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Challenges for Social-Ecological Transformations: Contributions from Social and Political Ecology

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
Görg, C., Brand, U., Haberl, H., Hummel, D., Jahn, T., Liehr, S., 2017. Challenges for Social-Ecological Transformations: Contributions from Social and Political Ecology [WWW Document]. Sustainability.
Thematic Area
Environmental studies
Transformation has become a major topic of sustainability research. This opens up new
perspectives, but at the same time, runs the danger to convert into a new critical orthodoxy which
narrows down analytical perspectives. Most research is committed towards a political-strategic
approach towards transformation. This focus, however, clashes with ongoing transformation
processes towards un-sustainability. The paper presents cornerstones of an integrative approach
to social-ecological transformations (SET), which builds upon empirical work and conceptual
considerations from Social Ecology and Political Ecology. We argue that a critical understanding of the
challenges for societal transformations can be advanced by focusing on the interdependencies between
societies and the natural environment. This starting point provides a more realistic understanding
of the societal and biophysical constraints of sustainability transformations by emphasising the
crisis-driven and contested character of the appropriation of nature and the power relations involved.
Moreover, it pursues a transdisciplinary mode of research, decisive for adequately understanding any
strategy for transformations towards sustainability. Such a conceptual approach of SET is supposed to
better integrate the analytical, normative and political-strategic dimension of transformation research.
We use the examples of global land use patterns, neo-extractivism in Latin America and the global
water crisis to clarify our approach.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
Without explicitly referring to complex systems terminology this article shows how a political ecology approach can be used to think in systems. It is possible to recognize what Ostrom and Meadows discuss as norms, rules and paradigms, but here elaborated as political relations between state and stakeholder with different, competing interests. Introducing the aspect of negotiation into the system, the article deepens the understanding of how the normative framework and paradigms evolve and how the possible could be transformed. The article also shows how political feedback mechanisms and regulations can play positive or negative roles in the transition towards sustainability.

Advocating for a holistic view on water management, at different scales (local/global) and in different phases of a possible circular water resource use, the approach is systemic in nature. Further, it demonstrates how different scientific perspectives and scopes of research can contribute to an integrated knowledge of water resource systems, particularly if combined with non-scientific knowledge in a transdisciplinary mode to build an integrated knowledge system on water
Point of Strength
This article adds further perspectives to and elaborations of socio-ecological systems, SES. It complements other articles on that same subject. a possible use would be in a reading course on SES to deepen the understanding of how norms and rules evolve over time throughnnegotiation processes.