June 19, 2019

Environmental problems need a holistic approach

What if the major problems now facing humanity — poverty, emerging diseases, and global warming, to name a few — were so intertwined that we couldn’t hope to address one without addressing the others?

And what if we really couldn’t expect to address many at once without changing our approach entirely?

A new article in the journal Environmental Science & Technology makes a version of this argument. In anticipation of the Environmental Protection Agency‘s 40th birthday on Dec. 2, the authors urge the EPA to adopt a more holistic “systems approach” to problem-solving.

The reductionist approach that has prevailed historically  — dividing the world up into its component parts and approaching each separately — no longer suffices  for the task at hand, they say:

Traditional approaches to economic and environmental management are based on static, compartmentalized models. But the ecosystems and industrial systems that we try to manage are themselves tightly coupled and dynamic systems which often operate far from equilibrium and exhibit nonlinear and sometimes chaotic behavior.

They offer some examples: Few predicted that an increase in US ethanol production from corn would drive up food prices in Mexico. Few foresaw that flooding in the Mississippi River could cause fuel shortages, or that population growth could exacerbate imbalances in the world’s nitrogen cycle.

A more holistic approach, the authors say, wouldn’t have missed these all-important interconnections. And so they offer five recommendations for the EPA as it goes forward:

–  Life cycle thinking.
–  Global collaboration.
–  Market based incentives. (We’ve written about that.)
–  Integrated interdisciplinary solutions.
–  Investments in sustainable systems.

Those suggestions belong to a larger trend toward more holistic thinking in several disciplines — particularly, it should be noted, in fields that endeavor to manage large portions of the real world.


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