Complex Social-Ecological Systems

My work on complex social-ecological systems includes work in Zimbabwe and California and currently focuses on Agent-Based Modeling and Social Networks Analysis.

Santa Fe Institute 2015 Complex Systems Summer School

As part of my work as an NSF Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability Fellow, I attended the Santa Fe Institute’s Summer School on Complex Systems.  We learned many methods and perspectives on the description, dynamics, and prediction of complex systems.  I am working with two different groups of fellow summer school students on two different methods of exploring the resilience of the social-ecological system studied by The Muonde Trust in Mazvihwa Communal Area, Zimbabwe.

Agent-Based Modeling of a Feedback-Rich Complex Agro-Pastoral System

The Muonde Trust has been engaged in a 35-year collaborative research project, and I have been engaged with the community research team to develop methods of modeling the resilience of their system and synthesizing their long-term data to answer pressing concerns about sustainable environmental management.  One of our specific projects is an agent-based model of the farmers’ agro-pastoral system (see its GitHub repository, and its entry on the CoMSES Computational Model Library).

ModelScreenshotThis model features the feedbacks between crops/arable land, cows/livestock, and woodland/grazing area/sacred forest. For example, cows are needed to plough crops, but will also try to eat the crops, so woodland trees need to be cut down to make brushwood fences, but this isn’t desirable because the woodland has cultural, practical, and spiritual value as well as providing browse for livestock to eat.  This is a classic situation of multiple-use, so maximizing any one component will not result in a sustainable system, and in fact human management actions that support one component may unintentionally hurt a different component.  Into this situation comes climate change and increasingly long droughts and erratic rainfall.  Our model incorporates these feedbacks and management strategies as well as different ways to make rainfall more extreme at a year-to-year level.  I am currently analyzing the final results of the model and preparing a paper for Ecology and Society describing these tradeoffs. The focus of the model analysis is on the ability of management techniques to keep the system sustainable for multiple uses (livestock, crops, and woodland) in the face of increasing climate variability.

Dynamics of Households and Kinship in Rural Zimbabwe

I addition to the agro-pastoral model, we are examining the community’s social resilience and comparing the stability of households, genealogical kinship networks, and other structures through social network analysis.  Household composition tends to change a great deal over the course of the 35-year dataset, with new households forming and moving to areas recently available for settlement, and the community makes use of a variety of different strategies for sharing resources. This project is currently in prep for PLoS ONE.

Tribal Water Quality Social Networks

I am working with Sibyl Diver and the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources to represent and analyze the diversity of their collaborations on a variety of water quality issues on the Klamath River in Northern California.  Preliminary results indicate that with only five staff members, the Tribe works with almost 200 different organizations through direct contacts and coalition memberships, and a large number of these organizations are not governmental entities (despite the Tribe’s status as a sovereign nation).  Research on this project is ongoing, and we hope to write a paper about it for Society and Natural Resources.

I am also working on setting up a modeling project with the Karuk Tribe on vegetation and fire dynamics modeling.  We would work together on several modeling needs that we collectively identified, and I would also help the Tribal managers evaluate whether the models they use are sufficiently aligned with Tribal values, knowledge, and goals.  I have received approval for this project from the Karuk Resources Advisory Board through their Practicing Píkyav process.