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March 16, 2016

New science helps put spotlight on unseen global impacts

Sustainability scholar and university distinguished professor Jianguo “Jack” Liu, the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at Michigan State University, has been putting the award-winning telecoupling framework to the test to examine the often unseen and unaccounted for consequences, good and bad, that come with distant human-nature interactions.

The telecoupling concept, introduced by Liu in 2008, allows scientists from many disciplines to examine how distant environmental and socioeconomic actions lead to reactions and feedbacks – and then to more repercussions that make a global impact.

He says that the level of global connectivity – brought by increased travel, lightning-fast communication via the internet and cell phones, vast exchanges of goods and services, and many human activities – has come with certain myopic perception of what it all means.

“More than ever in our world, supply and production is separate – often by thousands of miles – from the places that demand and consume resources,” Liu said.

In the paper “Framing Ecosystem Services in the Telecoupled Anthropocene” featured in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Liu and his colleagues apply the telecoupling framework to ecosystem services. Ecosystem services – the benefits that ecosystems provide to humans, such as clean water and food – are unevenly distributed across the world. Human demands for distant ecosystem services have increased drastically.

The authors give a detailed example of how expansively China’s South-to-North Water Transfer Project reaches into all aspects of life, not only in China but also in many other parts of the world.

The telecoupling framework shows even complex events that span great distances and time can be systemically analyzed to understand what they truly mean to the world.

“The telecoupling framework helps scientists untangle complexity, which in turn will help people better understand the world around them and make better decisions,” Liu said.

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