Regime shifts in a social-ecological system

Produced as part of the Climate change governance for a new global deal CCCEP research programme theme


Ecological regime shifts are rarely purely ecological. Not only is the regime shift frequently triggered by human activity, but the responses of relevant actors to ecological dynamics are often crucial to the development and even existence of the regime shift.

Here, we show that the dynamics of human behaviour in response to ecological changes can be crucial in determining the overall dynamics of the system.

We find a social-ecological regime shift in a model of harvesters of a common-pool resource who avoid over-exploitation of the resource by social ostracism of non-complying harvesters.

The regime shift, which can be triggered by several different drivers individually or also in combination, consists of a breakdown of the social norm, sudden collapse of co-operation and an over-exploitation of the resource.

We use the approach of generalised modelling to study the robustness of the regime shift to uncertainty over the specific forms of model components such as the ostracism norm and the resource dynamics.

Importantly, the regime shift in our model does not occur if the dynamics of harvester behaviour are not included in the model.

Finally, we sketch some possible early warning signals for the social-ecological regime shifts we observe in the models.

Steven J. Lade, Alessandro Tavoni, Simon A. Levin and Maja Schluter