Pacific Institute Insights

National Geographic ScienceBlog: Tackling Global Sustainability: A Need for Integrated Systems Approaches

By Peter Gleick, President

February 26, 2015

If there is anything that the past few decades of research and study of major global challenges tells us, it is that truly effective solutions to sustainability challenges require truly integrated approaches across disciplines, fields of study, data sets, and institutions. We are not going to solve 21st century global problems with 20th century tools.

The planet is faced with a wide range of regional and global threats: air and water pollution, loss of biodiversity, a rapidly changing climate and new risks from extreme weather events, energy and food security, conflicts over resources such as water, spread of diseases, and much more. These threats are interconnected, but are typically studied in narrow disciplinary ways.

Now, a new review paper in Science lays out the history and background on the value of integrated systems approaches and the need to consider the Earth to be a large, coupled human and natural system linked “through flows of information, matter, and energy and evolving through time.”

In the past few years, advances in research have developed new influential integrated tools such as environmental footprints, planetary boundary assessments, new “nexus” studies, ecosystem services, and more. Figure 1 shows the global connections associated with movement of “virtual water” in the goods and services traded around the world. This kind of integrated thinking has led to new strategies for reducing risks to societies and environmental resources that had not previously been suggested by more conventional disciplinary, reductionist approaches.

“Virtual” water flows among countries of the world in the form of goods and services traded. This Figure, from the new Science paper, highlights those flows (both imports and exports) in billion cubic meters of water per year.

Among the insights gained by integrated systems analysis is the realization that environmental impacts can be mitigated while simultaneously improving economic efficiency, clarifying environmental responsibilities across political and generational borders, and potentially, reducing in the risk of conflicts over resource constraints.

In short, this new review highlights the value of understanding and managing effects over multiple systems and scales. Academia and our social and governmental management institutions have a long, long way to go before we truly tackle our sustainability challenges in an effective, interdisciplinary way, but as this new paper notes:

“Systems integration for global sustainability is poised for more rapid development, and transformative changes aimed at connecting disciplinary silos are needed to sustain an increasingly telecoupled world.”


Here is the abstract and full citation for the new paper:

Liu, J. H. Mooney, V. Hull, S.J. Davis, J. Gaskell, T.Hertel, J. Lubchenco, K.C. Seto, P.H. Gleick, C. Kremen, S. Li. 2015.  Systems Integration for Global Sustainability. Science, Vol. 347, No. 6225. 27 February 2015. DOI: 10.1126/science.1258832

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