"Telecoupling” explains why it’s a small (and fast) world, after all

Feb. 18, 2011

Understanding and managing how humans and nature sustainably coexist is now so sweeping and lightening fast that it’s spawning a concept unveiled today.

Meet “telecoupling.”

Joining its popular cousins telecommuting and television, telecoupling is the way Jack Liu, director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University, is describing how distance is shrinking and connections are strengthening between nature and humans.

The “Telecoupling of Human and Natural Systems” symposium will be 1:30-4:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 18, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting here. “This is a beginning of exploring the new frontier,” said Liu, who holds the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability. “Telecoupling is about connecting both human and natural systems across boundaries. There are new and faster ways of connecting the whole planet -- from big events like 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). Liu explains that 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.

Increased trade, expanding transportation networks, the Internet, invasive species -- all have made everything seem closer. That has enormous consequences for environmental and socioeconomic sustainability.

Thomas Baerwald, National Science Foundation (NSF) program director, observes that traditional analyses in the natural and social sciences presumed that many phenomena were predominantly the product of local conditions and processes.

"While local factors remain significant,” Baerwald said, "the researchers participating in this symposium will highlight ways in which geographic scales of interaction have changed significantly in recent decades. NSF and the research community now are exploring these new dynamics in order to enhance basic understanding and consider ways to enhance the lives of people and the environment we inhabit."

World-renowned experts in diverse disciplines, including five members of the National Academy of Sciences, will present at the symposium:

Liu and Bill McConnell, co-director of the Human-Nature Lab, are co-organizers of the symposium together with Baerwald. Thomas Dietz, assistant vice president for environmental research at MSU and a sociologist, is the discussant.

“As the Earth becomes smaller and smaller, telecoupling has increasingly important implications at the global level,” Liu said. “The current management of natural resources or governance systems will not work well. We need to have new ways to understand and manage coupled human and natural systems (CHANS) worldwide.”

In that vein, Liu leads CHANS-Net: Human-Nature Network, an international network of research on coupled human and natural systems (CHANS). It facilitates communication and collaboration among scholars from around the world interested in coupled human and natural systems and strive to find sustainable solutions that both benefit the environment and enable people to thrive. It is funded by the NSF.

Several other sessions on CHANS are also held at the AAAS meeting.


The Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University integrates ecology with socioeconomics, demography and other disciplines for ecological sustainability from local, national to global scales.


Sue Nichols
Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability
(517) 432-0206