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The Doctoral School Social Ecology focuses on five interrelated research areas within socioecological sustainability research:
Societies extract natural resources such as materials and energy from their environment or import them to build up, maintain and use biophysical stocks for production and consumption. Material and energy resources are extracted from the environment, either by tapping into natural flows (e.g. harvesting biomass or using hydropower) or by taking them from natural stocks (e.g. minerals or fossil fuels). In several steps usually forming complex supply chains, raw materials are transformed into products and, at the end of their life-time, into wastes and emissions.
An increasing fraction of the raw materials used (currently globally >50%) are used to build up material stocks such as infrastructures (including buildings), machinery and long-lived products that, in combination with dissipatively used resources (energy, materials) help delivering services to society. Use of biophysical resources is linked with environmental and societal problems if natural source or sink capacities are overburdened or their organisation exceeds socioeconomic capacities.
To analyse and monitor societal resource use the concept of social metabolism implemented by material and energy flow analysis is used. Metabolism research has investigated trends and patterns of resource use on different spatial and temporal scales in relation to economic development. Recent activities broadened the perspective towards upstream resource requirements and material footprints, socioeconomic drivers of resource use, as well as circular economy and material stocks.
Sociometabolic research is complemented by bottom-up, technology-rich energy modelling methods that help understanding how stocks and flows are interacting, and how they are associated to the economics of resource use. Their strength is that both monetary and physical flows are traced through society in a technologically disaggregated way, allowing to model substitution effects between technologies.
Studies of Social Metabolism aim to quantify resource flows associated with social activities. They trace them from extraction to production, consumption, recycling (if existent) to wastes and emissions, thereby also scrutinizing transport and trade, and try to understand their patterns and drivers across time and space.
Land use and colonization of ecosystems
Land ecosystems and their use play a key role in the Earth System and are pivotal for trajectories towards sustainability. Land use is closely linked to societies metabolism and land ecosystems are essential elements of the global carbon cycle and thus the climate system. Many other ecosystem services that are vital for human well-being originate from ecosystem functions and properties, including biodiversity. By using land, humans alter ecosystem properties, spatiotemporal patterns and functions in order to optimize the provision of certain ecosystem services, such as food, feed, fibres or bioenergy.
In many circumstances, land use results in far-reaching ecological impacts, such as GHG emissions, biodiversity loss, land degradation and many others that altogether negatively affect social wellbeing, human subsistence as well as socioeconomic processes. Land use is heavily affected by climate change, e.g. yield reductions due to changes in average temperature, or impacts due to shifts in the spatio-temporal patterns of extreme events (floods, droughts, etc), with far-reaching impacts on e.g. food security and resilience of the land system. At the same time, harnessing land ecosystems provides powerful means of mitigating climate change, e.g. by reducing its emissions, that currently contribute about one quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse emissions, or through carbon sequestration in biota and soils.
Many research gaps prevail when aiming to understand the interrelations between land-system change and human well-being and large data gaps persist related to land-use change not associated with land-cover change. Moreover, the interrelation of land-use dynamics simultaneously driven by socioeconomic as well as natural trajectories is not well understood. To tackle these questions, DSSE focuses on strongly interdisciplinary approaches following from a comprehensive, consistent conceptual framework of nature-society interaction. This research exploits data from various sources, e.g. census, site studies, field research and remote sensing.
Land use shapes landscapes across the world. Humans use about three quarters of the earth’s landmass, thereby altering ecosystem processes, biogeochemical cycles and biodiversity.
Long-term socioecological research (LTSER) and environmental history
The grand global challenges, as addressed by the SDGs, are the result of long-term processes, foremost of the industrial transformation of human societies’ metabolism since the 19th century. In cases like the manipulation of water bodies or land use change and the overexploitation and degradation of soils, the history of these challenges is much longer, covering several centuries or even millennia.
Current sustainability policies need to reflect the long-term effects and unintended side-effects on future generations. Interdisciplinary approaches that integrate historian’s long-term perspective and methodological expertise are required to adequately address problems of distinguishing between causes and effects and their context dependency.
Long-term socio-ecological research (LTSER) is a substantial extension of Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) that integrates social sciences and humanities. Within the Doctoral School LTSER and environmental history are embedded in and form integral parts of a training and research environment focused on sustainability problems that is integrated with the natural sciences. Interdisciplinary environmental history has recently focused on legacies of past interventions into landscapes. Such interventions provoke legacies over shorter or longer periods of time. Legacies are a major constraint for sustainability transformations. They require a long-term perspective that integrates society, nature and technology.
Current and future challenges for a sustainable society require not only social and technological innovation but also fundamental socioecological transformations. Socioecological transformations go beyond incremental change and isolated technical innovation and highlight both societal drivers and social effects of the ecological crisis. These challenges require the analysis of economic, political, social and cultural processes – and their interaction with biophysical dynamics in (global) resource and energy use.
Transformation research in the DSSE pursues an interdisciplinary perspective that includes research and knowledge from natural and social sciences as well as environmental history to unravel the challenges and potentials for sustainability transformations. How do societies interact with nature and how can they shape these modes of production and living in a more sustainable way? How do these society-nature interactions differ in concrete historical and institutional contexts? How can structural transformation processes that go beyond individual consumer behaviour be accelerated, broadened and by whom? How can different stakeholders and forms of knowledge interact to guarantee for more comprehensive and legitimate outcomes?
Integrated socioecological and technoeconomic modelling
Dynamic models are useful tools to study the change of socioecological systems over time when time series data are not available or limited, and experimentation is difficult. By simulating interactions between the socioeconomic and ecological systems, dynamic models facilitate the exploration of the consequences of relevant socio-economic-ecological feedbacks. Modelling approaches allow for focusing on fundamental system behaviour via ‘bottom‐up’ as well as ‘top-down’ model architectures of different sub‐systems.
System dynamic stock-flow modelling approaches are used to explore and simulate the complex and non-linear feedbacks in socioecological systems. ‘Environmentally Extended Input-Output Analysis’ (EE-IOA) integrates Input-Output analysis with social metabolism and other environmental indicators. Diagnostic modelling is based on consistent data integration using balance equations, allowing to explore option spaces of future land use as well as food and bioenergy supply. Agent-based modelling (ABM) generates system dynamics from characteristics of agents and their interactions. ABMs can help analysing the interplay between actors, political and institutional framework conditions, and socioecological processes.
The DSSE at BOKU offers a perfect possibility for applying integrated socioecological modelling approaches (stock-flow models, EE-IOA, ABM) into PhD projects. These models can be based on different spatial (ranging from local studies in LTSER platforms to global changes in the diet or transport systems, land use and biomass flows) and temporal scales (reconstructing data-sparse past states, creating forecasts or future scenarios).