Principle 3 Manage slow variables and feedbacks


Many social-ecological systems can exist in different self-organizing configurations or 'regimes'. Each of these configurations produces a different set of ecosystem services, with different consequences for different users. Changes in controlling slow variables can cause a system to shift from one regime to another if certain thresholds are exceeded and there is a change in dominat feedback processes in the social-ecological system. Such shifts are often associated with large, rapid changes in ecosystem services, and can have substantial impacts on human societies.

In other cases, feedbacks may trap a system in a regime that produces a very limited set of desired ecosystem services, and make it very difficult to shift the system to a different configuration. The importance of managing slow variables and feedbacks to maintain social-ecological regimes that produce desired bundles of ecosystem services, restore social-ecological systems to more desired configurations or transform the systems to entirely new configurations is widely acknowledged in the resilience literature. However, identifying and managing key slow variables and feedbacks to avoid system thresholds or facilitate systemic transformations is often difficult in practice.

Maintaining regulating ecosystem services as a proxy for managing slow variables may be one practical way forward. Other strategies focus on better understanding slow variables and feedbacks that underlie different social-ecological configurations, monitoring changes in slow variables and feedbacks, managing the strength of feedbacks and adressing missing feedbacks between drivers and impacts on ecosystem services.


Full reference: Biggs, R. (Oonsie), L.J. Gordon, C. Raudsepp-Hearne, M. Schlüter, B. Walker. 2015. Principle 3 Manage slow variables and feedbacks. In: Biggs, R. (Oonsie), M. Schlüter, M.L. Schoon (Eds.), Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK pp. 105–141