Integrated European
Long-Term Ecosystem, critical zone and
socio-ecological Research

Understanding sustainability pathways in Long-Term Social-Ecological Research Platforms

17 October 2022

Enabling robust and just pathways to sustainability requires understanding how social-ecological systems (SES) respond to different governance configurations. The latter are, in turn, explained through their historical trajectories, biophysical conditions, institutional dynamics, political-economic contexts, dominant discourses, and power differentials. All these factors must be considered to devise future governance configurations that are able to foster successful sustainability pathways.

Key questions are where and how we should start such a convoluted task, involving multiple actors with different interests, values and beliefs about nature and sustainability. Recent research in the Doñana region (Guadalquivir estuary, SW Spain), an estuary-delta SES and LTSER Platform, offers some answers to those questions. Doñana is characterized by a “rigid” governance configuration for water resource use and wetland conservation, posing a continuous risk of “locking-in” a situation from which it would be more difficult to achieve sustainability outcomes.

Based on a novel pluralist combination of resilience thinking, institutional and discourse analysis, a power typology, and transformative innovation policy concepts, this recent research offers several ingredients to start working towards a sustainability pathway: (1) enhancing existing institutional and governance mechanisms for improving water resources development and management, and protecting nature; (2) designing policy mixes that incentivize key powerful socioeconomic actors and decision makers to coordinate for achieving mid-term collective sustainability outcomes involving some individual risks; (3) penalizing inaction and non-decision making leading to undesirable collective outcomes, at all planning, sectoral and management levels; (4) promoting the current wealth of “latent” pluralism in the region through novel governance spaces engaging diverse actors, protecting innovations set in motion by emerging networks, and promoting second-order learning (e.g., deep changes in values and beliefs about nature).

These ingredients, the researchers argue, could help prevent harmful social and political dynamics, and create a new baseline governance configuration more prone to nurture the conditions for a sustainability pathway. For further reading check the related publications in Advances in Ecological Research and a SocArXiv preprint.