‘Regime shift’ has emerged as a key concept in the environmental sciences. The concept has roots in complexity science and its ecological applications, and is increasingly applied to intertwined social and ecological phenomena. Yet what exactly is a regime shift? We explore this question at three nested levels. First, we propose a broad, contingent, multi-perspective epistemological basis for the concept, seeking to build bridges between its complexity theory origins and critiques from science studies, political ecology, and environmental history. Second, we define the concept in a way that is consistent with this epistemology, building on previous work on speed, scale, stickiness, and interrelationships, but also emphasising human perceptions and rhetorical uses of the notion. Third, we propose a novel typology of the ways in which the regime shift concept is used in analysing social–environmental phenomena in geography and beyond. These uses are categorised along two axes. On the one side, we distinguish between description of past or present changes and normative prescriptions for the future. On the other side, we distinguish between whether the focus is on material shifts (social and ecological) or conceptual shifts (discourses and ideas). We illustrate the typology with reference to social–environmental changes in landscapes around the world that are dominated by plantations or the widespread naturalisation of Australian Acacia species. We conclude that the regime shift concept is a boundary object with value as both an analytical and communicative tool in addressing social–environmental challenges.
Read the full paper in Geographical Research.