Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment / CBIE Working Papers / The Effect of Infrastructure on Social-Ecological System Dynamics: Provision Thresholds and Asymmetric Access

The Effect of Infrastructure on Social-Ecological System Dynamics: Provision Thresholds and Asymmetric Access

CBIE_WP-2014-007

Abstract

For several millennia, humans have created built environments to harness natural processes for their benefit. Today, human-environment interactions are mediated extensively by physical infrastructure in both rural and urban environments. Yet studies of social-ecological systems (SESs) have not paid suficient attention to how infrastructure influences coupled natural and social processes. This misses an important point: critical infrastructure is often a public good that depends on cooperation of the agents who share it. Using a model of an irrigation system (the most ancient of public infrastructure systems) as a testing ground, we found that two properties of infrastructure, threshold of provision and asymmetric access to benefits, greatly influence SES sustainability. Asymmetric access to benefits induces regimes of economic inequality. High thresholds suppress economic inequality, but at the cost of increased likelihood of system collapse. Low thresholds help to avoid system collapse, but may make the system more vulnerable to economic inequality and socioeconomic stresses. Understanding how small scale irrigation SESs may respond to such globalization-related stresses is relevant for agricultural policy and our results provide some general guidance in this regard.

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Published August 27, 2014

David J. Yu, Purdue University

Murad R. Qubbaj, Arizona State University, Department of Physics

Rachata Muneepeerakul, University of Florida

John M. Anderies, Arizona State University, School of Sustainability/School of Human Evolution and Social Change