Feedbacks Essay

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Feedbacks are processes within a system in which some proportion of the output is passed, or “fed back,” as input to the initial conditions. Positive feedbacks enhance or reinforce initial perturbations of a system, resulting in the amplification of the output process, whereby small changes in inputs can cause large changes in outputs, possibly resulting in system instability. Negative feedbacks reduce or weaken initial agitations of a system, resulting in the reduction of the output; whereby small changes in inputs can cause the system to produce smaller changes in the outputs, possibly resulting in a steady state, or homeostasis, condition. A feedback loop is a process in which an output is returned to the system as input, often but not always originating from outside the system. Feedback loops are convenient places in the system to insert control functions to counteract, or balance, unwanted system reactions.

Feedback mechanisms are often seen in complex or nonlinear systems in which the dynamic behavior is influenced through negative feedbacks; whereby systems move to disequilibrium conditions through positive feedbacks. Organisms, including humans, respond to system changes or stimuli such as a change in the environment. Dynamic equilibrium results from the ability of organisms, or people, to detect change and to respond to the stimuli in an attempt to maintain steady state conditions or to reduce the amplitude of system perturbations.

Complexity Theory

Complexity theory holds that systems cannot be suitably understood without a focus on feedbacks and consequent nonlinearity. A complexity theory analysis of land use change aims at understanding feedbacks and changes in conditions through nonlinearities, and in relation to a dynamic and coupled human-environment system. For instance, social inequalities are seen at a regional scale as an outcome of household behavior relative to land use/ land cover patterns and strategies.

 In the Ecuadorian Amazon frontier, multiple stakeholders interact through endogenous and exogenous processes to create a dynamic land use/land cover system that is space and time-dependent, where feedbacks between human activities, land use change, and ecological dynamics produce nonlinearity. The Ecuadorian Amazon is a direct product of past views, ideas, and actions at different degrees of social and landscape organization. A change in the land use/land cover system has occurred as a consequence of the influx of migrant farm families to the Ecuadorian Amazon frontier that resulted in families clearing forests to establish farms. As families acquired knowledge and skills to produce agricultural products-and as household demographics changed over time-additional land was deforested as farmers transitioned from subsistence agriculture to cash crops, as well as increased the area of land in pasture for cattle.

 Further, as people continued to migrate into the region, available land was subdivided through land sales and kinship ties, resulting in land fragmentation, which in turn has feedbacks to land use/land cover. Meanwhile, substantial migration to local towns has increased markets for the farmers’ products as well as providing growing opportunities for off-farm employment, both of which have feedbacks to farm land use. The expansion of oil production in the region has contributed to further growth of towns and the enhancement of the regional infrastructure.

Thus, land use/land cover patterns of colonists evolved and changed as a result of growing market linkages and contacts, increased oil production, and changing socio-economic and political dynamics of key stakeholder groups that reacted to a changing environment. These changing interactions and feedbacks are caused, for instance, by soil fertility declines on active farms, increased roads and access, and more markets for commodities.

Positive feedbacks exacerbate initial land use/land cover conditions through deforestation, agricultural extensification, and urbanization. Negative feedbacks are being changed through increased access to the region, which was initiated by petroleum companies building roads for pipelines and oil extraction. In the Ecuadorian Amazon frontier, the landscape continues to change in interesting and surprising ways, becoming more accessible and fragmented, thereby reacting to a feedback process involving inmigration and changes in land use/land cover.


  1. R. Malanson, Y. Zeng, S.J. Walsh, “Complexity at Advancing Ecotones and Frontiers,” Environment and Planning A (v.38, 2006);
  2. P. Messina and S.J. Walsh, “Morphogenesis: Modeling Landuse and Landcover Dynamics in the Ecuadorian Amazon,” Plant Ecology (v.156, 2001);
  3. P. Messina and S.J. Walsh, “Dynamic Spatial Simulation Modeling of the Population-Environment Matrix in the Ecuadorian Amazon,” Environment and Planning B (v.2, 2005).

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