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Social-Ecological Systems

Harbor in the town of Sitka.  Photo by Rob Dunbar.

Harbor in the town of Sitka. Photo by Rob Dunbar.

In the modern environmental movement, environmentalists have tended to separate the “human world” from the “natural world”.  This way of thinking goes back at least as far as Gilbert White of eighteenth-century England, whose writings were some of the first to extol natural wonders, and is espoused in the poetic language of the U.S. Wilderness Act of 1964, which defined Wilderness as “an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”  Yet as the human footprint on Earth becomes ever more pronounced, it slowly dawns on us that separating the “human” from the “natural” is not so straightforward.  Where exactly does one end and the other begin?  As historian Richard White writes in his essay Are you an Environmentalist or do you Work for a Living?, today we often consider “natural spaces” to be places we go to only for recreation and leisure.  Yet these natural spaces still bear the indelible mark of people, both through current management patterns, as well as (more often than not) millennia of constant human occupation, use, and land change.  Especially today, as our alteration of the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases and other pollutants touches every corner of the globe, separating the “human” from the “natural” may be an exercise in futility.

Fishing Boat in Cross Sound.  Photo by Rob Dunbar.

Fishing Boat in Cross Sound. Photo by Rob Dunbar.

Social-Ecological Systems (SES) is a way of understanding and managing the world that recognizes and embraces the deep connections between humans and nature.  Social Systems (such as governments, economies, and communities) influence ecological systems by extracting resources, building roads, imposing management schemes, etc.  And vice-versa, ecological systems (such as forests, estuaries, and mountain ranges) influence social systems by providing ecosystem services, recreation opportunities, natural disasters, and so on.  SES is an integrative view that combines the social sciences and the natural sciences – and this way of thinking is gaining a foothold in our complex modern world.

Southeast Alaska is a wonderfully illustrative Social-Ecological System.  The connections between humans and the natural world, which can be so obscured in urban environments (though they are always there!), are beautifully visible and tangible in Southeast Alaska.  In this series of small communities un-connected by roads, citizens are directly dependent on local natural resources to a greater or lesser degree.  Logging, fishing, mining, and tourism utilize natural resources to prop up local economies, which are surrounded by National Park and National Forest Lands, managed by our federal government.  Sustainably managing these resources is the great future challenge of this region, and meeting this challenge will require the integrative “systems” thinking of SES.

Students Kayak Outside the Hobbit Hole.  Photo by Josh Newman.

Students Kayak Outside the Hobbit Hole. Photo by Josh Newman.

At the Hobbit Hole, students will have the chance to participate directly and conscientiously in a Social-Ecological System, by living surrounded by Wilderness land, by exploring their ecological connections to other species, and by partaking in the harvest of local natural resources.  Our goal is that this training will provide students with a clear framework that they can use to tackle environmental challenges in Social-Ecological Systems extending far beyond Alaska.









2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hello! Do you plan to encourage and structure interactions between your students and the local population? Projects that will involve the community?

    I really look forward to the development of this institute; it amazes me that anyone has yet to plant a foot and really “go for it!”

    Do you foresee collaboration with the region’s K-12 school systems? UAS partnerships? Courses that include outreach by your students? How exciting to be at your beginnings!

    Best of luck,
    Holly Owens
    The SYSTEMS Project Coordinator
    Wrangell, AK

    December 6, 2013
  2. Michael Lee #

    Hopefully the Institute will engage the leadership and expertise of the Native people in its governance and programmatic endeavors.

    January 2, 2014

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