Greater than the sum of its parts: What is a coupled human and natural system?Suzanne Webster ·
This semester, we will be publishing a series of synthesis blogs written by graduate students enrolled in a new course called “Coupled Human and Natural Systems.” The class is the foundation-level course of Environment and Society, a new academic track within the MEES graduate program at UMCES. The MEES curriculum was recently redesigned with the intent of providing “a balance of disciplinary strength and interdisciplinary perspective.” This class will address that goal by encouraging students to collaborate with people outside our fields of study, integrate others’ knowledge and perspective into our research, and aspire to conduct our own transdisciplinary research.
We began our class discussion this week with a seemingly simple question: What is a coupled human and natural system? A Google image search of this phrase yields hundreds of different diagrams; clearly, defining this concept is not an easy task, and the answer varies depending on who is asked. In fact, the four professors of this team-taught class each shared a different way of conceptualizing a coupled system, from their points of view as researchers in the fields of anthropology, geography, sociology, and marine science. Inspired by many definitions and diagrams, we asked ourselves: If our class could draw a coupled system based on our collective understanding stemming from our class materials, how would our sketch come out?
To start, we began by discussing the components of a coupled system. At a basic level, coupled systems are comprised of human and natural components, which share nonlinear interactions, such as feedback loops, thresholds, and time lags, that vary across space and time1,2. A coupled system can also be linked over distances to other coupled systems. Studying these “telecoupled” interactions can help people improve their adaptive capacity by understanding tradeoffs, synergies, and feedbacks that exist between networked systems.
Within a coupled system, there is a social system and a natural one. How do these systems interact? If they are linked, are they integrated into one single all-encompassing socio-ecological system, do they remain separate but overlap slightly, or is one system nested inside the other? Someone asked, “Is it possible for an ecological system to exist without a human system? Can we study social systems without linking them to natural environment?” An immediate difference of opinion amongst my classmates was revealed, as some people nodded and others shook their heads.
We took a step back in our discussion and instead tasked ourselves with trying to identify how human and natural systems are fundamentally different from one another. What followed was an interesting series of suggestions, almost all of which were ultimately accompanied by contradicting examples:
1. Natural systems have defined Laws (laws of thermodynamics and gravity), whereas human systems are more unpredictable.
2. All components of a natural system are fundamental to survival, whereas human systems involve nonessential components like social media and recreation.
3. Natural systems have definable physical limits, whereas boundaries in human systems are more arbitrary (ex: where country lines are drawn, age at which a person is considered an adult, etc.)
4. Natural systems can be studied objectively, whereas the study of human systems is subjective since we ourselves are a part of them, and inevitably impart our own biases.
5. Human and natural systems are not actually distinct. The concepts of nature and environment were constructed by humans so that we could better understand our surroundings. The cultural division between human and natural systems itself is an arbitrary and non-universal false dichotomy.
While we did not formally reach a consensus on how (or whether) human and natural systems can be distinguished, our back-and-forth exchange was a valuable lesson on epistemological differences. Epistemological differences can present challenges in multi- and transdisciplinary work, and it is important to be aware that in any given situation, there is not necessarily one answer or system of knowledge that is correct or shared; rather, all people possess knowledge systems that affect their world views. In research, this can impact the way that we approach problems, what methodology we employ to answer questions, and even what types of questions we ask.
For example, perhaps instead of taking a reductionist approach of identifying the structure and function of the components of a coupled system, we should shift our focus to the processes and interactions between components within the system. Instead of thinking about just environment or just humans, for instance, we should think about environmental justice and consider how environmental outcomes have uneven consequences for different groups of people involved.
Resilience theory can serve as a framework to holistically study coupled system dynamics4. Natural or human systems are resilient when they can cope with disturbances that result from social, political, or environmental changes, and retain their same states5. Furthermore, limits of communities adapting to environmental change can be explained not only based on geographical location, but also by cultural values, social relationships, and historical context5. Resilience theory can help us ponder complex questions related to power dynamics: Who experiences change disproportionately? Do communities unaffected by disturbances have a responsibility to help those who are more vulnerable? How do the actions of unaffected people directly or indirectly contribute to the loss of resilience of other communities?
Answering these types of research questions concerning coupled human and natural systems should be approached as complex problems. As researchers, we should embrace and unpack this complexity using a thoughtful holistic approach. It is no longer sufficient to study just one part of a system; rather, we must acknowledge all interrelated components and work to understand the context of our research through a transdisciplinary lens.
- Liu, J., Dietz, T., Carpenter, S. R., Folke, C., Alberti, M., Redman, C. L., ... & Taylor, W. W. (2007). Coupled human and natural systems. AMBIO: a journal of the human environment, 36(8), 639-649.
- Liu, J., Dietz, T., Carpenter, S. R., Alberti, M., Folke, C., Moran, E., ... & Ostrom, E. (2007). Complexity of coupled human and natural systems. Science, 317(5844), 1513-1516.
- Liu, J., Hull, V., Batistella, M., DeFries, R., Dietz, T., Fu, F., ... & Martinelli, L. (2013). Framing sustainability in a telecoupled world. Ecology and Society, 18(2).
- Stokols, D., Lejano, R., & Hipp, J. (2013). Enhancing the resilience of human–environment systems: A social ecological perspective. Ecology and Society, 18(1).
- Cote, M., & Nightingale, A. J. (2012). Resilience thinking meets social theory: situating social change in socio-ecological systems (SES) research. Progress in Human Geography, 36(4), 475-489.
- Gunderson, L. H. (2001). Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island press.
- Glouberman, S. & Zimmerman, B. 2002. Complicated and complex systems: What would successful reform of health care look like? Romanow Papers: Changing health care in Canada. Paper 8.