The history of human use and abuse of ecosystems tells the story of adaptation tothe changing conditions that we create. Often, the response has been to increasecontrol over resources through domestication and simplification of landscapes andseascapes to increase production, avoid fluctuations, and reduce uncertainty (1, 2).
This behavior has decreased temporal variability at the expense of increased spatialdependence on other areas on Earth. Human activities have become globally interconnectedand intensified through new technology, capital markets, and systems ofgovernance, with decisions in one place influencing people elsewhere. At the sametime, the capacity of the environment, from local ecosystems to the biosphere, tosustain societal development seems to have been reduced over historical time (3,4) and at increasing pace during the past century (5). This has lead to vulnerabilityin many places and regions with constrained options for human livelihoods andprogress (6, 7). But has humanity adapted its capacity for learning and foresightto deal with this new and challenging situation?Sometimes change in ecosystems and society is gradual or incremental.
Duringperiods of steady progress, things move forward in roughly continuous and predictableways. At other times, change is abrupt, disorganizing, or turbulent. Duringsuch periods, experience tends to be incomplete for understanding, consequencesof actions are ambiguous, and the future of system dynamics is often unclear anduncertain (8). Evidence points to a situation where periods of abrupt change are expectedto increase in frequency, duration, and magnitude (9). At the same time, thecapacity of ecosystems to remain within desired states in the face of abrupt changeseems to have been reduced as a consequence of human actions (10). Vulnerableterrestrial and aquatic ecosystems may easily shift into undesired states in the senseof providing ecosystem services to society.
The existence of such alternate regimesposes new fundamental challenges to environment and resource management (11).Theories and approaches to environment and resource management have to alarge extent focused on single issues or resources and been based on a steady-stateview, interpreting change as gradual and incremental and disregarding interactionsacross scales. Such partial approaches are less useful in the current situationwherein the capacity of many ecosystems to generate resources and ecosystem servicesfor societal development has become vulnerable to change and no longer canbe taken for granted. Furthermore, it is now clear that patterns of production, consumption,and well-being arise not only from economic and social relations withinregions but also depend on the capacity of other regions’ ecosystems to sustainthem (12, 13).Amajor challenge is to assure this capacity in the face of change (14).Emerging theories and approaches point to the importance of assessing and actively