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In academia, social systems and ecological systems are often treated separately but there is an increasing awareness of the need to bridge disciplinary gaps and understand fully coupled social-ecological systems (SESs) in order to come to terms with modern environmental problems. Trained as a political economist, Dr. Webster focuses her own research on the social side of SESs but she also works with scholars from other disciplines to explore the dynamics of coupled human and natural systems. Responsive governance is a core concept for most of the research undertaken at the Webster lab. Governance is responsive when actors respond to environmental problems rather that work to solve them proactively, before the costs of overexploitation or pollution set in. Responses can be social, economic, or political and often fall into all three categories, but individuals tend to try the most expedient options first, resulting in a trial and error process that can be either adaptive (generating solutions) or maladaptive (minimizing problem signals without solving problems).

Figure H.1 The Governance Treadmill

Figure H.1 The Governance Treadmill

As shown in figure H.1, responsive governance leads to periodic switching back and forth between ineffective and effective governance cycles. Dr. Webster refers to this as the governance treadmill. This analogy reflects the chronic nature of governance in a complex and imperfect world; it is not an assertion that governance is futile, but rather that governance is the constant exercise we need to maintain healthy social-ecological systems. Governance failures occur when the treadmill breaks down, usually due to disconnects between those who feel the effects of environmental problems and those who have the power to shape responsive governance. When environmental costs are born by the economically or politically marginalized, response tends to be delayed. Maladaptive responses can make this problem worse.  Implementation of silver-bullet “solutions”, often policies that scapegoat marginalized populations, tends to widen disconnects. When societies are caught up in such cycles of rationalization, switching to an effective cycle is nearly impossible until severe crisis sets in, throwing us off the treadmill or even breaking the “machine” itself. These disconnects are the focus of our most recent project, Global Connections.

Of course, exogenous forces are also important, and can alter the functioning of the treadmill, as well as the sustainability of SESs, without any change in governance. For instance, shifts in oceanographic conditions may make higher total allowable catch more sustainable while an increase in demand for wildlife products tends to undermine formerly effective trade-based mechanisms by making illegal trafficking more profitable. Indeed, increasing demand for products disrupts many of the the most important economic problem signals associated with resource extraction, compounding the signal disruption created by well-studied economic factors such as externalities (costs or benefits not included in the price of a good or service). These economic elements of the governance treadmill are explored in our Consumer Choice and Sustainability Project. We are also developing new ways to model the impacts of environmental factors like climate change on SESs generally and the governance treadmill specifically through our Fishscape Project, which serves as a prototype for a spatially-explicit computational model of large-scale complex fisheries such as the purse seine fishery for tropical tunas in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Methodologically, research in the Webster Lab ranges from detailed process tracing and historiography in the Responsive Governance Project to computational models, including the GIS-based Fishscape Project and a suite of agent based models used in the Consumer Choice and Sustainability Project. Data collection through surveys and interviews is an important component of many of these projects. The overall goal of all of this research is to advance our theoretical understanding of SESs as complex systems that display emergent properties using the responsive governance lens. Visit our Projects page to learn more about our work.