“Everything flows” – Heraclitus is credited for having said that. Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher from Antiquity and his philosophy argued that the universe is characterized by constant change.
However, the way we tend to think of the world in present times is quite at odds with what Heraclitus proposed. We talk and think in terms of things and entities that are stable, unchanging and have a defined set of properties. This is understandable, because doing so allows us to control, predict and manage our environment.
But is that adequate? Think of a typical forest. It changes all the time. You can see traces of how multiple social and ecological processes have shaped it everywhere: exploitation of wood, construction of paths for recreation (e.g. running events such as in the picture), forest fires, seed dispersal, animal activities, cultural activities, beliefs or taboos. Together they create the forest we see and experience. Hence, can we really understand what a forest is without taking into account how it is constantly shaped by past and present processes of interactions?
If we cannot see the forest as being an ecosystem that exists independent from us, it means that the forest is what it is because of our interaction with it. We thus need account for these continuous interactions when trying to understand and attempting to manage it. However, the dominant philosophical perspective based on things and entities poses several barriers to doing so.
This paper presents an alternative philosophical perspective that allows us to see change as being more fundamental than stability and applies it to social-ecological systems understood as systems that continuously adapt in sometimes unpredictable and non-linear ways, and where the social and the ecological are fundamentally intertwined. This will enable SES researchers to conceptualize problems as well as corresponding solutions in novel ways which will ultimately support the development of novel governance approaches: rethinking the aims of policies from managing people towards managing relations between and among people and the natural system.