Lost and Found: Uncovering Missing Feedbacks in a Coral Reef Social–Ecological System

Over the last decades, a continuous increase of economic, environmental and social connectivity occurred on a global level. While globalization facilitates human development, it can also conceal local developments. This, in turn, can have detrimental effects on the sustainability of local social–ecological systems: through a worldwide connection of social-ecological processes, feedbacks on the local level that indicate unsustainable use of resources can be weakened or lost. Dajka et al. (2020) suggest that in order to achieve a more sustainable future, feedbacks that underpin social–ecological trajectories have to be considered and managed. Using the example of Jamaican coral reefs, the authors demonstrate how the “red loop – green loop” concept can highlight missing feedbacks and help understand past, present and future sustainability in social-ecological settings.

Coral reefs are anlaysed as social-ecological systems by Dajka et al. (2020).

Social-ecological systems are characterized by complex interconnections and feedbacks. In a globalized world however, dynamics like international trade can result in social systems getting decoupled from local ecosystems: as the geographical distance between the location of consumption and production increases, feedbacks in social-ecological systems can get masked. In other words, feedbacks may no longer be obvious when human consumption in a given place is not coupled with the local ecosystem. This opens unsustainable pathways and may result in adverse regime shifts. To be able to capture and respond to signals that indicate changes in ecosystems it is critical to reinstate missing feedbacks and recouple the social-ecological system.

In order to uncover masked feedbacks in a coral reef social-ecological system, Dajka et al. (2020) draw on Cumming et al. (2014) who provide a framing which assists with feedback classification and the identification of missing feedbacks. The “red loop – green loop” concept by Cumming et al. (2014) proposes that human resource dependence on a national scale tends to follow one of two fundamentally different trajectories. The red loop trajectory is reinforced by weak ties with local ecosystems and strong ties with distal systems. Meanwhile, the green loop is characterized by strong ties with local ecosystems and weak ties with distal systems.

The long-term sustainability of both trajectories can be threatened by trap situations. Green traps can occur as the human population in a green-loop economy grows without adequate food production from the local ecosystem. This can lead to a spiral of increased overharvesting and environmental degradation. In red-loop systems, the economy’s ecological impact affects distal ecosystems as well as the local system. Supply and consumption are maintained without recognition of the ecological degradation taking place in other local ecosystems due to missing feedbacks. In order to move economic sectors out of green- or red-trap trajectories, missing feedbacks have to be identified. Then, interventions to reinstate them could recouple local social-ecological systems and facilitate their long-term sustainability.

Dajka et al. (2020) apply the red loop – green loop framework to understand and classify social-ecological dynamics shaping Jamaican coral reefs. By using mixed historical data dating back to roughly the year 600, the study uncovers missing feedbacks between the Jamaican people and their coral reef system. The island’s coral reef system exhibited green-loop dynamics during the Ostionan period up to the 900s. Over the following centuries, the system dynamics moved between all four dynamic states described by the concept. Most recently, intense resource extraction for international trade decoupled the social-ecological system, reinforcing red-trap dynamics.


Visualization of the approach by Dajka et al. (2020). The study integrates two complementary concepts: 1) red-loop green-loop classification of historical time periods leading to 2) uncovering missing feedbacks. In a third step, they suggest 3) mechanisms to reinstate the feedbacks and recouple the coral reef social-ecological system. (From Dajka et al. 2020, p.3).

Following their analysis, Dajka et al. (2020) discuss possible interventions to support the recoupling of the Jamaican coral reef system. Generally, highlighting missing feedbacks can help steer a system out of red-trap dynamics. In the case of Jamaica, the authors recommend tackling the systemic design of the coral reef social-ecological system, rather than only few systemic parameters. This prioritization of interventions is highlighted by the ‘Leverage Points’ perspective (Abson et al. 2017, Fischer and Riechers 2019). The historical analysis of the island shows that seafood exports were a main driver in decoupling the feedback within the coral reef system. Therefore, Dajka et al. (2020) propose deep leverage points, that is transforming the design the local reef system towards green-loop dynamics in which locally sourced reef produce are rerouted from exports to domestic markets. This would reinstate a direct feedback between the Jamaican society and the local reef ecosystem. For this reinstated feedback to be sustainable and avoid a green-trap scenario, careful monitoring and management of the resource will be necessary.

A conceptual scenario of future dynamics of the Jamaican coral reef social-ecological system as proposed by Dajka et al. (2020). (Modified from Dajka et al. 2020, p.5).

In the broader picture, Dajka et al. (2020) stress that labelling schemes, education and public campaigns are central instruments for consumers to make informed decisions that can help reinstate feedbacks and strengthen green loops. The availability of detailed data to understand past, current and future dynamics in social-ecological systems is key to facilitating meaningful interventions in unsustainable systems.

Follow this link to read the full paper by Dajka et al. (2020).

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