Critical physical geography: State-and-transition models

I came across a solicitation to a dissertation workshop on “critical physical geography” which was a field I had never heard of before. Accompanying the solicitation was an introduction to a special issue of Progress in Physical Geography on the field, written by Rebecca Lave (link). I want to explore some of the intersections between what we think of as the mission of Borrowed Lands and critical physical geography.

Chris Van Dyke’s contribution to the special issue, “Boxing daze — using state-and-transition models to explore the evolution of socio-biophysical landscapes” (abstract) focuses on a type of model I spend a lot of time thinking about, what he calls the state-and-transition model. In the state-and-transition model framework, there are distinct landscape states, grassland and shrubland, say, and transitions which flip a landscape from one state to another such as grazing or fire.

State-and-transition model example
Figure 1 from Van Dyke (2015) illustrates a three-state STM




Van Dyke uses the state-and-transition model as the “biophysical” framework upon which he aims to build a critical physical geography. The value of the state-and-transition model is that it generates a biophysical narrative of the landscape.¹ If you clear a forest, a grassland will grow up in its place. If you restrict browsers, a forest will take over a grassland. Because the state-and-transition model turns a complex set of quantitative descriptions of a landscape into a story, it allows a critical physical geographer “to inject critical analyses of social dynamics into the conceptual spaces carved out by STMs.”² When you tell a story about a landscape, you can expand the story to include human dimensions, especially the overlooked or marginalized human dimensions of landscape change to produce a “socio-biophysical” narrative which is both scientifically — because it contains a rigorous state-and-transition model — and politically — because it emphasizes the social and biophysical power relations that generate landscape change — useful.

I really like this idea that landscape science generates landscape narratives with which social narratives can be interwoven. In fact, that fusion of scientific and sociocultural stories is the foundation of Borrowed Lands. Furthermore, this incorporation of critical social theory into landscape science is a good way to get scientists to consider the cultural biases inherent in their assumptions and models. We scientists, often Western, well-educated and affluent go to landscapes around the world and claim to understand how they work, overlooking both the extensive knowledge of local people and the social dynamics which shape the landscape and about which we are often poorly informed.

We can still accomplish the same goal — a blending of scientific and other narratives of the landscape — without limiting ourselves to a state-and-transition model. Any conceptual model provides at least one narrative that we can use in our fusion project. I say this largely because I worry, after hearing a lot about these kinds of models around the Virginia Coast Reserve LTER recently, that we may restricting ourselves too much with these models. They force us to identify specific landscape states and then to work out what processes might drive transitions between states.

So my remaining question is whether it is possible to develop critical physical geography within a modeling framework that fits better with my own scientific thinking these days. I think the answer is yes, and that Van Dyke has given us the reason: critical physical geography is about interweaving scientific and critical social narratives about the landscape.

I imagine a significant part of Borrowed Lands will focus on my efforts to make this fusion between the physics of landscapes and social and cultural narratives happen, so stay tuned.


1. Van Dyke, p. 599
2. Van Dyke, p. 600

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