Uncovering Metacoupled Socio-Environmental Systems

Today's global socio-environmental challenges place unprecedented demands on natural and social sciences to understand and forecast a tightly interconnected world. Yet most studies on socio-environmental interactions have focused on a single socio-environmental system. While some studies have separately examined socio-environmental interactions between adjacent or distant systems, they usually focused on one-way impacts. Although these separate studies have generated useful information, little is known about the relationships among socio-environmental interactions within and across adjacent and distant systems systematically and simultaneously. This project will fill these key knowledge gaps by addressing some of the world’s biggest challenges such as land use and food security across scales and across borders. The results are expected to reveal transformational insights into global food production, trade, and labor dynamics. They can also shine light on the potential cascading consequences of land use decisions. This innovative project represents an exciting new frontier, with pioneering contributions to the theory, methods, and applications of socio-environmental systems research. It will be tightly integrated with ambitious education and outreach efforts, elevating the public's understanding of the socioeconomic and environmental effects of complex trade relationships. Students and postdoc will gain broad knowledge and learn important skills to become future visionary leaders and globally engaged scholars.

The interdisciplinary research team will apply and quantify the holistic metacoupling framework that integrates socioeconomic-environmental interactions within as well as between adjacent and distant systems. Fundamental questions include: How do intracouplings (e.g., food production within a coupled system), pericouplings (e.g., labor movement between adjacent systems), and telecouplings (e.g., trade between distant systems) complement, enhance and/or offset their effects on socio-environmental feedbacks? To address this and other questions, the project will leverage existing and new data on global trade of a major agricultural commodity -- soybeans -- and associated labor and financial flows for commodity production. Analyses at the international/national scales will be conducted with new global grid-based models and other state-of-the-art tools. They will be complemented by in-depth studies at regional/local scales in key soybean exporting and importing countries through population census and agricultural data, ecological fieldwork and face-to-face interviews to inform the development and validation of a novel metacoupled agent-based model. These studies, spanning local to international scales, will be joined via systems integration. The international researchers will understand and simulate complex dynamics and feedbacks of metacoupled systems under various scenarios co-designed with stakeholders.

Lead Investigator: 
China, Brazil