Seeing the forest for the trees: The future of environmental policy lies in interaction

SEATTLE They don't call it biocomplexity for nothing.

The future of environmental policy lies in embracing ambiguity in the understanding that the days of dreaming of isolated fixes to problems are over. The future, a Michigan State University ecologist told those at the American Associate for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting here, is all about understanding that there are no simple solutions, or at least none that isolated.

"It is necessary to focus on the interactions of different policies," said MSU's Jianguo "Jack" Liu. "Each policy may look really good, but if you put them together, they might have some unexpected negative impacts. We are learning to change the way we make policy, and the ways in which we evaluate policy."

Liu told those attending the symposium "Frontiers in Biocomplexity Science: Reciprocal Interactions between Human and Natural Systems" that a major obstacle to effective environmental policy is myopia.

The environment, he said, is all about big picture not only about how humans have an impact on natural systems, but on how changes to natural systems affect humans, and especially how policies affect each other. These types of complexity are not what traditional ecologists tackle.

Liu is not a traditional ecologist. He has spent nearly two decades juggling the complexities of human needs, wildlife necessities, political realities and technological potential. In a cover story in the British science journal Nature in January 2003, Liu and co-authors explored how increases in the number of households in 141 countries, even where the population size declines, have a significant impact on wildlife and the environment.

Further work is showing the symbiotic relationship between humans and natural systems, and between one policy and another. Liu notes that while individual policies may elegantly work to solving an area's problems, they may over time conflict, or create conditio

Contact: Tom Oswald
Michigan State University

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