Cause and effect in the transformation of global ecosystems

How can we distinguish between cause and effect when changes take place in a large ecosystem? Can new methods give a more accurate picture of the interaction between society and the natural world? These are questions that a new, multidisciplinary research programme will attempt to answer.

RainforestThe global ekosystems, such as big forest, and changing rapidly. But why? Photo: Tobias Tullius/ Unsplash

Linköping, Stockholm and Potsdam

At the end of 2018, the Swedish Research Council awarded SEK 220 million in research grants for multidisciplinary programmes. The projects awarded funding were dominated by biology and medicine. Only a single research grant was awarded to a collaboration within the social sciences: Approaches to causation in the social and natural sciences and their implications for theory building in sustainability science.

The programme, which received a grant of SEK 18 million, will continue until 2021 and will engage eleven researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the University of Potsdam, and the Institute for Analytical Sociology (IAS) at Linköping University.

“The award of the grant came as a huge surprise. They had received 80 high-quality applications, so we didn’t dare to count on being successful”, says Karl Wennberg, professor of economics and representative for IAS, together with Petri Ylikoski, expert in scientific philosophy.

Methodological challenges

To put it simply, the researchers will attempt to untangle cause and effect in complex systems where “everything affects everything else”. In particular, they will be looking at dynamic socio-ecological systems in which humans, animals and plants influence not only each other but also themselves, and in which causality is often complicated and difficult to determine.

Karl Wennberg, professor IAS, in his office.Karl Wennberg, professor IAS, in his office.

In brief: Several factors affect each other at all times, and also themselves change as time passes. This is a situation far from the highly controlled laboratory in which A leads to B.

“It brings methodological challenges that we at IAS share with those working in sustainability. They are examining the limits for the sustainability of the Earth, while we conduct research into societal changes on the basis of migration and inequalities between groups. The problems related to cause and effect are roughly the same”, says Karl Wennberg.

“The programme is an example of how important research often comes to be as a result of chance”, he continues. “We held a workshop together, and discovered that we had a lot in common.”

Overfishing in Sweden and Mexico

In practical work, the researchers will start by examining huge amounts of data collected by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and analysing conceivable causality in this material. Based on this, they will develop examples and new methods to view causality. Which measures lead to which effects, and what happens when the initial conditions change, are examples of important questions.

These methods will be used for three cases of major environmental change: overfishing in the Baltic Sea and in the Gulf of Mexico, and coffee growing in South America.

“A simple measure against overfishing is to prohibit fishing. But what will happen if we do? Maybe the fishermen will turn to something else that also has an impact on the environment. Maybe other countries will also change the way they fish. Regulations influence the way people behave, which in turn influences the ecological system”, Karl Wennberg points out.

“There are several examples in which social and economic factors, such as urbanisation and overpopulation, have affected local systems that were previously sustainable.”

In general, causality in the study of sustainability must satisfy two criteria. The first is that it must cope with the complexity that arises when different actors are linked in a chain, such as the different fish species along a food chain. The second is that it must take into consideration the mutual dependencies between ecosystems and societal systems.

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Stockholm Resilience center

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