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A Road Map Toward Better Understanding of Global Environmental Change

Map of "Social Process," showing key systems and interactions among systems that were seen as underpinning the human “drivers” of global environmental change.
The Social Process Diagram, published in 1992, was an attempt to map out the key systems and interactions among systems that were seen as underpinning the human drivers of global environmental change.

In the late 1980s, the scientific disciplines that had for the most part independently studied the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land, cryosphere, and ecology recognized the need to conceptualize the Earth as an interactive set of systems, affected both directly and indirectly by human activities. This led to the development of the so-called Bretherton diagram, a conceptual framework or road map set out in a set of reports led by meteorologist Francis P. Bretherton (NASA 1986, Figures 2 and 3). In the simplified version of this diagram, human activities were depicted as a single element, affecting land use and water and emitting pollutants, and affected primarily by climate change and changes in terrestrial ecosystems.

As noted in a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) article by Harold A. Mooney, Anantha Duraiappah, and Anne Larigauderie (2013), many parts of the scientific community concerned with global environmental change at that time saw the need for an analogous road map for assessing the ways in which human systems and social processes interact, affecting environmental systems and processes on a global scale. Under the leadership of William Kuhn and Harold Jacobson of the University of Michigan, CIESIN—then a consortium based in Michigan—convened a Human Interactions Working Group which held a meeting at the Aspen Global Change Institute in 1991. The resulting report, Pathways of Understanding:The Interactions of Humanity and Global Environmental Change, was published by CIESIN in 1992 and included as its central output the “Social Process Diagram,” reproduced here.

The Social Process Diagram was an explicit attempt to map out the key systems and interactions among systems that were seen as underpinning the human “drivers” of global environmental change. It identified seven structural components: fund of knowledge and experience; preferences and expectations; political systems and institutions; population and social structure; global scale environmental processes; economic systems; and factors of production and technology. The Working Group viewed the last six components as having strong geographic dimensions, whereas knowledge and experience were thought to be accumulated and shared by all. The connections between the components represent key forces and feedbacks in the overall system, including, for example, demographic impacts on political systems, labor supply, consumption, and expectations, and the reciprocal effects of population policies, migration pressures, labor demand, and household behavior on population growth and change. The diagram and associated report sought to distinguish between short- and long-term processes affecting the evolution of and feedbacks between the structural components.

Front cover of report, "Pathways of Understanding"Although some aspects of the Social Process Diagram have been embedded in areas of human dimensions research such as the development of integrated assessment models, the need to better characterize and understand the complexity of interactions between social structures and processes and the environment remains a significant challenge. Whereas the Bretherton diagram clearly served as an important road map for the various Earth sciences to collaborate in developing a more transdisciplinary Earth system science over the past two decades, the Social Process Diagram did not have a comparable effect on the relevant social sciences and interdisciplinary research fields such as disaster research. In part this may have reflected the great diversity of the social sciences in terms of theory, methods, models, and data, as well as the much more limited resources available to the human dimensions research community during this period. Regardless, recent efforts to conceptualize “sustainability science” (e.g., Kates 2011) and to establish integrated international research programs such as Future Earth suggest the importance of continuing efforts to map out the key elements and processes central to interactions between humans and the global environment. Perhaps over time as we increase—and share—our “fund of knowledge and experience” about how humans interact with the environment, we will be in a better position to create an improved social process road map to help us not only diagnose how we’ve gotten to where we are today, but also guide the development of a sustainable future.


This blog is part of the Map of the Month blog series produced by the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). The map review and commentary were prepared by director Robert Chen, with the assistance of senior digital archivist Robert Downs, senior information specialist Joe Schumacher, associate research scientist Susana Adamo, geographic information specialists Linda Pistolesi and Tricia Chai-Onn, and communications coordinator Elisabeth Sydor.


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