Navigating Sustainability: Revealing Hidden Forces in Social–Ecological Systems

Gonzalez-Redin, Julen, Gordon, Iain J., Polhill, J. Gareth, Dawson, Terence P., and Hill, Rosemary (2024) Navigating Sustainability: Revealing Hidden Forces in Social–Ecological Systems. Sustainability, 16 (3). 1132.

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During the 1992 Rio Conference, the sustainable development agenda envisioned a transformative change for the management of natural resources, where the well-being of human society would be enhanced through the sustainable use of natural capital. Several decades on, relentless economic growth persists at the expense of natural capital, as demonstrated by biodiversity decline, climate change and other environmental challenges. Why is this happening and what can be done about it? We present three agent-based models that explore the social, economic and governance factors driving (un)sustainability in complex social–ecological systems. Our modelling results reinforce the idea that the current economic system fails to safeguard the natural capital upon which it relies, leading to the prevailing decoupling between the economic and natural systems. In attempting to find solutions for such disjunction, our research shows that social–ecological systems are complex, dynamic and non-linear. Interestingly, results also reveal that there are common factors to most social–ecological systems that have the potential to improve or diminish sustainability: the role of financial entities and monetary debt; economic speculation; technological development and efficiency; long-term views, tipping point management and government interventions; and top-down and bottom-up conservation forces. These factors can play a dual role, as they can either undermine or enhance sustainability depending on their specific context and particular conditions. Therefore, the current economic system may not be inherently unsustainable, but rather specific economic mechanisms, decision-making processes and the complex links between economic and natural systems could be at the root of the problem. We argue that short- and medium-term sustainability can be achieved by implementing mechanisms that shift capitalist forces to support environmental conservation. Long-term sustainability, in contrast, requires a more profound paradigm shift: the full integration and accounting of externalities and natural capital into the economy.

Item ID: 82011
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 2071-1050
Keywords: agent-based model, biodiversity, ecosystem services, natural capital, social–ecological system, sustainability
Copyright Information: © 2024 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (
Date Deposited: 19 Mar 2024 04:45
FoR Codes: 41 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 4104 Environmental management > 410401 Conservation and biodiversity @ 100%
SEO Codes: 19 ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY, CLIMATE CHANGE AND NATURAL HAZARDS > 1902 Environmental policy, legislation and standards > 190209 Sustainability indicators @ 100%
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