Integrated Modelling Approaches for Decision Making in Sustainable Ecological System Management

Dr Subana Shanmuganathan
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An urgent impetus to manage naturally evolving systems sustainable for human well-being first emerged in the 1960s. It made many communities to act on protecting our global ecosystem. It also led the scientific community to experiment with two major modelling approaches in ecology, namely, reductionism and integrated or holistic. Over the last four decades, the two approaches have been investigated for modelling diverse and highly complex ecological systems and their responses to human interaction. However, during this time humans have profoundly changed Earth’s natural systems despite the many preventive measures taken by concerned institutions.

Ecological systems are diverse, complex, open dynamic, and arguably poorly understood. Hence, it is difficult to model and predict their responses to human influenced activities, especially with current modelling methodologies. Past assumptions of such abilities are now being recognised as major errors in ecological modelling. In general, an environmental impact caused either by human or natural causes trigger a chain of reactions on its associated biological community, and analysing such effects is difficult due to variations in species’ threshold responses, and the spatial and temporal variations of the ecosystem being analysed generally referred to as ‘natural variability’. In addition, ecosystems also show resilience to environmental impacts, further complicating the task of modelling them.

Owing to the above reasons, ecological dynamics of natural habitats cannot be generally modelled using linear parameters. This led to the experimentation of integrated modelling techniques for the sustainable management of ecological systems from the early 1980s. Such models include triple bottom line (3BL), 4Es (Engineering, Ecology, Economics and Ethics) and pressure-state-response (PSR), each of them with their own advantages and drawbacks.

The 3BL approach was first coined in the mid 1990s with an aim of making private enterprises accountable for their every endeavour. However, some academics see the approach as ‘rhetoric’, and lacking the novelty and soundness it claims to possess. While advocates of 3BL see it as forceful in making companies to take account of their social and environmental responsibilities along with that of financial ones, critics find it vague with no clear definitions or formulae or mechanisms for achieving sustainability.

The 4Es concept is about introducing ethics to engineering profession. In general, engineering is perceived as an amoral discipline. The concept is based on the fact that by introducing a holistic approach with philosophy to decision-making professionals, resource management could be compelled to make informed decisions as far as redesigning of ecological systems are concerned. Here again, the 4Es concept could be categorised as lacking in precision and clear definitions.

The PSR approach has been successfully applied to implementing policies on curtailing human influenced activities considered to be responsible for environmental pollution in two nations, namely, the Netherlands and Canada. The approach could be implemented with the use of well-defined indicators to measure and monitor the pressure, state and response of different ecosystems. Its implementation in the Netherlands consists of well defined targets, structures and means to assess human impacts upon the environment at different levels and scales. However, PSR requires a clear understanding of the processes involved in the area of interest. Due to this reason critical ecosystem issues such as biodiversity, ocean and wetland systems that are poorly understood cannot be modelled using the PSR approach. Finally, a few recent modelling approaches, using intelligent information processing methods are outlined.

Keywords: Sustainable Management, Ecological Systems, Integrated Modelling
Stream: Environmental Sustainability
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Integrated Modelling Approaches for Decision making in Sustainable Ecological System Management

Dr Subana Shanmuganathan

Visiting Research Fellow, Ritsumeikan Centre for Asia Pacific Studies (RCAPS), Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific Univsersity

Having been awarded a two-year postdoctoral fellowship, currently conducting further research on artificial neural network applications to analysing human environmental impact on natural habitats in a manner similar to that of industrial system monitoring and control modelling. Obtained my phd from Auckland University of Technology (AUT), New Zealand with thesis titled ‘soft systems analysis of ecosystems’. Thesis case studies illustrate how Kononen’s self-organising map (SOM) based techniques could be best applied to unravel complex relationships between human influenced activities and environmental as well as biological systems using disparate data sets. The case studies demonstrate SOM abilities to model ecological dynamics of often cryptic natural habitats at different levels and scales incorporating spatial and temporal variations providing a means to overcome the perceived inadequacies with conventional multivariate ecological data analysis methodologies.

Received Bachelors (Natural Science) and Masters (computer Science) degrees from the University of Jaffna and the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka, respectively.

Research interests include artificial neural network and artificial intelligence applications to ecological modelling, office automation and text mining. Also involved in integrated heath care informatics, tropical forest biodiversity modelling and integrated water resources management research projects.

Ref: S06P0295