Introducing the social-ecological system framework: a review of public goods and ecosystem services theories and concepts

by Anne Maréchal, Janet Dwyer and Kaley Hart (CCRI and IEEP).

Rural land in the EU provides a wide range of key functions and services on which society depends – from production of food, feed and fibre to multiple environmental and social goods and services, such as climate mitigation, soil functionality, biodiversity, cultural landscapes or recreation. Yet the processes sustaining these environmentally and socially beneficial outcomes from farming and forestry are often under-valued in conventional markets. Current policy approaches to strengthen supply of these outcomes often is constrained by a combination of adverse market factors and failures as well as governance and delivery challenges.

The goal of PEGASUS is to investigate the factors influencing the provision of environmentally and socially beneficial outcomes (ESBOs) from agriculture and forestry, looking at drivers that encourage and inhibit the necessary management activities and examining the potential for positive change. In so doing, it aims to propose new ways to incentivise better ESBO delivery, finding ways to achieve long-term systemic changes towards a better balance of environmental, social and economic outcomes from agriculture and forestry in Europe.

In PEGASUS, we embrace the parallel concepts of “public goods” – an economic notion used to refer to goods that cannot easily be traded in markets, as opposed to private goods – and “ecosystem services”, a concept rooted in ecological science describing the set of complex, dynamic interactions taking place in an ecosystem and upon which we depend. PEGASUS uses the insights from both concepts to explore what agriculture and forestry can deliver that is beneficial for all in society. For the purposes of the project, we call these environmentally and socially ‘beneficial outcomes’ (ESBOs).

To achieve ‘beneficial outcomes’, it is essential to consider not only positive agricultural and forestry practices that actively enhance the provision of benefits for society, but also solutions that can reduce the occurrence or the impact of damaging practices (in other words, the mitigation of negative externalities). PEGASUS therefore examines both factors that support as well as inhibit the implementation of positive practices.

The innovative approach proposed by PEGASUS is to look at both environmental and the social dimensions of these systems together a means of finding long-term solutions. In 34 case studies across 10 EU countries, the PEGASUS teams are assessing the environmental and social resilience of the systems examined, adopting the analytical framework of social-ecological systems (SESs). This framework recognises the importance of understanding interactions between human and natural components in producing ESBOS through farming and forestry, and it provides an approach for examining these interlinkages and identifying scope for improvement.

Using the SES framework, the case studies are investigating contrasting approaches to encourage more balanced land management decisions and stimulate practical action with environmentally and socially beneficial outcomes. This includes examining different institutional settings, working closely with market incentives, understanding collective action/partnerships, identifying new forms of incentive provision and ways to facilitate behavioural change.