Social-Ecological Systems Framework

A key concept in Sustainability Science is the framework of social-ecological systems. There are no natural systems without people, nor social systems without nature. Social and ecological systems are truly interdependent and constantly co-evolving. We refer and use the framework of social-ecological since it emphasizes the coupled-humans-natural systems; that earth ́s ecosystems, from local to global scale the biosphere as a whole, provide the ecosystems services for social and economic development. But also that the ecosystems we observe have been shaped by human decision making throughout history and human actions directly and indirectly alter their capacity to sustain societal development.

Social-Ecological Systems Framework

Solving the current ecological crises requires new interdisciplinary and holistic conceptual approaches. Effective biodiversity conservation is not just about species and ecosystems, it must also involve the human societies in which biodiversity is embedded. The study of social-ecological systems focuses on understanding the relationships between nature and society, analyzing the contributions made by biodiversity to human wellbeing (i.e., ecosystem services), and examining how human actions affect ecosystem integrity. Under the social-ecological system framework, we recognize that human wellbeing depends on ecosystem services but that conservation of these services depends on governance processes. The following three research lines describe my research interests:

1. Interdisciplinary Framework for Ecosystem Services Valuation.Since the publication of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), interest in ecosystem service assessment has grown exponentially in environmental science and policy. However, despite the academic progress, a key challenge be addressed is developing a comprehensive assessment framework, in which biophysical, socio-cultural, and monetary values can be properly combined. Although various conceptual frameworks integrate both the supply and the demand-sides of ecosystem services, few try to empirically operationalize a comprehensive ecosystem service assessment. Most of the ecosystem services literature has focused either on monetary valuation or on biophysical assessments, but there are few studies that empirically assess ecosystem services from an integrative approach. In this context, the aims of my future research would be to (1) design an integrative valuation methodological framework that would be able to compare irreducible value-domains of ecosystem services, (2) identify the strengths and weakness of the methods used for analyzing both the supply and the demand of ecosystem services, as well as (3) explore which methods better fit in different social-ecological systems, according to their social and ecological properties.

2. The biophysical supply and social demand of ecosystem services. Many authors have noted the importance of identifying an ecosystem’s capacity to provide services (supply side) and their social demand (demand side), highlighting that the status of an ecosystem service is influenced not only by the ecosystem’s properties but also by societal needs. On the supply side, ecosystems and biodiversity are experiencing serious degradation with regard to their capacity to supply services. At the same time, the demand for certain ecosystem services is rapidly increasing as populations and standards of living increase. I define the supply-side as the capacity of a particular area to provide a specific bundle of ecosystem services within a given time period, and the demand side as the sum of all ecosystem services currently consumed, used, or valued in a particular area over a given time period. I would like to advance the development of a comprehensive framework that integrates the multidimensional value of ecosystem services.

3. Integrating Ecosystem Services in decision-making domains. The assessment of ecosystem services has gained increasing importance among scientists worldwide. I propose to use a social-ecological framework to examine the social, economic and ecological tradeoffs of different scenarios of conservation. My research plan for this purpose will address: (1) spatial characterization and delineation of social-ecological systems boundaries; (2) identification of the most important ecosystem services for the maintenance of human wellbeing; (3) quantification and mapping of the biophysical delivery of ecosystem services using GIS tools and models developed for this purpose (e.g., InVEST from Natural Capital Project and ARIES -ARtificial Intelligence for Ecosystem Services-); (4) through social sampling followed by statistical analyses, identification and classification of stakeholders who benefit, either directly or indirectly, from identified ecosystem services; (5) tradeoffs analyses that explores how different conservational scenarios maximize both delivery of ecosystem services and the social demand of stakeholders; and (6) use this information to develop a decision support tool to guide biodiversity and supplied services conservation.

Current Research


The MILESMILES_logo_stack program builds Idaho’s capacity to study complex social-ecological processes, especially those associated with water demand and valuation of ecosystem services. This research characterizes patterns and identifies social drivers of urban growth and ecological change, including valuable ecosystem services. Outcomes will include an integrated modeling framework and visualization and virtualization tools. MILES is an Idaho EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) program.

Mission: To (1) advance understanding of changes in ecosystem services at the interface between urban and rural environments, (2) relate those changes to societal and climate drivers, and (3) provide science-based tools and training to inform policy decisions about the sustainable management of these ecosystem services.

Vision: To be widely recognized as a national leader and model state for applying coupled natural-human systems research focused on ecosystem services to inform sustainable development of mid-sized cities.

Goal: To create new knowledge about relationships between ecosystem services, landscape change, and associated social ecological systems (SES), and establish the infrastructure to provide science-based decision support needed to sustainability management Idaho’s resources.


Freshwater is vital for both humans and fish and wildlife, but humans are using freshwater more rapidly than it can be replenished. The Kiamichi River watershed in southeastern Oklahoma is at the center of intense conflict over water ownership and use. The Tarrant County Water District (North Texas), Oklahoma City, and Chickasaw and Choctaw nationScreen Shot 2016-04-10 at 14.50.32s all want this water and are fighting each other in court. Missing from these disputes are the needs of the watershed’s rich animal and plant life, including three federally endangered freshwater mussels. We are using an ecosystem services framework to examine how different water management/environmental flow scenarios in the Kiamichi River watershed affect the delivery of ecosystem services, and thus contribute to the wellbeing of people living both in and outside the watershed. Our approach involves mapping the spatial delivery of a selection of watershed ecosystem services, and then exploring the tradeoffs between their biophysical, socio-cultural and economic values. Once these tasks are completed we can then examine the tradeoffs between different water management strategies and share our results with policy makers and managers.

PIs: Caryn C. Vaughn (OU), Antonio J. Castro (ISU), Jason P. Julian (TSU)


The GlocGreenhouses_Almeria_Spainharid Project aims to design a system of environmental indicators for monitoring and assessing environmental effects of Global Change in arid and semiarid ecosystems of Andalusia. These effects are environmental issues caused by the impact of human activities which modify the earth’s capacity to support life. The project research areas include:

1)   Drivers of change (climate change, use land change, invasive plants and water contamination)

2)   Changes in ecosystems and biodiversity (flora, fauna, primary productivity, carbon balance and integrity of water and river systems)

3)   Management and sustainability (science-management interface, ecosystems services evaluation and natural heritage sustainable management)

This project involves 13 research groups from Almería University (UAL) and the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) and more than 50 environmental managers are collaborating too. Their results have been useful in identifying the key ecological processes which are being modified and the most relevant sustainability issues for society derived from this situation.

PIs: Hermelindo Castro (UAL), Javier Cabello (UAL), Antonio J. Castro (ISU)