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To achieve sustainability, laws get broken

Scientists make a case that a guiding principle needs to make room for an alternative interpretation in the name of sustainability

Being first usually means your idea, no matter how transformational, is going to be tweaked.

It’s true for Waldo Tobler, an American-Swiss geographer and cartographer, who in 1970 presented the idea that “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things,” which became known as Tobler’s First Law (TFL) of geography.

But since then, as global events shook the world, such as COVID-19 virus believed to have leapt from wildlife meat markets in China to the world in a matter of months. Extreme Ohio flooding in 2018 gave way to sediments and excessive nutrients dumping into the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists in Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS) are making a case that TFL needs to make room for an alternative interpretation in the name of sustainability.

The new work is published in Geography & Sustainability.

“In order to fully understand and address sustainability problems, we often have to look beyond the nearby, said Nick Manning, a master’s student in CSIS and the paper’s first author. “We wanted to find out what research surrounding two major approaches, the metacoupling framework and Tobler’s First Law, had to say about sustainability.

The review expanded the work done in CSIS in 2021 and published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, when a group took on Tobler’s First Law using the lens of metacoupling – which allows scientists to view the world as it truly is – with humans and nature interacting over space and time and without boundaries of academic disciplines.

The metacoupling framework lets scientists understand how actions locally, nearby and far away – like policies that regulate the sale of wild animals or affect the release of greenhouse gasses – result more in just cause and effect. Actions bounce back and forth between humans and nature from the community nearby and the country on the other side of the world.

In other words, all that’s local is a lot more global.

“Understanding and finding solutions to the recent and future crises need an integrated framework across local to global scales,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Michigan State University’s (MSU) Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability. Liu introduced the framework of metacoupling.

In “Broader applicability of the metacoupling framework than Tobler’s first law of geography for global sustainability: a systematic review,” the group compared research grounded in Tobler’s First Law with that steeped in metacoupling.

“Our findings imply that only approaching these complex and interdisciplinary subjects from a traditional perspective misses some of the important distant connections which can be accounted for using the metacoupling framework,” Manning said. “This study is the first to assess multiple studies across multiple subjects and investigate the overall importance of metacoupling framework vs Tobler’s First Law.

“In a world that’s as interconnected as our own, we stress the importance of geographically distant interactions and think researchers, geographers, and sustainability practitioners should consider distant causes and interactions alongside the nearby.”

Manning, Liu and Yingjie Li, a PhD graduate now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, conclude TFL remains a guiding principle for geographical analysis, yet cooperation for a more holistic and integrated point of view, like metacoupling, is needed.

The work is funded by the National Science Foundation and Michigan AgBioResearch. 

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