Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton

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 feedback loops, critical transitions and networks in simple, non-mathematical ways. There is a focus on regional-scale reconstructions of ecological and climatic processes, derived from natural archives, documentary and instrumental data, with supporting evidence on past human activity and governance 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 setting safe and just operating spaces) for the sustainable management of ecological services, ecosystems and landscapes.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Critically analyse contemporary reports about the state of the world
  • 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.
  • Engage in debate and argument about modern world problems
  • Know appropriate theory, such as Resilience Theory and the Adaptive Cycle, that underpins an understanding of complex social-ecological systems;
  • Understand the basic principles of complex systems: causal loops, feedback, time-series analysis, magnitude and frequency, critical transitions, fold bifurcations, network science;
  • Know specific examples of the history and functioning of regional socio-ecological systems;
  • Compile and analyse (e.g. time series) data from a range of sources
  • Have practical experience of in-depth desk studies of compiling and analysing published data and literature
  • Know about how complex social-ecological systems may be modelled and simulated for future scenarios;
  • Explore the interaction between governance, climate change and human actions in determining sustainable and degraded environmental futures;


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: the lower Yangtze basin, China L10 Setting Safe and Just Operating Spaces: Yunnan Province, China L11 Complex systems, simple models - introduction to appropriate modelling (eg. system dynamic, agent based) L12 Simulating the future: the Mahanadi delta L13 Governance and Globalisation (1) L14 Governance and Globalisation (2) L15 Communicating Complexity L16 Course 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

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. The coursework centres on group work aimed at reviewing the social-ecological issues of one selected nation/region - with a group presentation and individual report. Individual and small group clinic and 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

Scheffer, M. (2009). Critical Transitions in Nature and Society. 

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

Gunderson, L.H. and Holling, C.S (2002). Panarchy. 

Meadows, D.H. (2009). Thinking in Systems. A Primer. 

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: Complex social-ecological systems: linking theory and reality.

Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse. 


Assessment Strategy

Coursework presentation Coursework report - longer word length than level 6 GEOG 3047 Examination by 1 question in 'seen' examination in 90 minutes. 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

Share this module Share this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Share this on Weibo
Privacy Settings