Social adaptation can reduce the strength of social-ecological feedbacks from ecosystem degradation.
Feedbacks between people and ecosystems are central to the study of social-ecological systems (SES) but remain poorly understood. It is commonly assumed that changes in ecosystems leading to a reduction in ecosystem services will trigger human responses that seek to restore service provision. Other responses are possible, however, but remain less studied. We evaluated the effect of environmental change, specifically the degradation of coral reefs, on the supply of and demand for a cultural ecosystem service (CES); that is, recreation. We found that declines in coral cover reduced demand for recreational ecosystem services but had no apparent effect on the benefits received from recreation. While this finding seems counter-intuitive given previous experimental data that suggest ecosystem quality affects people's satisfaction, our analysis suggests that social adaptation could have mediated the anticipated negative impact of environmental change on CES benefits. We propose four mechanisms that may explain this effect and that require further research: spatial diversification; (service) substitution; shifting baselines; and time-delayed effects. Our findings emphasize the importance of human culture and perception as influences on human responses to environmental change, and the relevance of the more subjective elements of social systems for understanding social-ecological feedbacks.