Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 2: Tele-whating?

I had arrived at the IALE World Congress (International Association for Landscape Ecology; see my last post to know what that means) early on Sunday, July 5th.  I bustled into the conference room, slurping weak coffee made in that morning’s motel room.  I was desperately searching for more coffee as the other participants trickled in.  I gave up on finding any more coffee just as the meeting preceded to start.  Pulling out my pad and paper, I waited, surrounded by a room full of strangers brought together by one man:  Dr. Jianguo “Jack” Liu, the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at Michigan State University.   We all were here because we were attending a workshop called: Telecoupling Framework for Studying Cross-Border and Cross-Scale Interactions.

Most of the participants at this workshop were here because NASA (yes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and Michigan State University had singled out the 17 or so of us as promising candidates to contribute to the field of landscape ecology (again, see my last post if you don’t know what landscape ecology is).  That being said, those two organizations had gambled on us by looking at previous work we had accomplished and deciding that we were among some of the best people to thrust a brand new scientific concept upon.  I can only say that I did not feel as if I belonged.  Surrounded by doctoral candidates, post-docs, and agency professionals, I was in the minority and one of the youngest in terms of academic careers.

I have to admit that I didn’t care if I belonged or not.  From childhood I could remember wanting to be somehow associated with NASA.  Seriously, didn’t everyone? I am sure I could look through pictures at my parents house and it wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes to find one that included a space/NASA theme. I was just excited to be participating.  But wait. In what was I participating again?  Being one of the NASA-MSU awardees, I was participating in a telecoupling workshop.  Tele-whating?

Telecoupling is a new scientific concept that addresses the idea of the ever decreasing size of the world because of globalization and how human and natural systems are connected more and more – for better or worse.  And this new concept is the baby of Dr. Liu, the man who brought all of us together at this conference.  He brought us together to try and spread his new concept into different reaches of the scientific world.  And to do this, he had to make us understand what this concept really meant.

“Global Sustainability challenges, from maintaining biodiversity to providing clean air and water, are closely interconnected yet often separately studied and managed” (Liu et al. 2015).  This means biologists haven’t really talked to sociologists all that much and vice-verse.  And this is a problem because the world is becoming more and more connected through environmental and socioeconomic means.  What happens to the environment in one place has an impact to the economy of another.  Human health issues can be impacted by the agricultural or biodiversity changes in another.  These places do not have to be near each other either.  One of the major tenets of telecoupling that Dr. Liu described was that it brings together human-natural interactions across broad distances.

Telecoupling has 5 major interrelated parts: systems, agents, flows, causes, and effects. Systems are the stages in which the human and environment interact.  These could be habitats, countries, or some other abstract spatial, temporal, economic, or social entity.  The parties that act within the systems are the agents.  These would be the multinational corporations, governments, NGOs, your aunt, your dad, you and me.  These agents impact how the materials, services, and information move between systems, i.e. how they flowCauses are why the telecoupled things happen.  And you can not have a cause without an effect.  The effect is the socioeconomic and environmental fallout or benefit of a telecoupling system/event.

From: Liu, J., Hull, V., Batistella, M., deFries, R., Dietz, T., Fu, F., … Zhu, C. (2013). Framing sustainability in a telecoupled world. Ecology and Society, 18(2). doi:10.5751/ES-05873-180226

I have said before that I like examples.  So let us try to work one out using all of these different parts.  Let’s look at palm oil.  It is the worlds largest consumed edible oil.  Recently it has gone under higher scrutiny than it ever has before.  The palm oil industry has a long history that started out in West Africa and today is predominantly grown in SE Asia.  Depending on your perspective, the SE Asian countries and their producers are the sending system and the U.S. and other developed countries and their consumers are the receiving system.  The exchange of money and goods are the flows.  The agents are the governments, farmers, and environmental groups trying to manage different expectations and produce different outcomes.  The causes and effects are reciprocal but identifiable.  Recently, palm oil demand has increased but has been a major cause of deforestation. All those snacks you like to eat that have palm oil in them is helping cut down forests across the world.  That means loss of biodiversity, increase in carbon in the atmosphere, and mounds of other problems.  Because of this consumers have started to demand that business use palm oil that is more sustainably harvested.

I left out one key part.  And this is the part that I think has the most importance for the concept of telecoupling to have big impacts.  That was the spillover system, an idea not to many other scientific concepts incorporate.  In the palm oil example, I have one major example to show as a spillover.  Because of the demand for palm oil and the resulting tropical deforestation, American farmers could be losing a lot of money.  An article from the Economist, postulates that if palm oil producers (sending agent) were held accountable and rainforest conserving policies were enacted (spillover cause) based on these consumer demands (the receiving cause), American agricultural businesses (spillover agent) could expect to net up to $270 billion dollars more (spillover effect) than if nothing was done.

At our meeting we broke up into groups based on our research interests and Dr. Liu helped us start coming up with ideas for new research ideas in our particular areas of study using this telecoupling framework.  I am really excited to be included in this new field.  I think it has a lot to offer based off of its multi-disciplinary and holistic approach. Especially considering how telecoupling framework is adding the idea of the spillover system.  This might be the most important concept that is brought to the table by the telecoupling framework The world is getting smaller and the links that draw us together are getting stronger and stronger.  Telecoupling helps us identify the costs, the benefits, and unintended consequences of the globalization of the planet.  Through this it helps to reach for a more sustainable outcome for the future.

I will try to layout another example in Telecoupling and IALE World Congress Part 3: Avalanches and Watermelon Snow. Next time there will be many more pictures (I promise)!  Before I got to the landscape ecology conference, I spent several weeks backpacking and traveling across the west.  I tried to climb Mt. Shasta in Northern California.  I will try to layout the experience using a telecoupling framework to make it relevant.


I linked several good news articles, webpages, and journal articles throughout this post.  Please check them out for a more in-depth understanding of telecoupling.  Please feel free to email me too. And check back in later for new posts and updates.

I really am truly excited to part of this new field of understanding how human and natural worlds are interwoven.

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One thought on “Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 2: Tele-whating?

  1. Pingback: Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 1: What is landscape ecology? | The Secret Life of a Field Biologist

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