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Linking Theory to Reality

"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." Soren Kierkegaard

In this section we look at the different scientific approaches that can be applied to the study and management of real world social-ecological systems.  The figure shows one scheme for linking theory to policy-making.  On the left we have the various mathematical foundations for compelxity theory - from systems dynamics, complexity science and ecology. Together these have informed resilence theory and more generally a number of principles (numbered 1 to 7) for managing social-ecological systems.  For any real world situation, we have four main empirical approaches.  First, we can try to find an historical analogue for our system that gives insight into the functioning of our type of system.  So we might look to the history of the Roman Empire to learn lessons about the growth of a large centralized system.  Second, we can take an evolutionary approach to our modern system - extending our observations of how it functions back in time so that we can see the full system dynamics of the modern system.  So we might analyse the long term flood, climate, landuse and settlement records in a region in order to shed light on the apparent increasing frequency of extreme flood events.  Third, we can attempt to simulate the complex system - either to help us explain what happned in the past or to assess what may happen in the future if certain conditions hold or change.  Fourth, we can take all our analyses and results to the stakeholders in the system and participate in discussions and negotiations about what is the optimum forward-looking path - and making decisions and policies together in order to travel along that path.   In the next sections, we focus on the first three approaches.  

Figure: Applying complexity and resilience theories to real world social-ecological systems (Dearing unpublished - based on Biggs et al 2012; Dearing et al 2012; Walker et al 2002 )