By Sue Nichols
Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Michigan State University Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and University Distinguished Professor of Fisheries and Wildlife, is director of MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.
You’ve gained a lot of recognition for being the “panda guy.” What do pandas have to do with global sustainability?
We’re well into our second decade of using Wolong Nature Reserve, the famous panda habitat in southwestern China, as our “excellent laboratory” to understand both how the way people live affects the environment, and how conservation efforts affect people.
Our approach always has been holistic – you can’t achieve sustainability unless both people and nature can thrive. We’ve been integrating ecology with socioeconomics, demography and other disciplines to get the big picture of how our world works. Studying how pandas and people live together in China, or how tigers and people co-exist in Nepal, has led to some important insights for the entire world.
What kind of answers come out of this corner of the world?
We’ve made some remarkable discoveries about the impact of household proliferation. Work that we began in Wolong, for example, has led us to learn that it’s not only a population explosion that has great implications for natural resources. It’s the number of households that has equal or even greater impacts on the environment.
Having more households that use a greater amount of resources — such as lumber, electricity and water — is changing our world. This is important to understand when we work to allocate and protect natural resources. It’s also shown us it’s crucial that we look at global problems differently.
So what does it take to understand big global challenges?
We’re working with an exciting new way to understand today’s hyper-connected world. It’s called telecoupling – a way to describe how distance is shrinking and connections are strengthening between nature and humans. Telecoupling is about connecting coupled human and natural systems across boundaries over distances.
There are new and faster ways of connecting the whole planet, from big events such as earthquakes and floods to tourism, trade, migration, pollution, climate change, flows of information and financial capital, and invasion of animal and plant species.
The prefix “tele” means “at a distance” (so, television literally means “viewing at a distance”). Telecoupling is a way to express one of the often-overwhelming consequences of globalization — the way an event or phenomenon in one corner of the world can have an impact far away. In effect, systems couple, connecting across space and time.
So how is telecoupling being put to use?
We have exciting projects all over the world. For example, MSU recently signed an agreement with Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture that will open many doors to collaboration. In that agreement we have a telecoupling project to start understanding how three superpowers – the United States, Brazil and China — can best advance knowledge about food, trade and sustainability.
Scientists across natural and social science disciplines need new ways to really examine what happens environmentally and socioeconomically when people are increasingly sharing resources across the world. These are enormous questions that deal with competitiveness, sustainability and the environment.
How does this affect the world?
That’s exactly the point of telecoupling. It’s a new word that’s important because it acknowledges that you can’t make good policy unless you understand how the world is closely connected and constantly changing. One policy, one natural event, one market shift – it causes a cascade of events that resonate all over the globe. We need a tool that allows us to play out these scenarios. It’s our best bet for avoiding unintended consequences and protecting both the earth and those of us who live here.