GEOGRAPHY AND SUSTAINABILITY - Broader applicability of the metacoupling framework than Tobler’s first law of geography for global sustainability: A systematic review


April 17, 2023 - Nicholas Manning, <>, Jianguo Liu


Complex sustainability issues in the Anthropocene, with rapid globalization and global environmental changes, are increasingly interlinked between not only nearby systems but also distant systems. Tobler’s first law of geography (TFL) states “near things are more related than distant things”. Evidence suggests that TFL is not infallible for sustainability issues. Recently, the integrated framework of metacoupling (MCF; human-nature interactions within as well as between adjacent and distant systems) has been applied to analyze the interactions between nearby and distant coupled human and natural systems simultaneously. However, previous work has been scattered and fragmented. It is crucial to understand the extent to which TFL and MCF apply across pressing issues in sustainability. Therefore, we reviewed and synthesized sustainability literature that used TFL and MCF across seven major topics: land change, species migration, tourism, trade, agricultural development, conservation, and governance. Results indicate MCF had a much broader applicability than TFL for these topics. The literature using MCF generally did not or likely did not obey TFL, especially in trade, governance, and agricultural development. In the TFL literature, most topics obeyed TFL, except for species migration and trade. The findings suggest the need to rethink and further test TFL’s relevance to sustainability issues, and highlight the potential of MCF to address complex interactions between both adjacent and distant systems across the world for global sustainability.



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