Background/Question/Methods Over the last decades, the importance of considering people as part of ecological systems has led to the rise of social-ecological research. Researchers have conceptualized ecosystem services (also called nature’s contributions to people) as the links between the ecological and social subsystems. Recent social-ecological frameworks, like that of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), show the social-ecological system as circular, with each subsystem (social, ecological) influenced by and influencing the other. Additional complexity is added to these frameworks through different scales that might be applicable (e.g., temporal, spatial) and forms of knowledge that are considered (e.g., Indigenous, local, scientific). In this project, we set out to understand existing social-ecological frameworks and their applications in decision-making and ecological research. We focus on Canada, where the economy heavily relies on natural resources and a history of colonialism has discriminated against Indigenous communities for centuries. These features make Canada an ideal case to test social-ecological frameworks for their applicability in real-world case studies where decision-makers operate in complex contexts bringing different interests, rights, and worldviews together and simplification would do justice to the situation and reinforce injustices and existing inequalities and unsustainable ecological situations.
Results/Conclusions We find three aspects that are crucial for social-ecological frameworks to reflect the multi-faceted reality of social-ecological systems: 1) The research philosophy (e.g., ontology and epistemology) behind the framework, 2) the representation of the framework, and 3) the relationality of system components. First, understanding the research philosophy, rarely discussed in social-ecological research, is essential to shed lights on the questions of what is real and what can we know. We look at different ecosystem services conceptualizations and how they reflect specific research philosophies and, in this way, make themselves available for different user communities (e.g., researchers, decision-makers). Second, given the nature of most academic publication, social-ecological frameworks have so far always displayed in a two-dimensional space. We argue that the flat representation of a framework results in a ‘flat’ (under complex) understanding of the system. We present a framework with an added dimension which helps to see how different perspective look at a given situation in different ways. Last, we discuss how a deeper engagement with relationality helps to avoid hierarchical or linear thinking about systems and their interaction. Here we are guided especially by Indigenous knowledge as opposed to categorical western thinking.