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Current insights into social ecology: special issue of the journal ‚Sustainability‘ published

In the last decades social ecology has made important contributions to sustainability research. As the science of societal relationship to nature it evolved in the late 1980s. Today, the approach that understands complex environmental problems to be rooted in the critical relationship between society and nature is regarded to be fundamental for research dealing with sustainable development. Now, with a special issue of the renowned international journal ‘Sustainability’ a comprehensive insight is given to the state of the art of social-ecological research.

The special issue “Social Ecology. State of the Art and Future Prospects” was published by the Vienna Institute for Social Ecology (SEC) of the faculty for interdisciplinary research and education at the Alpen-Adria-University Klagenfurt and ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research, Frankfurt am Main. Both institutes have significantly coined social ecology in the German speaking countries during the last decades. The focal point of both institutes’ scientific work is the question of how the complex relations between society and nature can be theoretically captured, empirically investigated and sustainably shaped.

The interdisciplinary journal ‚Sustainability‘ is giving a comprehensive outline of the current state of social-ecological research. Guest editors Johanna Kramm and Martin Zimmermann from ISOE as well as Melanie Pichler and Anke Schaffartzik from SEC have compiled eleven contributions from 29 scientists from Vienna and Frankfurt. Among them are articles on the conceptional and theoretical foundations of social ecology as well as contributions on specific empirical case studies.

The peer reviewed essays are inter alia dealing with the role of social ecology as a critical, transdisciplinary science, with the current challenges for social-ecological transformations and with ecosystem services as one of the key concepts of sustainability research. Risks with regard to handling natural resources like water are also addressed.

Social ecology as a key for sustainability research

Social ecology evolved in the 1980s from the critical perspective on an environmental research that was technically-oriented and dominated by the natural sciences. Since the Chernobyl nuclear accident at the latest, this view proved to be too limited to capture complex environmental problems. “Social ecology and its social science informed approach has from the start never been an alternative to the classic conception of science but an expansion helping to overcome the narrow view of the natural and engineering sciences”, says Thomas Jahn, member of ISOE’s executive board and its spokesperson. Today, social-ecological explanatory models for the relational patterns of society and nature are seen as scientifically established and fundamental for understanding and shaping transformation processes.

„The adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement mark examples for the contested character of environmental politics and emphasize the importance of social-ecological research that combines societal dynamics with ecological consequences”, states Melanie Pichler. “We have to understand the biophysical basis of our societies in order to reflect on the possibilities and limits of sustainable development“, adds Anke Schaffartzik. „We are therefore pleased to share with the scientific community some recent results of and productive frontiers for social-ecological research“, conclude the guest editors from Institute of Social Ecology.

The special edition of ‘Sustainability’: ‘Social ecology. State of the Art and Future Prospects’ is available as Open Access edition.