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

Michigan State University

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 conditions that evolve into new challenges for both humans and nature.

At AAAS, Liu discussed the work that he and his collaborators had done at the Wolong Nature Reserve in the Sichuan Province of southwestern China, which is one of the largest homes to the endangered giant panda. In Wolong, the Chinese government has instituted three policies to preserve panda habitat: an eco-hydropower plant program to eliminate fuel wood consumption, a natural forest conservation program to prevent illegal forest harvesting, and a grain-to-green program to return cropland to forest.

Liu said each program had been carefully considered, but already some policies are having unexpected effects once people started living them. For example, many new households were formed to take advantage of the natural forest conservation program as economic incentives from the government were provided on the household basis. Furthermore, much of the money received from the natural forest conservation program was not used to buy electricity. As a result, most households continue to use fuel wood.

"We're finding that it's human nature to, if you have money, use it to buy what you like," Liu said. "Fuel wood is a common resource, and many people choose not to do what the policy intended."

Liu said a solution is to consider the interactive effects of different policies rather than in isolation. It places different demands on policy making, forcing experts to look beyond their own fields and requiring various government agencies to work together.

"To meet the challenges of environmental policy in business and government we need a new kind of scientist," said Thomas Dietz, director of MSU's Environmental Science and Policy Program (ESPP). "They will continue to need the scientific depth and rigor that comes from traditional fields. But they also need a breadth of understanding that the traditional fields don't supply.

"Environmental problems don't come in neat boxes. Students have to be trained to think out of their disciplinary boxes," he said.

Dietz is director and Liu a member of MSU's ESPP, a groundbreaking new effort that gathers the university's vast multidisciplinary resources to best position students, scientists and society for change and balance for the future.

"Understanding the complex interactions between people and their natural and built environments requires scientific analysis and synthesis that engage scientists and engineers to think more broadly and innovatively than they have had to think in the past," said Tom Baerwald, a senior science adviser and program director at the National Science Foundation, and co-organizer of the AAAS symposium. "We have evaluated many exciting proposals in recent biocomplexity competitions and Michigan State researchers have been among the leaders in this process - both as researchers proposing projects and as reviewers evaluating them."


Also presenting at the symposium were Marina Alberti, University of Washington; Patrick Kirch, University of California, Berkeley; Timothy Kratz, University of Wisconsin; Peter Deadman, Indiana University; and Alice Pell, Cornell University.

For additional information on MSU's Environmental Science and Policy Program, visit

For information on Liu's work in China's Wolong Nature Preserve, visit

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