Dec. 13, 2019


Human impacts on life on Earth are unprecedented, requiring transformative action to address root economic, social and technological causes. What we need is a new way of doing business- a system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, making sustainability the norm rather than the altruistic exception.

Nature’s capacity to provide beneficial regulation of environmental processes, such as modulating air and water quality, sequestering carbon, building healthy soils, pollinating crops, and providing coastal protection from hazards such as storms and storm surges, has decreased globally.

Scientists have gotten better collecting information and modeling situations to more accurately reflect how the world truly works. Among that methodology increasingly adopted by scientists across the world, is telecoupling, introduced by Liu in 2008 and the framework since applied to more than 500 scientific papers.

Liu is a director of MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, an MSU Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and a coordinating lead author for the global assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services for the IPBES.

Too often we get bogged down in the details when discussing/debating issues of environmental degradation and climate change. But it is the preponderance and convergence of the data and evidence that is most compelling to me. Telecoupling framework is an integrative way to study coupled human and natural systems that are linked over long distances. The framework keeps both the humans and the natural in focus, and shows how changes can reverberate far beyond, and then even double back. Ecologists and environmentalists not only need to consider long term processes, but also see the big picture- how all the processes interact.

Liu’s group’s dedication to integrative approaches has produced a litany of human impact: 70% of land surfaces altered, 77% of major rivers no longer flow from source to sea, the tally of animal species going extinct is rising, and biodiversity is being lost. What our planet needs – quickly – is transformative change.

Beyond repeatedly demonstrating the negative impacts that humans have had on the Earth’s environment, scholars have argued for several decades that humans have become the major driving force for global changes in the biophysical environment. Although climate change and the alteration of atmospheric carbon concentrations are the most prominently recognized indicators of the human influence, other changes include the significant alteration of other biogeochemical cycles, the modification of the hydrological cycle through land use change, and the likelihood of driving a sixth major extinction event in Earth history. The nature of humans’ impact on the global biophysical system has become so dominant that scientists have proposed that the last 216 years of the existing Holocene period should become recognized as a new geological epoch, termed the Anthropocene.

The concept has highlighted a growing sense of urgency; we need to better understand the processes of transformation and innovation and marry that knowledge with our growing understanding of complex social-ecological interactions to build the capacity to both respond to new disturbances and risks and to move toward sustainable pathways.