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Global Environmental Change: Understanding the Human Dimensions
flexible, and more able to take global changes in stride than present ones. However, the more committed human societies become to present technologies that produce global change, the harder it will be to give them up if that becomes necessary.
Research Needs First, to understand the human consequences of global change, it is important to improve the ability to project social change. Existing methods range from simple extrapolation to more complex procedures for building scenarios. But scenario building is more art than science. Therefore, as an initial approach, it is useful to test projected environmental futures against various projected human futures to see how sensitive the human consequences of global change are to variations in the social future. In the longer run, it is much preferable to improve understanding of the relationships that drive social change. This is a long-term project in social science, on which much theoretical work is needed. We return to this theme in Chapter 5. Research on the human dimensions of global change may help give impetus to that project.
Second, the extreme difficulty of predicting the long-term social future raises the importance of the study of social robustness in the face of environmental change. Increasing robustness against a range of environmental changes is a highly attractive strategy because it bypasses the difficult problems of predicting long-term environmental and social change. However, little is known about what makes social, economic, and technological systems robust, and the concept itself needs much more careful conceptualization.
The importance of the problem is suggested comparing two plausible arguments, both found in this chapter. One is that expansion of the market increases robustness by giving economic actors more flexibility in providing for their needs. This argument implies that further penetration of international markets will make it easier for humanity to withstand global changes without major suffering. The other argument is that sociocultural systems often provide a safety net for individuals, for example, through the obligations of others to provide. Sometimes, as in the responses to drought in northern Nigeria, these two arguments seem to support each other: the sociocultural systems there relied on the availability of urban wage labor as a supplement to subsistence agriculture. But sometimes, as with Amazonian deforestation, the two arguments seem to conflict: wealthy economic actors following market incentives crowd out peoples who have developed flexible sociocultural systems, leaving them neither land nor paid labor. Careful comparisons of cases such as the Sahel