Socioecological systems and human wellbeing (I): inhabited and healthy cultural landscapes…
Before a print like that in the illustration it is easy to visualise the concept of Socioecosystem, which means the symbiosis between the socially organised human species and the rest of the non-human components of nature. The picture evokes a kind of rural garden of Eden, like the Bosch painting which appears in this very Exhibition (The Garden of Delights), where it could be said that humans devotedly look after nature and its creatures and in return receive a myriad of wonderful gifts, which are essential for our subsistence and wellbeing (ecosystem services). From food and water to contemplation and leisure to the evocation of the most sublime and artistic feelings which feed the human soul. A possible Arcadia thanks to the capacity of healthy ecosystems to regulate changes and flows of matter and energy at levels which favour life (in particular, human life) by generating services as important as fertilising the earth, purifying water, flood control, pollination of crops or biological control of species (invasions, plagues, infestations) and even regulating the climate at local and global levels.
The beautiful and peaceful landscapes which make up the natural and cultural heritage of Mediterranean countries like Spain are born from the coupling of the cultures which live there and the nature which shelters them, and materialise as unlimited versions unique to each latitude and location. Although, being realistic, it is unlikely that these landscapes were ever bucolic paradises like that in the master’s painting, because everyone knows that the provisions of nature to people’s wellbeing are the fruit of hard work and sacrifice by the farming communities who work them, in the widest sense of the term. Perhaps it is more like a kindly purgatory in keeping with the ambivalence of nature and the human race, where ecosystems and biodiversity constitute both the material on which farming communities sculpted their landscapes and the natural capital with which they built their economies. But such a wonderful example of integration between society and nature is nowadays seriously threatened by the dominant model of mercantile Globalisation which has cornered it with rural exodus and urban and industrial intensification (see the report on Evaluation of the Millennium Ecosystems in Spain).
It is only where sobriety and good judgement prevail in the management of rural ecosystems that sustainability is possible, and that involves (re)constructing an immaterial treasure of local ecological knowledge and practices to make multifunctionality viable. Only if we are able to re-strengthen the loop of interdependence between humanity and nature by restoration and a proper management of the socioecological processes of the land will we avoid rural exodus and the ecological apocalypse painted by the Flemish genius.
Laboratorio de Socioecosistemas de la Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Laboratory for socioecosystems of the UAM)