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Environmental Social Science: Human-Environment Interactions and Sustainability

Moran, F. Emilio
WileyBlackwell: Hoboken, NJ, 2010
ISBN 1405105739 (pb)

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Reviewed by Giangiacomo Bravo
Department of Social Sciences, University of Torino and Collegio Carlo Alberto

Cover of book Sustainability science is intrinsically interdisciplinary. The "environmental social scientist" needs to understand both human behaviour and the variables affecting the functioning and stability of natural systems. While this is by no means easy, it is still necessary to create realistic models of "social-ecological systems" (Berkes et al. 2003). From this point of view, Moran's book represents a nice attempt to furnish the reader with some basic understanding of the core knowledge of both natural and social sciences. The task is, of course, easier to accomplish for the former, since natural sciences are, at least, deeply grounded in evolutionary theory and in some widely shared understanding of system ecology (although the number of competing ecological theories vaguely resemble to the Babylonian situation of social sciences). On the contrary, the situation of the social sciences makes it unavoidable a strict selection among the multitude of theories, hypotheses, concepts or simply unverified (and often unverifiable) ideas that pave the field. Moran's choice fell into a relatively small number of theories and concepts that, at least, possess some degree of empirical validity and explicitly take into account human-environment relationships, e.g., demographic transition theory, decision-making theories or cultural ecology.

The most important part of the book is devoted to a tentative sketch of what could be a true sustainability science. That is a challenging enterprise, going beyond the simple problem of merging knowledge coming from different disciplines and dealing with issues of complexity and multi-scale/multi-temporal analyses. Reading the book, it becomes clear that the road ahead is still long and difficult. Actually, one major merit of Moran's work is probably that it highlights some of the main research priorities of the new field, e.g., the relationship between social institutions and the dynamics of natural resources, the evaluation of ecosystem goods and services, and a better understanding of how current urbanization processes affect sustainability.

At least for non specialists, the best part of the book is probably the "technical" one that presents spatial approaches to the study of human-environment interactions. A spatial perspective can per se improve our knowledge in the study of "traditional" sociological or anthropological themes, but it becomes crucial for sustainability issues. However, a spatial approach means more than simply adding a geographical playground to individuals' actions. Rather, it means understanding landscape and other geographical characters both as important factors affecting agents' behaviour and as the ultimate target of their actions. GIS and remote sensing approaches can furnish nowadays an enormous amount or information with amazing precision. Nevertheless, this information is of little use if it is not explicitly incorporated in social-ecological models capable of linking it with the behaviour of agents living into the space under consideration.

While there is much to praise in Moran's work, one of the most deceiving part of the book is unfortunately the one closer to the interests of JASSS readers. Being accustomed to social simulation, I found the section devoted to agent-based modelling too simplistic. For instance, while recognizing that ABM may be an effective tool for exploring the complexity of social-ecological system, Moran complains against the abstraction of large part of simulation-based research. While it is true that early modellers usually designed highly abstract settings, since at least ten years it is quite commonplace to integrate ABM with empirical data. While the classic, from this point of view, is probably Axtell et al. (2002) "Artificial Anasazi" study (for a recent replication of the model, see Janssen 2009), empirically driven models have become increasingly common in recent years. Data are often drawn from experimental or field research (e.g., Deadman et al. 2000; Ormerod and Wiltshire 2009), but many recent works explicitly include in the model also an empirically founded spatial dimension (e.g., González-Bailón and Murphy 2008; Janssen and Ostrom 2006; Polhill et al. 2010; Smajgl and Carlin 2009).

A second limit of the volume is the excessive number of theories and concepts that are almost endlessly listed, page after page. This seriously limits the book readability. It is clear that the volume aims at collecting insights and basic concepts from different disciplines: something that makes some careful listing almost impossible to avoid. However, much of the added value of this kind of work derives from a critical reorganization of the insights given by previous researches. Unfortunately, from this point of view, Moran's book suffers from some limits, that future works should carefully address if they want to found a coherent sustainability science.

It is also worth signalling the number small mistakes and uncorrected data reported across the volume. For instance, at p. 6 (and again at p. 9) current human population is reported to be 6 billions, while we are at present almost 7 billions. Similarly, at p. 7 (and again at p. 14), it is argued that current greenhouse gas concentrations are "at the highest levels known over the past 400 millennia". Actually, a recent research has shown that at no time during the last 800 millennia carbon dioxide concentrations were as high as today (Lüthi et al. 2008). Another example can be found at p. 95, where mercury is listed among air pollutants, while it usually contaminates soils and waters.

Besides these shortcomings, the volume represents a step in the right direction. It is clear that the establishment of a new interdisciplinary field cannot be done without many serious attempts. Thanks to its capacity of surfing across natural and social sciences, Moran's work will at minimum help scholars from both sides to create bridges across the gap that still separates them; something that can already be seen as a non-trivial result.

* References

AXTELL, RL, EPSTEIN JM, DEAN JS, GUMERMAN GJ, SWEDLUND AC, HARBURGER J, CHAKRAVARTY S, HAMMOND R, PARKER J, and PARKER M (2002) Population growth and collapse in a multiagent model of the Kayenta Anasazi in Long House Valley. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 99: 7275-7279

BERKES, F, COLDING J, and FOLKE C, editors (2003) Navigating Social-Ecological Systems: Building Resilience for Complexity and Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

DEADMAN, P, SCHLAGER E, and GIMBLETT R (2000) Simulating Common Pool Resource Management Experiments with Adaptive Agents Employing Alternate Communication Routines. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 3, 2: https://www.jasss.org/3/2/2.html

GONZÁLEZ-BAILÓN, S and MURPHY TE (2008) When smaller families look contagious: A spatial look at the French fertility decline using an agent-based simulation model. Oxford Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History series No. 71

JANSSEN, MA (2009) Understanding Artificial Anasazi. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 12, 4: https://www.jasss.org/12/4/13.html

JANSSEN, MA and OSTROM, E (2006) Empirically Based, Agent-based models. Ecology and Society, 11, 2: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss2/art37/

LÜTHI, D, FLOCH, ML, BEREITER, B, BLUNIER, T, BARNOLA, JM, SIEGENTHALER, U, RAYNAUD, D, JOUZEL, J, FISCHER, H, KAWAMURA, K, and STOCKER, TF (2008) High-resolution carbon dioxide concentration record 650,000-800,000 years before present. Nature, 453: 379-382

ORMEROD, P and WILTSHIRE, G (2009) 'Binge' drinking in the UK: a social network phenomenon. Mind&Society, 8, 2, pp. 135-152

POLHILL, JG, SUTHERLAND, LA, and GOTTS, NM (2010) Using Qualitative Evidence to Enhance an Agent-Based Modelling System for Studying Land Use Change. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 13, 2: https://www.jasss.org/13/2/10.html

SMAJGL, A and CARLIN, G (2009) Agent-based Policy Assessment in Indonesia: Poverty, energy and forests. The 6th Conference of the European Social Simulation Association. Electronic Proceedings. ISBN: 1844690172


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