Introduction - Why ESEFVs?

The functional characteristics of natural and human-influenced systems include ecological, physical and sociological processes, and their interactions. Historically, Earth Systems have been categorized by their structural and compositional features, but rarely have spatio-temporal analyses focused on functional features of systems, in other words, how systems operate rather than how they appear. Challenges that humanity face in the Anthropocene require new approaches to better understand the linkages and feedbacks between society and nature.

To date, approaches for social-ecological system (SES) mapping have been biased towards some of the components of the SES framework (patterns of ecosystem services supply and demand, or some biophysical and social characteristics), in an isolated way. Operational frameworks are still needed for a multidimensional understanding of the functioning of social-ecological systems (SESs) and for integrating ecosystem service science into decision making processes that pursuit sustainability and social-ecological resilience.

Our aim is to produce an integrative characterization of coupled human and natural systems, which incorporates all the components of the social-ecological system (SES) framework (Resilience Alliance, 2007; Martín-López et al., 2009) into a functional classification and mapping of SESs. For this, we propose an adapted version of this framework to emphasize on the main processes that at the regional scale and landscape level determine the functioning of the three SESs components: the ecosystem, the social system, and the interactions between them (Figure 1). In our framework, each component is subdivided in several functional dimensions, and each dimension includes a set of candidate essential variables to characterize the functioning of SES (‘ESEFVs’ – Essential Social-Ecological Functional Variables).

We propose to search and agree on a set of ESEFVs that capture key processes and functions of SESs at the regional scale and landscape level.


To select the dimensions and candidates to ESEFVs, we conducted a profound literature review. We investigated about the different approaches used to conceptualize and map social-ecological systems, and then we listed those variables that were directly applied in some analysis or mentioned in the theoretical development of the study. We consider as candidate to ESEFVs those variables that encompass and integrate critical processes to characterize the functioning of social-ecological systems. Following GEOBON approach for Essential Biodiversity Variables, ESEFVs should be state variables, but useful for change monitoring. Also, they should be coherent and appropriate for comparing across social-ecological systems diversity. Spatially, these variables aim to target the ecosystem level and the human community level. Ideally, they should be already available or technically feasible and economically viable for regional or global implementation in monitoring programs, regional land-use planning, and sustainability and resilience assessment.

In general, we selected as candidate ESEFVs those variables that follow two main criteria: 1) representative to describe SES functioning; and 2) useful and feasible for SES characterization and mapping at a regional scale and landscape level.

It is worth noting that our aim is not to produce a list of essential variables to characterize each one of the dimensions by separate, but keep only those variables that can be essential to describe the functioning of social-ecological systems as a whole, from a holistic perspective.

Online Survey on ESEFVs

To agree on a list of ESEFVs, we have developed this online survey, whose objective is to collect expert opinions about which of the candidate variables that we propose are considered essential to characterize the functioning of social-ecological systems (SESs). Punctuations obtained with this survey will be used not only to prioritize the selection of ESEFVs, but also to weight selected ESEFVs in the construction of composite indexes for some functional dimensions proposed to characterize SESs functioning.

We encourage you to fill our survey in only 10 minutes

Online Survey on Essential Variables to describe the functioning of social-ecological systems

Figure 1. Conceptual framework for functional characterization of social-ecological systems

Our adapted SESs conceptual framework pursues a concrete objective: to give structure and coherence to the set of functional dimensions and candidate variables that we want to propose as essential to produce a functional characterization of social-ecological systems. The approach we use is based on the conceptual diagram proposed by Resilience Alliance (2007) (Figure 2) of elements of a social-ecological system. Hence, the three main components of the conceptual framework proposed are the subsystems ‘ecosystem’ and ‘social system’, and the ‘interactions’ between them. We have introduced some modifications, in order to reflect a dynamic and functional perspective to carry out the study of social-ecological systems functioning.


Figure 2. Conceptual diagram of elements of a social-ecological system (Resilience Alliance, 2007), from which we inspire our conceptual framework for functional characterization of SESs.



Component 1. Social system

For the social system component, we found as the most understandable option to group the variables into two main dimensions: human population dynamics, and social well-being and development.

Human population dynamics

Within human population dynamics, we propose six candidate variables that based on literature reviews, are shown as the most critical to characterize the functioning of a human population as a component of the SES.

Candidate ESEFVs Possible Indicators
Population size
Population density
Population distribution % rural population vs. % urban population
Age structure median age, population ageing index
Sex Ratio
Human migrations % of inmigrants/emigrants in a population

Social well-being & develoment

Human well-being and development is a dimension with an extend literature background that counts with numerous approaches for being measure through the calculation of composite indicators. Based on several studies that have worked with this kind of variables and indicators (Bonet-García et al., 2015; Rodríguez-Loinaz et al., 2015; Hamann et al., 2015; Cumming et al., 2014; Fischer-Kowalski et al., 2014), we selected 14 variables that a priori we considered more determining for describe SESs functioning.

Candidate ESEFVs Possible Indicators
Life expectancy life expectancy at birth
Mortality infant mortality rate
Access to drinking water distance to drinking water
Electricity access % of houses using electricity
Water sanitation % of houses using improved sanitation facilities
Overcrowding people per home
Employment economically active population
Economic level of the population income per house/ per capita
Educational level of the population illiteracy rate, % of population with higher education, school enrolment rate, out of school rate for adolescents
Social equality wealth distribution, women participation in goverment, women literacy rate
Institutional diversity
Access to internet % of houses using internet
Environmental quality air, water and soil pollution levels
Land protection % of protected area

Component 2. Ecosystem

In the ecosystem component, we have selected five dimensions with the aim to encompass the most important aspects involved in ecosystem functioning. Nine candidate ESEFVs were distributed between carbon dynamics (1), water dynamics (1), energy dynamics (3), nutrient cycling (2) and disturbance regime (2) dimensions. Candidate ESEFVs have been proposed taking into account it feasibility for being measured through remote sensing.

Carbon dynamics

Candidate ESEFV Possible Indicator
Net Primary Productivity Fraction of Absorbed Photosynthetically Active Radiation

Water dynamics

Candidate ESEFV

Energy dynamics

Candidate ESEFVs
Land surface energy balance
Land surface temperature

Nutrient cycling

Candidate ESEFVs
Nitrogen cycling
Phosphorus cycling

Disturbance regime

Candidate ESEFVs
Fire occurrence
Drought ocurrence

Component 3. Interactions

Finally, in the component of interactions, we distinguish between five functional dimensions, that represent the three main directions of the fluxes between the ecosystem and the social system:

  • From the ecosystem to the social system, the main interactions are represented by ecosystem services supply and ecosystem disservices supply.
  • From the social system to the ecosystem, candidate ESEFVs are grouped into ecosystem services demand and human pressure on environment.
  • In the third typology of the interactions, we aim to include the degree of coupling that exists between the social system and the ecosystems. We conceive social-ecological coupling as an interaction that does not show up as a flux or an action that happens from one system to another (like ecosystem services supply or demand, or human pressure on environment), but as a state dimension that indicates the strength of local-regional links and feedbacks between ecosystem functioning and social functioning.

Ecosystem services supply

Ecosystem services supply candidate variables to ESEFVs were inspired from the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES) 4.3 version (European Environment Agency, 2013). In these dimension, we propose 21 candidate variables grouped into provisioning (8), regulating (9) and cultural services (4). For provisioning and regulating services, we considered the ‘class’ level of this classification as the most appropriate for defining the variables, because they indicate “biological or material outputs and biophysical and cultural processes that can be linked back to concrete identifiable service sources”. In some cases, to express the service as a variable, we made some changes to the original CICES classes. For instance, ‘cultivated crops’ is a provisioning service at the class level in CICES classification that we transformed in the variable ‘agricultural production’. In other cases, to gain simplicity, we discarded some classes or we joined several classes into one class. For cultural services, we based on ‘group’ level of CICES classification. These variables have to be interpreted as the potential of the territory so that those interactions occur.

Provisioning services supply

Candidate ESEFVs
Agricultural production
Livestock production
Wild plants, algae and their outputs for food
Wild animals and their outputs for food
Surface and ground water sources for drinking
Surface and ground water sources for non-drinking purposes
Fibres and other materials from plants, algae and animals for direct use or processing
Biomass-based energy sources

Regulation & maintenance services supply

Candidate ESEFVs
Bio-remediation/ filtration/ sequestration/ storage/ accumulation by micro-organisms, algae, plants, and animals (of waste, toxics and other nuisances)
Mass stabilisation and control of erosion rates
Hydrological cycle and water flow maintenance
Ventilation and transpiration
Pollination and seed dispersal
Pest and disease control
Weathering, decomposition and fixing rates (for soil formation)
Chemical conditions maintenance of freshwaters and salt waters
Global climate regulation (by reduction of greenhouse gas concentrations)

Cultural services supply

Candidate ESEFVs
Physical and experiential interactions (with plants, animals, landscapes, seascapes)
Intellectual and representative interacions (scientific, educational, heritage and cultural, entertainment, aesthetic contemplation)
Spiritual and/or emblematic (symbolic, sacred and/or religious) interactions

Ecosystem disservices supply

On the other hand, ecosystem disservices supply variables, candidate to ESEFVs, express the incidence of different kinds of harmful events. For simplicity, we classified them into six categories according to their origin and primary dimension of human well-being affected, following Shackleton et al. (2016) approach.

Candidate ESEFVs Possible Indicators
Bio-economic biological invasions, agricultural and fisheries pests and diseases incidence, red tydes
Abiotic-economic droughts and fires occurrence, siltation, leaching of nutrients
Bio-health human diseases incidence from pathogens, allergens
Abiotic-health flood and storm events occurrence
Bio-cultural bird droppings on outdoor sculptures, tree roots cracking pavements
Abiotic-cultural soil erosion rates, mud/landslide scar events, unpleasant odours from rotting organic matter

Ecosystem services demand

We included four variables in the ecosystem services demand dimension, but for simplicity, we prefer not to use CICES classification, as we did in ecosystem services supply. Instead, we preferred to introduce in our framework the sociometabolic regime approach (Fischer-Kowalski et al., 2014), and to consider the metabolic rate (affluence) of society to propose variables as material use, energy use, and water use. We also incorporate the socio-ecological metabolism concept posed by Erb (2012), with the inclusion of the Human Appropriation of Net Primary Productivity as a candidate ESEFV. It is considered as a metric of the “human domination of ecosystems” (Vitousek, 1997) that integrates ecological and socioeconomic perspectives (Krausmann et al., 2009).

Candidate ESEFVs Possible Indicators
Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production Tn C extracted/ha/year
Material use level raw materials consumed per capita/ per year
Energy use level energy consumed per capita/ per year
Water use level water consumed per capita/ per year

Human pressure on the environment

With the dimension human pressure on environment, we aim to reflect the local ecological footprint derived of the human activity on the territory. The four variables proposed aim to reflect the anthropization degree of the land, the existence of a rural-urban gradient, the pollution levels and CO2 emissions. In a certain way, with this dimension we try to include in our framework the technology coefficient, as a way to consider the real impact that a certain population with a certain affluence is causing on the land. Together with affluence and population dynamics, these factors describe three key functional characteristics of human interaction with their environment (Fischer-Kowalski et al., 2014).

Candidate ESEFVs Possible Indicators
Isolation distance to main roads, travel time to major cities
Land use intensity
Carbon dioxide emissions
Pollution toxic emissions and spills

Social-ecological coupling

The degree of coupling that exists between the social system and the ecosystems (social-ecological coupling), at the regional scale and landscape level, is conceived as a measure of material, energy and spiritual interactions of humans with its surrounding environment (Liu et al., 2007; Cumming et al., 2014). We consider this as a key dimension in the social-ecological system functioning, because we are dealing within the scope of coupled human and natural systems (Liu et al., 2007). Since the Anthropocene dynamics are driving telecoupling processes all over the world (Liu et al., 2013), worrying decouplings between humans and their local environment are growing, especially in developed countries. These mismatches are manifested with an upscaling at which resources are extracted and consumed, and impact of human activity is produced (Cumming et al., 2014), as well as the lack of human’s spiritual connection with nature (Folke et al., 2011) and the awareness of the benefits and services provided by ecosystem processes (Cumming et al., 2014). To characterize social-ecological coupling in SESs functioning, we propose 14 candidate variables indicative of the degree of dependence and connection of the social system with the local environment. These not only refer to local uses that humans make of nature, but also to the awareness level of humans towards the importance of nature for their persistence.

Candidate ESEFVs Possible Indicators
Weight of farming [industry, services] sector in the economy
Population employed in farming [industry, services] sectors
Land tenure structure % communal lands
Local natural capital dependence % of final ecosystem services consumed by the population that are provided directly by local environment
Dependence on fossil energies % of energy consumed coming from fossil resources
Renewable energy use % of energy consumed coming from renewable sources
Non-ecosystem services demand socioeconomic services like hospitals, schools, culture, internet
Weight in the economy of the non-ecosystem services market
Human perception of ecosystem services
Access to natural or seminatural areas distance to a natural or seminatural area
Human population ethnicity % of indigenous population
Local green initiatives green initiatives in agriculture, cities, touristic activities, local companies
Import [export] rates
Airports [ports] activity