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The ultimate purpose of an SES approach is to inform questions about human resilience and adaptation in the face of environmental change. Humans' remarkable success in adaptation to date is linked to cognitive abilities of innovation, social learning, and combining different sources of information into new understandings of the world (Cosmides and Tooby 2002; Boyd et al. 2011). Is there some way that we can understand and direct that innovation toward effective mitigation? The emergence and adoption of social innovation is a topic of new and growing interest among conservation researchers, particularly in response to climate change (Nicholls and Murdock 2012; Rodima-Taylor et al. 2012). Yet, it is also a topic that has received considerable attention in organizational sciences over the past four decades, where it is generally believed that innovation is necessary for long-term organizational success (Hage 1999; Willis and Mastrofski 2011). Meta-analyses in this area suggest that in team situations, innovation is related to process variables such as support for innovation, vision, task orientation, and external communication (Hülsheger et al. 2009). In another analysis of innovation in work situations, Hammond et al. (2011) found a complex mix of factors produced innovation, including individual factors, characteristics of the job, and environmental factors. Other literature reviews have found inconsistent and inconclusive results among the many empirical studies (Wolfe 1994; Anderson et al. 2004). Anderson et al. (2004) concluded that: (1) future research should look at innovation processes as cyclical, longitudinal, and iterative; and (2) context and a multi-level approach (individualgroup-organization-culture) are critical for exploring this topic. Interestingly, this proposal converges on the conclusion that broadly-generalizable panaceas for complex social-ecological problems are simply not forthcoming (Ostrom 2007b).
It leads us to conclude that an understanding of adaptation and innovation in SES should attend to the considerations we raise here: the dynamic aspects of human thought, the importance of individuals' involvement with and attachment to groups, and the influence of a broad array of social and ecological contextual variables.
We began this chapter by suggesting that a more complete inclusion of individuals in SES models has implications for both ecosystem science and HDNR researchers. The role of humans in the conceptual approaches of ecosystem science has moved through phases of increasing integration over the past three decades. Initially, humans were viewed as external to ecosystems; then humans were seen as drivers of impacts to ecosystems. More recently, humans have been cast as active agents that impact and respond to ecosystems that are in constant shift. We are just beginning to move toward a fully integrative view that humans are participants in a co-constructed, co-evolving, dynamic system. The complexity of social systems is in need of more attention in SES models which will remain poorly specified until there is a representation of the multi-level context of human individuals. We support the view that individuals occupy a unique and central role here – they are the primary unit of evolutionary succession; and causal processes, both up and down scales, must circulate through them (Schank 2001). In other words, change at other social levels aggregated upward, such as cultural evolution, institutional change, technological advances, innovation, etc., all must occur in the minds and actions of individuals.
Ecosystem science sees the system as hierarchies nested within broader hierarchies, each operating at different speeds and cycles of change. For those in HDNR, we propose that such an approach works well for examining individuals in their social-ecological context. We propose a view of the psychological attributes of the individual as dynamic, in a multi-level context, and mutually constructed with society and environment.
We conclude by reinforcing the importance of understanding the role of human individuals in the complex social-ecological interactions that produce daunting global environmental challenges such as climate change, land degradation, and loss of biodiversity. The impacts of humans on ecosystems are registered one behavior and one individual at a time. But each behavior exists in a somewhat patterned tapestry of behavioral choices across many individuals, across time and space. A better understanding of human behavior in its broader tapestry is important if our science is to effectively inform decisions that influence resilience to growing environmental stress.
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