the Economics of Nature: A Latin American Perspective. In: Delgado, L., Marín, V. (eds) Social-ecological Systems of Latin America: Complexities and Challenges. Springer, Cham.

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