Date of Award


Level of Access

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Ecology and Environmental Sciences


Timothy Waring

Second Committee Member

Kathleen P. Bell

Third Committee Member

Mario Teisl


This research consists of two primary studies, one a review of coupled systems literature and the other an empirical study of linkages between behaviors theorized as necessary for sustainable communities. While these studies may appear disparate, they are each connected by their common contribution to the relatively new field of sustainability science.

The first study details a review of coupled social-ecological systems, which are the objects of study in sustainability science. The recent explosion in research on coupled human-natural systems, social-ecological systems, or human-environment systems has largely gone unstudied. We use the term “coupled system” to capture the common features of these approaches in a review and meta-analysis of 224 peer-reviewed articles across many disciplinary fields.

We discover that social forces on ecosystems are much more commonly documented than are ecological forces on social systems. Results also reveal a geographic preference in case study selection, a lack of quantification of feedbacks between social or environmental subsystems, and a dearth of research deriving or testing theoretical predictions. We argue that these findings represent critical challenges to the growth of sustainability science and coupled systems research, by limiting the applicability, accuracy, and generalizability of the current empirical corpus. Moreover, the lack of prediction generation and testing demonstrates that current theoretical frameworks for understanding coupled systems remain untested at best, and perhaps even incorrect or simply irrelevant. We propose a greater emphasis on empirical tests of theoretical predictions, increased effort in quantitative measurements and comparisons of social to environmental feedbacks, and suggest strategies to strengthen the value of a common theoretical framework.

The second study provides an empirical application examining sustainable behaviors at the regional level in the State of Maine, with the possibility to further expand this analysis to the local level within Maine in the future. It is theorized that pro- environmental behaviors are necessary for creating and maintaining sustainable communities. Existing studies suggest positive correlations between: perceived community support and prosociality; and prosociality and pro-environmental behaviors. In addition to these connections, previous literature has indicated that an individual’s residence in an urban versus rural area affects prosociality.

This study explores these connections in a new research area, Maine, with 489 first-year undergraduates at the University of Maine, using a multi-dimensional survey. Survey results are analyzed using a two stage least squares regression and, with a large portion of undergraduates hailing from the State, spatial linkages are studied across Maine using GIS. Results indicate that prosociality and pro-environmental behaviors vary across Maine, but that a rural versus urban distinction does not significantly affect these variations. Other socio-demographic and external factors potentially affecting the variation in these behaviors are explored. In the future, the data from this survey will enhance understanding of prosociality and pro-environmental behaviors relevant for promoting these behaviors to create sustainable communities within the University of Maine campus and across the State of Maine.