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Managing ecological thresholds in coupled environmental-human systems


Many ecosystems appear subject to regime shifts—abrupt changes from one state to another after crossing a threshold or tipping point. Thresholds and their associated stability landscapes are determined within a coupled socioeconomic–ecological system (SES) where human choices, including those of managers, are feedback responses. Prior work has made one of two assumptions about managers: that they face no institutional constraints, in which case the SES may be managed to be fairly robust to shocks and tipping points are of little importance, or that managers are rigidly constrained with no flexibility to adapt, in which case the inferred thresholds may poorly reflect actual managerial flexibility. We model a multidimensional SES to investigate how alternative institutions affect SES stability landscapes and alter tipping points. With institutionally dependent human feedbacks, the stability landscape depends on institutional arrangements. Strong institutions that account for feedback responses create the possibility for desirable states of the world and can cause undesirable states to cease to exist. Intermediate institutions interact with ecological relationships to determine the existence and nature of tipping points. Finally, weak institutions can eliminate tipping points so that only undesirable states of the world remain.