Environmental problems need a holistic approach

Some experts recommend a holistic approach to environmental issues instead of tackling them piecemeal.

When corn-based ethanol was first proposed, no one recognized that one of its effects would be higher food prices in Mexico. A systems approach might have anticipated the adverse effects and found a way to prevent them.

What 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 the the authors offer five recommendations for the EPA moving forward:

–  Life cycle thinking.
–  Global collaboration.
–  Market based incentives. (We've written about that some.)
–  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.

Fishery management types, for example, have for some time touted "ecosystem-based fishery management." Broadly speaking, that means managing for the health of the ecosystem, not just a given stock.

More often than not, it also entails a precautionary approach. If, when considering this year's allowable harvest of sardines, you want ensure that other animals have some to eat, you'd do best to err on the side of caution when setting your catch limits.

Other writers, such as Graeme Taylor, author of "Evolution's Edge: The Coming Collapse and Transformation of Our World," say that a more holistic systems approach will serve as the foundation of a new, improved, sustainable world civilization.

From an article on Best Futures [PDF], Taylor's organization:

Systems-based views, values, social structures, technologies and economic processes are rapidly emerging. These represent a paradigm shift in scientific and social thinking: from viewing the world as a collection of unconnected objects to seeing reality as a nested holarchy of interacting systems. While the mechanistic worldview of our current system does not understand the relationship between human societies and the natural world, a systems perspective recognizes that our economies are subsets of their environments. The emergence of this holistic worldview creates the potential for the rapid development of a sustainable societal system.

A phalanx of "ecological economists" has, for some time, been urging a more holistic approach to economics.

Obviously, like the discipline of ecology, economics has sought to understand and explain a complex system — the economy — from its inception. But ecological economists say that economists too often treat the economy as if it existed in a vacuum although it clearly doesn't; it exists on Planet Earth.

It's more accurate, then — and we'd presumably get better outcomes —  to treat the economy as a sub-system of a larger system called the biosphere, they say. And if you do that, you quickly note the folly of our central precept — constant economic expansion.

Notably, in September, the Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz echoed this critique in a Financial Times article. We need a metric of success other than Gross Domestic Product, he argued, one that measures nations' true goal: its citizens' well-being:

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