Sustainability celebrates research revolution birthday

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For a five-year-old, the telecoupling framework is proving to be precocious.

What began as a research upstart in the crowded world of sustainability science, the research framework is becoming a standard to allow scientists from many different fields come to the same table to examine complicated challenges that span the globe. Telecoupling framework’s impact and future are examined in this month’s journal Sustainability.

The telecoupling framework is a way to allow scientists to understand how an action on one side of the world has enormous socioeconomic and environmental consequences thousands of miles away – and how it doesn’t stop there. Telecoupling, which describes socioeconomic and environmental interactions over distances, shows how environmental and socioeconomic actions lead to reactions and feedbacks – and then to more repercussions that reverberate globally.

“The telecoupling framework not only allows us to understand socioeconomic and environmental sustainability in one place, but it enables us to evaluate sustainability in all relevant places simultaneously,” Liu said. “It provides a useful foundation to protect our environment while allowing people to thrive globally.”

The framework burst onto the scene in 2013 with the Ecology and Society journal paper "Framing sustainability in a telecoupled world." That paper, written by Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and director of Michigan State University Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (MSU-CSIS), and some of the world’s most noted sustainability scholars, earned the Ralf Yorque Memorial Competition Award as best paper in 2013.

The recent Sustainability review paper is written by Liu and 13 early-career scholars, the first generation of scientists hitting their professional stride embracing holistic research. The change was not lost as the group reviewed the first five years of the telecoupling framework.

“We were struck by the wide variety of disciplines that have already begun to adopt the telecoupling framework,” said Ciara Hovis, a PhD student in MSU-CSIS. “While it has its foundations in land use science, the telecoupling framework has already been examined by many fields, including wildlife migration, marine fisheries, warfare, and virtual water trade.”

The scholars identified 89 publications and 47 journals or books using any form of the term telecoupling. In the five years after the Ecology and Society paper was published, it has been cited by more than 300 papers.

“The telecoupling framework can provide a common language for interdisciplinary analyses,” said co-author Kelly Kapsar, an MSU-CSIS PhD student. “While disciplinary studies are a critical component of knowledge creation, placing disciplinary research into the context of the telecoupling framework can aid in the integration of knowledge in complex systems. This integration can better help decision-makers by shining a light on the potential cascading consequences of their decisions.”

The paper evolved from a collaboration of attendees of the 2018 US-International Association of Landscape Ecology conference. In addition to Liu, Hovis and Kelly, Telecoupling Research: The First Five Years was authored by Ramon Felipe Bicudo da Silva, Erin Buchholtz, Andrew Carlson, Yue Dou, Yueyue Du, Paul Furumo, Yingjie Li, Aurora Torres, Di Yang, Ho Yi Wan, Julie Zaehringer.

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