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Rivers as Social-Ecological-Technological Systems: Integrative Issue Formulation and Problem Solving

Author(s): Zbigniew Grabowski

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Summary:
Flowing surface waters continue to capture the human imagination and are increasingly harnessed by many interdependent human activities. Existing theories for studying rivers as cohesive ecological systems, such as the river continuum concept, have…

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Flowing surface waters continue to capture the human imagination and are increasingly harnessed by many interdependent human activities. Existing theories for studying rivers as cohesive ecological systems, such as the river continuum concept, have struggled to integrate human activities into ecological science. This has not been due to a lack of trying. This lesson attempts to provide a capstone or reflective field lesson for students to address river issues understood through interdisciplinary methods.

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Version 1.0 - published on 20 Jan 2023 doi:10.25334/D7T0-JG66 - cite this

Description

For almost 50 years, ecologists have sought to understand how humans act as one of many complex forces shaping ecological systems (Odum 1977). For over 30 years, socio-ecological systems theory has integrated the study of management decisions, knowledge generation, and institutions into the study of landscape ecology through Social-Ecological Systems (SES) approaches (Folke et al. 2007, Liu et al. 2007). SES approaches, however, have struggled with incorporating infrastructure into investigations of landscape change, often treating it as a particular land cover (e.g. impervious cover) or disturbance (e.g. large dams). Given that the majority of rivers worldwide are significantly altered by hydraulic infrastructures (e.g. dams, canals, dykes, and diversions), and these infrastructures enable numerous other landscape alterations (e.g. irrigated agriculture, cities, industries, floodplain development) river sciences require conceptual frameworks that can include human built systems within our studies of social-ecological dynamics. Understanding how engineered systems affect river ecosystems also requires understanding the social systems that design and manage infrastructures. It also requires that we understand how ecological knowledge functions alongside other forms of knowledge, as well as other visions, for what rivers are and could be. Social-ecological-technological systems (SETS) theory offers a general framework for understanding how complex coupled human, natural, and built systems evolve over time. This course module provides an overview of SETS theory and applies it in a reflexive learning framework to the study of rivers. Students will creatively and collaboratively unpack how river issues are contextually framed and how they may be addressed through collaborative problem-solving approaches using SETS as a heuristic. This field lesson can be performed in any landscape connected to a river system and requires no special field equipment. It is designed to be optionally scaffolded onto other field investigations of river characteristics and processes. It can also be adapted to multi-day field and classroom courses to integrate GIS and field data to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the SETS processes shaping the river in question. It is best performed with at least 5 students and will aid in applying methods in interdisciplinary problem-solution framing.

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