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Linked social-ecological systems: A case study of the resilience of the Western Australian agricultural region

Allison, Helen Elizabeth (2003) Linked social-ecological systems: A case study of the resilience of the Western Australian agricultural region. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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In the Western Australian agricultural region, an area of approximately 14 million hectares (70,000 square miles), widespread areas of native vegetation have been cleared and replaced with annual cropping systems, predominantly wheat. Only 1.3 million hectares (10%) of small and scattered native vegetation remnants remain. By 2000 16% of land in the region was at risk from soil salinity and was largely unproductive for commercial agriculture. A new hydrological equilibrium affecting 33% of the Western Australian agricultural region is predicted to be reached between 2050 and 2300. The starting premise of this dissertation is that normal disciplinary science was adopted as the dominant intellectual influence on natural resource management policy and thus natural resource degradation was treated as a problem for science, extracted from its social, economic and historical contexts. The second premise of this dissertation is that natural resource problems are not isolated scientific or technical problems, and are exacerbated by human failure to predict the complex inter-relationships among the social, ecological and economic systems.

This dissertation initially provides an analytical narrative on the Western Australian agricultural region between 1889 and 2003 (114 years) with the main finding being that in the years pre-1970 a development-driven Western Australian Government was responsible for extensive land clearing for agriculture, often contrary to scientific advice. In the 1980s and 1990s the severity and extent of soil salinity and the prognosis of future negative trends in other natural resource indicators caused a rapid proliferation and evolution of Federal and State policies designed to 'solve the problem'. Nonetheless many natural resource problems remain intractable. The second part of the dissertation investigates the epistemology of the normal science paradigm as it was applied to natural resource management problems in the 20th century as a potentially contributing cause. The evolution of an alternative epistemology, post-normal science paradigm, is then examined for explicating our current understanding of 'reality'. A research framework was constructed which defines the post-normal science paradigm; the systemic approach; the bodies of theory-organisational, ecology, resilience and system dynamics theory; the social-ecological system perspective; and the methods-resilience analysis and system dynamics. This framework provides a novel way in which to gain a greater understanding of the fundamental or root causes of natural resource management problems. Using the case study of the Western Australian agricultural region a dynamic model was constructed based on descriptive information. An examination of the historical events and processes of the Western Australian agricultural region reveals that over a 114-year history it has evolved through two interactions of the adaptive cycle. Further investigation reveals these two cycles were synchronous with the second and third economic long-wave cycles or Kondratiev Cycles, that show the behaviour over time of the evolution of modern industrial societies. The model suggests that the reasons for the dynamic behaviour of the Western Australian agricultural region lie in the interaction of the three production growth drivers of the international commodity system, which have resulted in a pathological system, the 'Lock-in Trap'. Increased total commodity production, reinvestment and declining prices in real terms have tended to produce the unintended negative impacts of resource decline, environmental pollution and rural population decline. I suggest that the expansion of thresholds through the reinvestment in technology is a principle reason why there has not yet been a profound collapse of exploited renewable resources in the Western Australian agricultural region. Regional natural resource management strategies will need to take account of not only spatial cross-scale issues, in particular the linkages between the individual farmer and the international commodity system, but also the temporal variables, in particular the slowly emerging changes in ecological/physical variables, such as the hydrological cycle.

This research can help to provide the information and heuristic metaphors to encourage natural resource policy makers to take long-term and whole system perspectives. It includes a powerful set of tools for communicating dynamic processes in an integrated method to inform policy and management decisions. The ideas in this interdisciplinary research are essential for making science relevant within a social and ecological context.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Environmental Science
Supervisor(s): Hobbs, Richard
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