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A Need for Greater Inclusion of the Individual in Ecosystem Models

Humans were largely absent from the early ecosystem models (e.g., Noss 1990), then were added as macro, driving forces that cause change in biological systems (e.g., Forester and Machlis 1996). But quickly, attention was given to integrating the social component in describing “social-ecological systems” (SES). Broad questions for the social aspects of resilience ask about human response and adaptation, how reorganization follows collapse or sudden dramatic change, and how social learning accumulates (Gunderson and Holling 2002). Political scientists, economists, geographers and anthropologists (Abel and Stepp 2003; Collins et al. 2011; Kok and Veldkamp 2011), working at the group or institutional level, have been quicker to respond to this trend than were those focused on individuals in the social psychology tradition. Abel and Stepp (2003), for example, called for a new “ecosystems ecology in anthropology”, a discipline that has a long history of an ecological approach to cultural change. However, increasingly, the importance of including individuals in the internal dynamics of SES models has been recognized (Redman et al. 2004; Collins et al. 2011). Inclusion of the individual addresses an important weakness evident in SES modeling: representing the capacity of humans to make choices that affect the system. Davidson (2010) suggests that to be fully inclusive of a social component, concepts of resilience will need to account for the fact that, unlike other organisms in an ecological system, humans have the ability to postpone ecological effects, have unequal agency (due to power differentials) and the ability to imagine, anticipate, and invoke collective action.

While research on the individual predominates the published literature in the human dimensions of natural resources (HDNR) area (Manfredo et al. 2004), very little of this work fits readily into the SES paradigm. With few exceptions, most HDNR research is borne from the information processing paradigm made popular in psychology in the 1970s. This paradigm viewed psychological attributes as isolated, static, and enduring and did not account for the influence of factors such as culture or context on cognition (Gardner 1987). More recently, there have been explicit attempts to include individuals in SES models that have focused on finding simple social variables for use in techniques such as agent-based modeling (Janssen and Ostrom 2006; Buizer et al. 2011). Researchers have also proposed concepts or frameworks such as mental models (Jones et al. 2011), consumer preferences (Baumgärtner et al. 2011), and people-environment transactions (Stokols et al. 2013) as ways of representing individuals in SES.

Independent of these efforts, areas such as Cognitive Ecology, Evolutionary Psychology, Social-Ecological Psychology and Cross-Cultural Psychology have led the drive toward more complex, dynamic, adaptive multi-level approaches that might offer guidance in bringing individuals into SES models. Drawing from these areas, we make suggestions about three basic questions in developing approaches for bringing the individual into SES models: (1) is human thought conceptualized as a dynamic and adaptive process, (2) is the individual placed in a multi-level context, and (3) is human thought seen as mutually constructed with the social and natural environment. We address each of these questions throughout the remainder of this chapter.

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