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Only this combination offers a comprehensive view of real-world environmental challenges as they are unfolding in the twenty-first century.

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From the viewpoint of systems literacy sustainability studies works on two planes at once. Students of sustainability both acknowledge the absolute interdependence of human and natural systems—indeed that human beings and all their works are nothing if not natural—while at the same time recognizing that to solve our environmental problems we must often speak of the natural world and human societies as if they were separate entities governed by different rules.

For instance, it is very useful to examine aspects of our human system as diachronic —as progressively evolving over historical time—while viewing natural systems more according to synchronic patterns of repetition and equilibrium. A diachronic view looks at the changes in a system over time, while the synchronic view examines the interrelated parts of the system at any given moment, assuming a stable state.

While the distinction between diachronic and synchronic systems is in some sense artificial, it does highlight the structural inevitability of dysfunction when the two interlocked systems operate on different timelines and principles. Human history since the agricultural transition 10, years ago, and on a much more dramatic scale in the last two hundred years, is full of such examples of new human technologies creating sudden, overwhelming demand for a natural resource previously ignored, and reshaping entire ecosystems over large areas in order to extract, transport and industrialize the newly commodified material.

For students in the humanities and social sciences, sustainability studies requires adoption of a new conceptual vocabulary drawn from the ecological sciences. Among the most important of these concepts is complexity.

Biocomplexity —the chaotically variable interaction of organic elements on multiple scales—is the defining characteristic of all ecosystems, inclusive of humans. Biocomplexity science seeks to understand this nonlinear functioning of elements across multiple scales of time and space, from the molecular to the intercontinental, from the microsecond to millennia and deep time. For example, only since the development of affordable genomic sequencing in the last decade have biologists begun to investigate how environments regulate gene functions, and how changes in biophysical conditions place pressure on species selection and drive evolution.

Sustainability of Natural Resources

The Biocomplexity Spiral The biocomplexity spiral illustrates the concept of biocomplexity, the chaotically variable interaction of organic elements on multiple scales. Source: U. National Science Foundation.


Humans damaging the environment faster than it can recover, UN finds | Environment | The Guardian

How is the concept of complexity important to sustainability studies? To offer one example, a biocomplexity paradigm offers the opportunity to better understand and defend biodiversity , a core environmental concern. Even with the rapid increase in knowledge in the biophysical sciences in recent decades, vast gaps exist in our understanding of natural processes and human impacts upon them. Surprisingly little is known, for example, about the susceptibilities of species populations to environmental change or, conversely, how preserving biodiversity might enhance the resilience of an ecosystem.

In contrast to the largely reductionist practices of twentieth-century science, which have obscured these interrelationships, the new biocomplexity science begins with presumptions of ignorance, and from there goes on to map complexity, measure environmental impacts, quantify risk and resilience, and offer quantitative arguments for the importance of biodiversity.


Such arguments, as a scientific supplement to more conventional, emotive appeals for the protection of wildlife, might then form the basis for progressive sustainability policy. But such data-gathering projects are also breathtaking in the demands they place on analysis. The information accumulated is constant and overwhelming in volume, and the methods by which to process and operationalize the data toward sustainable practices have either not yet been devised or are imperfectly integrated within academic research structures and the policy-making engines of government and industry.

To elaborate those methods requires a humanistic as well as scientific vision, a need to understand complex interactions from the molecular to the institutional and societal level. To understand the impact of hydro-engineered irrigation, nitrogen fertilizer, drainage, and deforestation in the Midwest on the fisheries of the Gulf is a classic biocomplexity problem, requiring data merging between a host of scientific specialists, from hydrologists to chemists, botanists, geologists, zoologists and engineers.

Even at the conclusion of such a study, however, the human dimension remains to be explored, specifically, how industry, policy, culture and the law have interacted, on decadal time-scales, to degrade the tightly coupled riverine-ocean system of the Mississippi Gulf. A quantitative approach only goes so far. At a key moment in the process, fact accumulation must give way to the work of narrative, to the humanistic description of desires, histories, and discourses as they have governed, in this instance, land and water use in the Mississippi Gulf region.


To complexity should be added the terms resilience and vulnerability , as core concepts of sustainability studies. The vulnerability of Artic wildlife, conversely, refers to the point at which resilience is eroded to breaking point. Warming temperatures in the Arctic, many times the global average, now threaten the habitats of polar bear and walruses, and are altering the breeding and migratory habits of almost all northern wildlife populations.

The human communities of the Arctic are likewise experiencing the threshold of their resilience through rising sea levels and coastal erosion. Entire villages face evacuation and the traumatic prospect of life as environmental refugees. A useful counter-metaphor for sustainability studies, to offset this habitual view, is to think of human and natural systems in metabolic terms. Like the human body, a modern city, for example, is an energy-dependent system involving inputs and outputs. Unlike the human body, however, the metabolism of modern cities is not a closed and self-sustaining system.

Introduction to Sustainability

The footprint metaphor is useful because it provides us an image measurement of both our own consumption volume and the environmental impact of the goods and services we use. The inflated size of the footprint, says Ash, is partially the result of the growth of the human population. The population is currently estimated at 6. But for Ash, the main driver of the size of our footprint is our unsustainable consumption. According to the report authors, energy efficiency is key to sustainability. Johan Kuylenstierna of the Stockholm Environment Institute says that the growth of greenhouse gas emissions in developing nations could be halved by simply by using existing technologies for energy efficiency.

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According to Jo Alcamo, at the University of Kassel in Germany, who led the group which looked at future development for the report, open borders and free trade could also be important. In models of the future where trade between countries is made simpler, technologies that improve the sustainable use of resources are adopted more quickly.

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