The Anthropocene Gap
Chapter 3: Earth system complexity
Have you ever heard about how deforestation in the Amazon affects precipitation patterns in Asia? Or how decreasing fish stocks in the coast of Central West of Africa triggers deforestation and the loss of wildlife in nearby African countries? If not, are you aware of how emissions of carbon dioxide not only result in climate change, but also induce ocean acidification, with possible associated losses of biodiversity, and changes in water cycles on regional scales? These are all examples of how changes in the Earth system are interconnected in ways that are archetypal for the behavior of complex adaptive systems. These interconnections are both biophysical and social - that is, they are the result of flows of energy, material, species either through biophysical processes or as a result of human connectivity, including global trade, transport or communication. In addition, many display nonlinear properties including thresholds, cascades and surprises (for an authoritative overview, see Steffen et al. 2004). Is this overwhelming complexity in the Earth system at all possible to steer through institutional design, organizational innovation or novel modes of governance? Or should we instead focus on polycentric approaches as suggested by Elinor Ostrom? How do these approaches evolve over time? And how are these related to the behavior of a dynamic Earth system? These questions have gained prominence the last decade as Earth system scholars continuously elaborate the link between Earth system functions such as the global carbon and nutrient cycle, and human well-being.
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