If there is anything that the past few decades of research and study of major global challenges tells us, it is that truly effective solutions to sustainability challenges require truly integrated approaches across disciplines, fields of study, data sets, and institutions. We are not going to solve 21st century global problems with 20th century tools.
The planet is faced with a wide range of regional and global threats: air and water pollution, loss of biodiversity, a rapidly changing climate and new risks from extreme weather events, energy and food security, conflicts over resources such as water, spread of diseases, and much more. These threats are interconnected, but are typically studied in narrow disciplinary ways.
Now, a new review paper in Science lays out the history and background on the value of integrated systems approaches and the need to consider the Earth to be a large, coupled human and natural system linked “through flows of information, matter, and energy and evolving through time.”
In the past few years, advances in research have developed new influential integrated tools such as environmental footprints, planetary boundary assessments, new “nexus” studies, ecosystem services, and more. Figure 1 shows the global connections associated with movement of “virtual water” in the goods and services traded around the world. This kind of integrated thinking has led to new strategies for reducing risks to societies and environmental resources that had not previously been suggested by more conventional disciplinary, reductionist approaches.