Center for Interdisziplinary Research

Towards an interdisciplinary understanding of ecological novelty

Date: August 27 - 29, 2012

Convenor: Christoph Kueffer (Zurich)

We live in a time of rapid human-driven environmental change. Much change is global in extent, and therefore so-called global change research focuses on processes on a global scale. However, people are exposed to the ecological consequences of global change at local and regional scales. In 2011, a group of scientists from ecology, social sciences and the arts met at a conference at Monte Verita (Ticino, Switzerland) to discuss new approaches for dealing with the ecological consequences of global change. At the conference ecological novelty was proposed as a new concept that better captures many of the characteristics of man-made environmental change than global change: Changes happen at local to global scales, and most solutions will have to be found at local and regional scales. Not isolated factors-e.g. temperature increase-but new ecologies resulting from the changes of many entangled physical, chemical, biological, and social factors characterize ecological novelty and affect societies. And it is not change per se, but the magnitude, rapidity, unfamiliarity, and uncertainties of these changes-the novelty-that challenge traditional science and human-nature relationships.
The follow-up workshop held at the ZiF had the objective to move towards an interdisciplinary understanding of ecological novelty that merges ideas from the natural and social sciences. A group of five natural scientists and five social scientists (plus a sixth virtual participant) worked intensively together. On the first day the social scientists introduced different conceptual perspectives. In response to each talk an ecologist prepared a commentary. The roles were reversed on the second day, with the ecologists introducing case examples of ecological novelty and the social scientists commenting. Then there was much time reserved for plenary discussion.
A number of important issues of common interest to ecologists and social scientists were identified. First, understanding and taking into account the history of ecosystems and their human modifications, together with the history of our understanding about such modifications, are of central importance for ensuring resilience of socioecological systems to ecological novelty despite rapid and substantial change. Second, uncertainty and ignorance are pervasive and often irreducible; more science will often not significantly reduce nescience or clarify conflicts of opinions or interests. A different science is needed that supports societal deliberation instead of attempting to replace it. Third, what constitutes good management practice-e.g., when deliberate human intervention in nature should be avoided ('precautionary approach') versus when it should be facilitated ('real-world experimentation')-should be clarified based on both ecological and social scientific information (e.g., ethics) and through democratic processes. Fourth, when facts are uncertain, the form of communication-in particular metaphors-used within science and at the science-society interface can gain a problematic power of influencing thinking and decision-making. Ecology has not yet developed a culture of careful use of language. Fifth, the consequences of ecological novelty for social justice are too often neglected.

Article in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, May 2013


Antje Brock (Bielefeld, GER), Peter Edwards (Zürich, SUI), Heike Greschke (Bielefeld, GER), Marcus Hall (Zürich, SUI), Eric Higgs (Victoria, CAN), Anke Jentsch (Bayreuth, GER), Jonathan Jeschke (Freising, GER), Alexandra-Maria Klein (Lüneburg, GER), Brendon Larson (Waterloo, CAN), Caroline Müller (Bielefeld, GER), Brian Wynne (Lancaster, GBR)

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