Profit fluctuations signal eroding resilience of natural resources

Abstract

A common pattern of environmental crises is a vicious cycle between environmental degradation and socio-economic disturbances. Here we show that while such feedbacks may give rise to critical transitions in social–ecological systems, at the same time they can offer novel opportunities for anticipating them. We model a community that has joint access to the harvest grounds of a resource that is prone to collapse. Individuals are tempted to overexploit the resource, while a cooperative harvesting norm spreads through the community via interpersonal relations. Both social and ecological collapses can be induced by environmental or socio-economic driving forces. Regardless of the type and cause of collapse we find that upcoming transitions may be detected using simple socio-economic response variables, such as individual profits. Our findings suggest that such alternative sources of information can be used to detect upcoming critical transitions in social–ecological systems. However, we also find that robust detection of critical transitions may be confounded by recovery attempts undertaken by resource users in the vicinity of an upcoming collapse, which may be falsely interpreted as a stabilization of the social–ecological system.

First published online 20 June

Tags: Ecological Economics
Published June 22, 2015 7:20 AM