What is CHANS-based research?
The Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS) framework, also called ‘social-ecological systems’ and ‘human-environment systems’ frameworks, provides an effective ‘lens’ with which to understand often complex interactions and feedback loops. CHANS emphasizes a transdisciplinary approach to study complex systems(1) characterized by feedbacks, thresholds, time lags and legacy effects across multiple spatial, temporal and organizational scales (2).
World-wide, workers across the natural and physical sciences and the humanities and arts are generating new integrated knowledge aimed at better understanding and starting to address pressing environmental and social problems. Despite good advances in understanding feedbacks in individual disciplines, interdisciplinary research on CHANS feedbacks to date remains scant and often site-specific (3). This is an issue that prevents complex coupled systems from being effectively understood.
Locally-focused or indigenous knowledge has a significant role to play in environmental management and governance. Yet there is still a tendency by the scientific community to assimilate or ‘fit’ local-scale ecological knowledge within Western world-views of managing nature (4). Typically though, communities possess the expertise and local knowledge to resolve their own problems and implement their own solutions. Key is finding ways to enable this to happen.
Ultimately the aim must be to ensure solutions are equitable, good for the environment, self-reliant and not dependent on long term external support. Solutions should be built on collective values and have a strong underpinning of justice and governance. Our approaches emphasize community-owned approaches so that community members can monitor for themselves the quality, impact and outcomes of initiatives.
What makes a good CHANS Project?
The best CHANS projects are characterized by good communication. Importantly, these same communication skills also help our scholars craft research questions that are clear and understandable across disciplinary boundaries.
At the core of its philosophy the Anthropocene Research Group at Newcastle University aims to foster interdisciplinary conversations through the four ‘Big Questions’ shown at the centre of Figure 3 (see tab below for more detail).
Newcastle's Interactive Approach
At Newcastle University our Anthropocene approach brings together experts in a range of disciplines (e.g. social, economic, biological, geophysical, engineering art, history, education). Our vision is characterized by a central emphasis on addressing real-world problems. The vast majority of our existing projects have carefully crafted approaches for engaging with stakeholders and communities from the outset.
We aim to develop CHANS projects consisting of deep-layer, deep-time comparisons of river catchments. Candidate catchments are the River Tyne River in north-east England, the Essequibo River in Guyana (tropical South America), the White River and Ohio River in the United States and the River Yangtze in China. Despite their strikingly different climate contexts and their varied economic, social, cultural and political environmental legacies, these river systems share commonalities and challenges that are developed at contrasting stages, from almost pristine to post-industrial.
We also seek to examine the role of dams in the Anthropocene. Dams have traditionally been put in place world-wide for two principal reasons: hydropower and raising social livelihoods. The 20th century saw a huge increase in dam building across the planet with SE Asia in particular experiencing a massive increase in impoundment from the 1950s on. Many of these schemes are transboundary in nature, many comprise huge engineering projects and unfortunately the
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a “plan of action for people, planet and prosperity” which also “seeks to strengthen universal peace in larger freedom”.
The UN recognises that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for Sustainable Development. At Newcastle University, we define such sustainable development as “enough, for all, forever”.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals seek to build on the Millennium Development Goals and, over the 15 year period from 2015 to 2030, to achieve what the MDGs did not.
The SDGs, also known as the UN Global Goals, seek to establish and nurture the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.
Four ‘big questions’ about the Anthropocene
At Newcastle University we draw upon our areas of established research excellence and the experience and expertise of our collaborating partners to make internationally-leading contributions in the field of sustainability and the SDGs.
One arena we seek to influence and improve through highly engaged, interdisciplinary approaches is that of ‘dams in the Anthropocene’. We aim to do this through supporting multi-stakeholder dialogues at country regional and global levels. By engaging all stakeholders and governments, better decision-making guidelines can be developed for planning and management of dams and the rivers of the Anthropocene that they impact.
We want people to ask and address four ‘big questions’:
“What is the Anthropocene and why does it matter to me?”
“How is our planet changing?”
“How do we better enable our communities to be resilient?”
“How do we work together to enable real and meaningful change?”
As the diagram below shows, each of these four questions can be directly associated with a particular subset of the SDGs. Although the diagram is designed for simplicity, groupings are no means exclusive. Other SDGs than those indicated in the diagram may well be associated with any particular one of the four questions. The four questions are aligned with a ‘transformative pathway’ of demonstration, integration and delivery based on interdisciplinary collaboration.