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GEOG6102 Complex Social-Ecological Systems: Past, Present and Future

Module Overview

The module addresses the issue of how to understand the complexity of the social-ecological systems that underpin our needs for food, water and sustainable ecosystem functions – at local to global scales. The module focuses on how interactions between past climate, ecological processes, and human activities can give us a perspective from which to observe complex dynamics, like tipping points, system collapses and early warning signals of critical transitions. The module introduces a number of complexity concepts like critical transitions and networks in simple, nonmathematical ways. Emphasis lies in compiling regional-scale reconstructions of ecological and climatic processes, from natural archives, documentary and instrumental data, with evidence on past human activity and governance derived from historical records. The module demonstrates the use of palaeo records and other archives beyond the 'history of the environment' in order to engage with resilience theory, to test complexity concepts, to develop modelling tools and to help design strategies, such as through safe and just operating spaces, for the sustainable management of ecological services, ecosystems and landscapes.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

1. Understand the need to view modern social-ecological systems in the context of complexity science and resilience theory. 2. Understand complexity concepts (eg. resilience, feedback, tipping points, multiple states, variability, networks) in real world examples. 3. Reconstruct recent histories of human activities and landscapes in various regions of the world, under different combinations of landscape and ecological process: for example land use, pollution and water quality in China; irrigated farming and flooding in Bangladesh. 4. Know about models - conceptual (eg adaptive cycle), agent and cellular-based and system dynamic models – and show how they can be used as tools for sustainable management in a rapidly changing world. 5. Through case studies, explore how systems and resilience thinking may be applied to the sustainable management of landscapes and resources, particularly as part of development in low income countries.

Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Know appropriate theory that underpins an understanding of complex systems;
  • Appreciate a holistic analysis of environmental change in time and space
  • Analyse critically the assumptions that underlie landscape management decisions
  • Possess a deeper awareness of how complexity science and resilience theory can provide important principles for dealing with the wider world - business, management and developing life skills.
  • The nature of interactions between human activities and landscapes in space and time;
  • Know specific examples of the history and functioning of regional socio-ecological systems;
  • Under new concepts, theory and models of environmental processes
  • Analyse critically contemporary reports about the state of the world
  • Compile and analyse (e.g. time series) data from a range of sources
  • Engage in debate and argument about modern world problems
  • Have practical experience of in-depth desk studies of compiling and analysing published data and literature
  • Have an enhanced appreciation of complex systems theory as applied to social-ecological systems


Provisional lecture titles L1 The State We're In - the current state of human-environment interactions L2 A Nonlinear World - the realisation that 'wicked' problems are not solved easily by using conventional linear methods. L3 Complex Social-Ecological Theory - introduction to some basic theories e.g. emergence, the adaptive cycle, self organised criticality, multiple steady states L4 Past Analogues of Social Collapse - can we learn anything about modern social-ecological systems from historical case-studies? L5 Trends, Paths and Emergence - real data and emergence L6 System Variability - real data and self-organised criticality L7 Over the Edge - real data and critical transitions L8 Networked - real networks L9 Regional Instability and Tradeoffs: the lower Yangtze basin, China L10 Safe and Just Operating Spaces: Yunnan Province, China L11 Simulating Complex Systems - introduction to appropriate modelling (eg. system dynamic, agent based) L12 Simulating Complex Systems: Ganges and Mahanadi deltas L13 Governance and Globalisation Management Implications: setting safe and just operating spaces in China L14 Communicating Complexity L15 Review and Reflection Typical data-response exercises Syria: climate and conflict The Rangeland Manager The Game Fishery Manager The Development Field Office The Environmental Consultant

Special Features

Lectures may be recorded and made available using Panopto. Students are encouraged to write blogs on current issues that are relevant to the module.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Students will learn from a range of activities, including lectures, data-response exercises, directed reading, seminars, group presentations and written reports. Normally each week there are 2 x 45 min lectures followed by a data-response exercise, student-led seminar, presentations or coursework discussion. Special clinic revision sessions are organised at the end of the module. Feedback from students is drawn from last years’ student module questionnaires, frequent and open discussion sessions, and quality of presentations and coursework. Feedback to students is given through seminar discussions, comments on presentations and marked coursework prior to revision period. Taught through 36 hour contact in Semester 1 over 3 x 45 minute sessions per week.

Independent Study114
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

Research web-sites maintained by the course convenor are used throughout the module: Complex social-ecological systems: linking theory and reality.

Other. A detailed and comprehensive Module Handbook with lecture synopses, coursework and references is provided to all students.

Research web-sites maintained by the course convenor are used throughout the module: Eyes on the Storm.


Assessment Strategy

Coursework presentation Coursework report - longer word length than level 6 GEOG 3047 Examination by 1 question in 'seen' examination in 1 hour. Feedback method: Students will be provided with a written feedback report. Students need to gain an average pass mark of 50% to successfully complete this module.


MethodPercentage contribution
Coursework Presentation  () 10%
Examination 50%
Individual report 40%


MethodPercentage contribution
Exam 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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