How do scientist study the connection between nature and society?

by Hanneke van  't Veen


The connection between nature and people is often very complex. Think for example about the origin of a wooden chair. Even though it seems to be a super simple object, there are many questions that you need to ask before you understand its impact on nature and society.

The chair:

Who has made the chair? Where was the chair made? How many chairs were produced and why? Where does the wood come from? Who extracted the wood? Why does this person extract wood? Which rules (management) did the person that harvested the wood have to oblige to? Why does this management regime (set of rules and regulations) exist in this area? Does the person extracting wood oblige to the rules? Why does this person (not) oblige to rules and regulations? What benefits does the (production of) chair have for society? What is the effect of the production on chairs on the forest from which the wood is extracted?

Figure 1.  An example of how a model can help you understand the relationship between nature and products under different conditions.

All these questions and many more for a chair. As you can imagine, understanding the effects of the production of a chair on nature and society is very difficult. It depends on a wide range of variables, such as how fast the natural resource reproduces, how extensively it is harvested, what management regimes are in place and the norms, and the norms and values of people harvesting the wood and using the chair. To make it even more difficult, this all changes over space and time; often a change in one variable, such as the harvest of wood, influences another variable, such as the management of a forest.  

Because reality is complex, even for a tiny product like a chair, it is often difficult to understand the influence of the production of chairs on nature and society by observing real-life situations. To overcome this problem, people invented ‘models’. Models are simplifications of reality. Because models are simple, the human mind can understand their outcome. Let’s for instance say we are interested in answering the following question: “What is the effect of production of chairs on the forest from which the wood is extracted?” This is a very difficult question to answer, especially if you would like to understand the effect in the future. Models allow you to pick those variables in the chair production process that you think influence chair production over time and ignore all other stuff. Using this information you can visualize how the production of chairs influences nature and vice versa based on the currently available information (fig. 1). You can make it as simple or complicated as you want. In the end all models can be fed with information that is collected in the field to see if the models are right or not.