Act: Inspiration

Interdisciplinarity and Social Ecological Systems

May 18, 2018

In 2009, Rockstrom et al published an article titled ‘Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity’. This article introduced us to the idea of planetary boundaries. Planetary boundaries are self-imposed limits on the extent to which we should allow ourselves to use and/or abuse the earth’s resources. Rockstrom et al (2009) proposed quantified planetary boundaries for seven different phenomena: a) climate change (concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere), b) extent of ocean acidification, c) concentration of ozone in the stratosphere, d) levels of nitrogen fixation due to industrial and agricultural uses & amount of phosphorous flowing into the oceans, e) amount of freshwater use, f) changes in land use and g) rate of bio-diversity loss. The following figure represents these seven boundaries diagrammatically.

Figure 1: Planetary Boundaries (Rockstrom et al 2009)

The green parts of the image represent the safe operating space for humans. The red parts point at those boundaries which have been breached. Thus by 2009, humanity appears to have crossed three out of the seven boundaries: a) concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, b) rate of bio-diversity loss and c) levels of nitrogen fixation due to industrial and agricultural uses.

But, why should we be bothered if some of these boundaries are breached? And, why should we be concerned by biodiversity loss or by the levels of nitrogen fixation or by increasing concentrations of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere?

We should be bothered because together these seven planetary boundaries represent “the dynamic biophysical space of the Earth System within which humanity has evolved and thrived” (Rockstrom et al 2009). For instance, a continuous increase in atmospheric concentrations of carbon-dioxide could lead to a gradual disappearance of ice sheets in the earth’s polar regions. Similarly, an increase in the levels of acidification of the oceanic waters could lead to the gradual destruction of coral reefs. Depletion of stratospheric ozone could affect human health, for instance, in the form of increasing incidence of skin cancer. Increasing concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous could lead to the eutrophication of our water systems. Eutrophication in turn leads to a reduction in the amount of oxygen available for use by fish and other water-based plants, animals and insects thus leading to deterioration in the health of such ecosystems. Level of land use change is another planetary boundary defined by Rockstrom et al (2009). Land use change, in the form of a gradual transformation of forest lands to agricultural lands, may have some positive benefits – for instance, increased agricultural production could lead to an increase in the amount of food available for feeding the growing population of humans. But, the consequent loss of forest land increases the rate of bio-diversity loss; increasing levels of bio-diversity loss in turn impacts other planetary boundaries such as the ability of water-systems to absorb excess carbon-dioxide; and finally, the depletion of fresh water resources threatens the very survival of the human species.

Most of the cycles are inter-connected and inter-dependent on each other. For instance as explained earlier, land use changes from forest land to agricultural lands, leads to an increase in the rate of bio-diversity loss; increasing levels of bio-diversity loss in turn impacts other boundaries such as the ability of water-systems to absorb excess carbon-dioxide etc.

Together these seven planetary boundaries can thus be used to measure the well-being of the “global bio-chemical cycles” and the “major physical circulation systems of the planet”. In other words, a breach of even one of these boundaries threatens the integrity of the very system which keeps us alive.

A total of 29 different scholars contributed to this 2009 article. A glance through the departmental affiliations of these scholars tells us that some of these scholars are biologists and some are geographers; some are affiliated to the economics department and some to ecology departments; there are natural scientists and there are social scientists; a large number of these scholars are affiliated to inter-disciplinary research groups.

Why does it require 29 people to write an article which is only 24 pages long? Why does it require such a large number of scholars to establish that we humans are transgressing our planetary boundaries? And, why do such a large number of these scholars need to have inter-disciplinary interests?

The answer to this question requires us to ask a more fundamental question – a question which is at the heart of all human endeavors to make sense of its surroundings – What is Science?

Science is a systematic approach to developing an organized but verifiable body of knowledge about the human world and its natural surroundings. In order to develop such an organized body of knowledge scholars have classified scientific knowledge into various disciplines. The first stage of classification is between the natural sciences and the social sciences. The natural sciences seek to understand the natural world. The social sciences seek to understand the human world. The natural sciences are further classified into various sub-disciplines: physics, chemistry, biology and so on. Similarly, the social sciences are further classified into a number of sub-disciplines – economics, political science, sociology, anthropology and so on. Each of these various social science disciplines seek to understand different aspects of the social world.

For instance, consider the academic discipline of economics – it is the study of how human beings behave in the face of scarcity. The basic underlying assumption of all theoretical work in this discipline is that humans are motivated primarily by their self-interest. However, it ignores other kinds of human behavior: consider for instance, altruistic human behavior – assume that you and your partner are walking on a bridge over a stormy river. Suddenly, your partner slips and falls down from the bridge into the cold waters of the river. What would you do? A person motivated primarily by self-interest would just walk away from the bridge. On the other hand, a person motivated by altruism would try to find a way to save the other person from drowning – he or she may even jump into the cold waters, if needed.

Similarly, consider the academic discipline of political science – this discipline seeks to understand the processes of collective decision making. It seeks to understand how the quest for personal power affects human behavior and how various kinds of rules and regulations influence such behavior. There are fundamental differences in the manner by which economists and political science would seek to approach any social science problem. For instance, economists generally tend to ignore the effect of rules on self-interest driven human behavior.

Other social science disciplines such as sociology and anthropology also differ from political science or economics. Anthropologists, for example, tend to focus a lot more on understanding the subtle unwritten cultural practices which affect human behavior. They seek to understand the myths and the rituals prevalent in the concerned society; they seek to understand how and why such practices came into being in the past and how they influence behavior in the present. In contrast, sociology seeks to understand how societal structures (such as social classes or castes) and large scale social trends (for instance, mass people’s movements) influence human behavior.

In other words, the various disciplines which make up science tend to focus on understanding different subsections of a large complex problem. Thus, natural scientists may understand the natural world very well, but their understanding of how humans interact with the natural world and how they influence the natural world may be limited. In contrast, social scientists may understand human behavior very well, but their understanding of the natural world may be more limited. Similarly, within the social sciences, specialists in different disciplines may understand only certain specific aspects of human behavior and ignore the other aspects. For instance, economists may understand self-interest driven behavior but lack any understanding of how culture affects human behavior.

This reminds me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Allow me to present a tweaked version of this parable here.

Source –…, accessed on the 23rd of September, 2015

Imagine that we have travelled in time to a not-so-distant future. The elephant has been extinct for a few centuries and the scientists of the time have become blind for some unknown reason. They also have no understanding of how an elephant looks. They come across this strange animal and decide to form an inter-disciplinary team to investigate what it is. An economist investigates the elephant’s trunk and concludes – “It’s a Snake!” A biologist investigates the elephant’s legs and concludes – “It’s a Tree!” A political scientist investigates the elephant’s tusks and proudly proclaims – “It’s a Spear!” A physicist investigates the elephant’s huge ears and hypothesizes – “It’s a Fan!”

After some time all of them sit down together around a round table and begin discussing their research findings. They are amused by the contradictory findings, but they soon start putting the pieces together. After much deliberation, they realize that the strange animal before them is an elephant!

Let’s return to the idea of planetary boundaries that we had discussed earlier. The seven boundaries proposed by Rockstrom et al (2009) are: a) climate change (concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere), b) extent of ocean acidification, c) concentration of ozone in the stratosphere, d) levels of nitrogen fixation due to industrial and agricultural uses & amount of phosphorous flowing into the oceans, e) amount of freshwater use, f) changes in land use and g) rate of bio-diversity loss.

Consider climate change: it has taken the IPCC (the inter-governmental panel on climate change) almost 25 years to firmly establish that our climate is changing globally due to the actions of humans. The panel was formed in 1988 with the mandate “to prepare, based on available scientific information, assessments on all aspects of climate change and its impacts, with a view of formulating realistic response strategies” (IPCC 2015a). The panel produced its second assessment report in 1995 (CANU 2015). The report concluded that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernable influence (of humans) on global climate” (IPCC 2015a). In contrast, the fifth assessment report released by the IPCC in 2013-14 was unequivocal in its assertion that human-made climate change is a reality – “it is extremely likely (>95% chance) that more than half of the observed increase in global avg. surface temperatures from 1951-2010 was caused by anthropogenic increase in GHGs” (IPCC 2015b).

The first assessment report released in 1990 was the result of the cumulative effort of 34 lead authors and 141 contributing authors (IPCC 2015b). In contrast, the fifth assessment report was the cumulative result of contributions from 122 lead authors and 512 contributing authors (IPCC 2015b). These authors came from a wide range of academic disciplines. Consider for instance, the authors who contributed to chapter 6 of the fifth assessment report. Out of the two coordinating lead authors, one is a mechanical engineer, and the second has a doctorate in social engineering (CANU 2015). Among the other lead authors of this chapter, there are environmental & resource economists, agriculture & resource economists, political economists, physicists and scientists with other varied backgrounds.

But why do we require so much effort in order to understand climate change? This is because climate change is both naturally-occurring and man-made. The climate of the earth could change over time due to naturally-occurring activity such as changes in the earth’s orbit or variations in solar activity and even due to changes in the nature of volcanic eruptions. The change of the earth has also changed over time due to land-use changes, and due to the release of ozone, aerosols and greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere – all due to human activities. Natural scientists are required to understand how the earth bio-chemical cycles are affected by such phenomenon.

But climate change also has social consequences. For instance, with changes in the earth’s climate, sea levels are gradually rising over time, and thus humans living on the coastlines are gradually getting affected by it. Their houses may get submerged and they may need to move to land at higher elevations. This could lead to changing demographics in already densely populated areas at such higher elevations. What if the people who were living on the coastlines have different social practices from those living at higher elevations? Would this lead to an increase in conflict among the original inhabitants and the displaced population? How can such conflict be minimized? Water supply systems, food supply systems, and transportation networks in such areas would all be subject to increased amounts of stress. What kind of steps would need to be taken to deal with such stress? Would the displaced population need to resort to a different kind of livelihood in order to survive in their new homes, than what they were used to in their original homes? Social scientists are better equipped to answer such questions.

The study of such complex social-ecological phenomenon thus requires concerted effort by a group of scholars with inter-disciplinary interests – it requires natural scientists to think like social scientists and it requires social scientists to make extra efforts to understand the natural world. This need for inter-disciplinary thinking has spawned various kinds of efforts in conducting inter-disciplinary research – for instance, consider the field of ecological economics: researchers who consider themselves ecological economists tend to draw theories and tools from the academic disciplines of ecology and economics in order to understand “social-ecological resource systems”. Or consider the field of human ecology: researchers in this field draw on theories from the academic disciplines of geography, sociology, anthropology, economics, ecology and a number of other disciplines in order to understand “social-ecological systems”.

As time passes and such inter-disciplinary fields mature, each of these disciplines develops its own conceptual frameworks and theories about how the world functions. Although they may have started off with the same basic premise of understanding the same kind of “social-ecological resource systems”, over time they develop their own disciplinary boundaries and their own academic niches. They build walls around themselves and stop talking to each other. The same problems that afflicted the academic disciplines of the social sciences and the natural sciences – the fields of physics, chemistry and mathematics or the fields of political science, economics and sociology – start afflicting the newer disciplines of ecological economics and human ecology.

However, in order to completely grasp the multi-dimensional nature of the elephant, in order to understand the complexity of social-ecological resource systems, all kinds of disciplinary barriers need to be broken down. As I end this essay, I would like to emphasize that without inter-disciplinary training we are all blind people. If we are to understand how social-ecological resource systems can be better governed, we need to come out of our narrow academic cubicles and interact with other scholars who may themselves be confined in equally narrow academic cubicles. Our long term goal as inter-disciplinary scholars should be to break down the walls of these claustrophobic cubicles and work together by sitting together around a round table – debate, deliberate and over time collectively fit together the pieces of this complex puzzle.

In this essay, we tried to understand how inter-disciplinary thinking has helped us better understand the complexities associated with earth’s social-ecological systems. In a following essay, I explain what we can learn from theoretical and empirical academic work concerning how such complex social-ecological systems can be governed. I explicate what I mean by the word ‘governance’. I expound upon how we can use the twin criteria of rivalry and excludability for classifying our resources into four different categories. Different kinds of mechanisms have been proposed for governing different kinds of resources, and I take you through some of these governance mechanisms. I conclude with a few examples of such governance mechanisms.



Academic Journals

Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F. S., Lambin, E. F., … & Foley, J. A. (2009): Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32.


IPCC (2015a): “History”,, accessed on the 7th of December, 2015.

CANU (2015): “IPCC – Growing Consensus & Increasing Certainty”, Climate Action Network Europe,, accessed on the 7th of December, 2015.

“Fifth Assessment Report: Working Group III (Chapter 6)”, IPCC,, accessed on the 7th of December, 2015.

Tags: building resilient education systems, Education, systems thinking