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Time-delayed biodiversity feedbacks and the sustainability of social-ecological systems

A.-S. Lafuite and M. Loreau

Ecological Modelling, 2017, vol. 351, issue C, 96-108

Abstract: The sustainability of coupled social-ecological systems (SESs) hinges on their long-term ecological dynamics. Land conversion generates extinction and functioning debts, i.e. a time-delayed loss of species and associated ecosystem services. Sustainability theory, however, has not so far considered the long-term consequences of these ecological debts on SESs. We investigate this question using a dynamical model that couples human demography, technological change and biodiversity. Human population growth drives land conversion, which in turn reduces biodiversity-dependent ecosystem services to agricultural production (ecological feedback). Technological change brings about a demographic transition leading to a population equilibrium. When the ecological feedback is delayed in time, some SESs experience population overshoots followed by large reductions in biodiversity, human population size and well-being, which we call environmental crises. Using a sustainability criterion that captures the vulnerability of an SES to such crises, we show that some of the characteristics common to modern SESs (e.g. high production efficiency and labor intensity, concave-down ecological relationships) are detrimental to their long-term sustainability. Maintaining sustainability thus requires strong counteracting forces, such as the demographic transition and land-use management. To this end, we provide integrative sustainability thresholds for land conversion, biodiversity loss and human population size - each threshold being related to the others through the economic, technological, demographic and ecological parameters of the SES. Numerical simulations show that remaining within these sustainable boundaries prevents environmental crises from occurring. By capturing the long-term ecological and socio-economic drivers of SESs, our theoretical approach proposes a new way to define integrative conservation objectives that ensure the long-term sustainability of our planet.

Keywords: Biodiversity; Ecological economics; Ecosystem services; Extinction debt; Integrative sustainability threshold; Social-ecological system (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2017
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Handle: RePEc:eee:ecomod:v:351:y:2017:i:c:p:96-108