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Image of Biocomplexity Spiral
The Biocomplexity Spiral The biocomplexity spiral illustrates the concept of biocomplexity, the chaotically variable interaction of organic elements on multiple scales. Source: U.S. National Science Foundation

How is the concept of complexity important to sustainability studies? To offer one example, a biocomplexity paradigm offers the opportunity to better understand and defend biodiversity , a core environmental concern. Even with the rapid increase in knowledge in the biophysical sciences in recent decades, vast gaps exist in our understanding of natural processes and human impacts upon them. Surprisingly little is known, for example, about the susceptibilities of species populations to environmental change or, conversely, how preserving biodiversity might enhance the resilience of an ecosystem. In contrast to the largely reductionist practices of twentieth-century science, which have obscured these interrelationships, the new biocomplexity science begins with presumptions of ignorance, and from there goes on to map complexity, measure environmental impacts, quantify risk and resilience, and offer quantitative arguments for the importance of biodiversity. Such arguments, as a scientific supplement to more conventional, emotive appeals for the protection of wildlife, might then form the basis for progressive sustainability policy.

But such data-gathering projects are also breathtaking in the demands they place on analysis. The information accumulated is constant and overwhelming in volume, and the methods by which to process and operationalize the data toward sustainable practices have either not yet been devised or are imperfectly integrated within academic research structures and the policy-making engines of government and industry. To elaborate those methods requires a humanistic as well as scientific vision, a need to understand complex interactions from the molecular to the institutional and societal level.

A practical example of biocomplexity as the frame for studies in environmental sustainability are the subtle linkages between the hypoxic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico and farming practices in the Mississippi River watershed. To understand the impact of hydro-engineered irrigation, nitrogen fertilizer, drainage, and deforestation in the Midwest on the fisheries of the Gulf is a classic biocomplexity problem, requiring data merging between a host of scientific specialists, from hydrologists to chemists, botanists, geologists, zoologists and engineers. Even at the conclusion of such a study, however, the human dimension remains to be explored, specifically, how industry, policy, culture and the law have interacted, on decadal time-scales, to degrade the tightly coupled riverine-ocean system of the Mississippi Gulf. A quantitative approach only goes so far. At a key moment in the process, fact accumulation must give way to the work of narrative, to the humanistic description of desires, histories, and discourses as they have governed, in this instance, land and water use in the Mississippi Gulf region.

To complexity should be added the terms resilience and vulnerability , as core concepts of sustainability studies. The resilience of a system—let’s take for example, the wildlife of the Arctic Circle—refers to the self-renewing stability of that system, its ability to rebound from shocks and threats within the range of natural variability. The vulnerability of Artic wildlife, conversely, refers to the point at which resilience is eroded to breaking point. Warming temperatures in the Arctic, many times the global average, now threaten the habitats of polar bear and walruses, and are altering the breeding and migratory habits of almost all northern wildlife populations. The human communities of the Arctic are likewise experiencing the threshold of their resilience through rising sea levels and coastal erosion. Entire villages face evacuation and the traumatic prospect of life as environmental refugees.

As mentioned earlier, we have grown accustomed to speaking of “nature” or “the environment” as if they were somehow separate from us, something that might dictate our choice of holiday destination or wall calendar, but nothing else. A useful counter-metaphor for sustainability studies, to offset this habitual view, is to think of human and natural systems in metabolic terms. Like the human body, a modern city, for example, is an energy-dependent system involving inputs and outputs. Every day, millions of tons of natural resources (raw materials, consumer goods, food, water, energy) are pumped into the world’s cities, which turn them out in the form of waste (landfill, effluent, carbon emissions, etc.).

Unlike the human body, however, the metabolism of modern cities is not a closed and self-sustaining system. Cities are consuming resources at a rate that would require a planet one and a half times the size of Earth to sustain, and are ejecting wastes into the land, water, and air that are further degrading the planet’s ability to renew its vital reserves. Here, another body metaphor—the environmental “ footprint ”—has become a popular means for imagining sufficiency and excess in our consumption of resources. The footprint metaphor is useful because it provides us an image measurement of both our own consumption volume and the environmental impact of the goods and services we use. By making sure to consume less, and to utilize only those goods and services with a responsibly low footprint, we in turn reduce our own footprint on the planet. In important ways, the problem of unsustainability is a problem of waste. From a purely instrumentalist or consumerist viewpoint, waste is incidental or irrelevant to the value of a product. A metabolic view of systems, by contrast, promotes sustainability concepts such as closed loops    and carbon neutrality    for the things we manufacture and consume, whereby there are no toxic remainders through the entire lifecycle    of a product. In this sense, systems literacy is as much a habit or style of observing the everyday world as it is an academic principle for the classroom. Because in the end, the fate of the world’s ecosystems will depend not on what we learn in the classroom but on the extent to which we integrate that learning in our lives beyond it: in our professional practice and careers, and the lifestyle and consumer choices we make over the coming years and decades. If systems literacy translates into a worldview and way of life, then sustainability is possible.

Review questions

What are synchronic and diachronic views of time, and how does the distinction help us to understand the relation between human and natural systems, and to potentially rewrite history from an environmental point of view?

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How is a bio-complex view of the relations between human and natural systems central to sustainability, in both theory and practice?

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Questions & Answers

Is there any normative that regulates the use of silver nanoparticles?
Damian Reply
what king of growth are you checking .?
What fields keep nano created devices from performing or assimulating ? Magnetic fields ? Are do they assimilate ?
Stoney Reply
why we need to study biomolecules, molecular biology in nanotechnology?
Adin Reply
yes I'm doing my masters in nanotechnology, we are being studying all these domains as well..
what school?
biomolecules are e building blocks of every organics and inorganic materials.
anyone know any internet site where one can find nanotechnology papers?
Damian Reply
sciencedirect big data base
Introduction about quantum dots in nanotechnology
Praveena Reply
what does nano mean?
Anassong Reply
nano basically means 10^(-9). nanometer is a unit to measure length.
do you think it's worthwhile in the long term to study the effects and possibilities of nanotechnology on viral treatment?
Damian Reply
absolutely yes
how to know photocatalytic properties of tio2 nanoparticles...what to do now
Akash Reply
it is a goid question and i want to know the answer as well
characteristics of micro business
for teaching engĺish at school how nano technology help us
Do somebody tell me a best nano engineering book for beginners?
s. Reply
there is no specific books for beginners but there is book called principle of nanotechnology
what is fullerene does it is used to make bukky balls
Devang Reply
are you nano engineer ?
fullerene is a bucky ball aka Carbon 60 molecule. It was name by the architect Fuller. He design the geodesic dome. it resembles a soccer ball.
what is the actual application of fullerenes nowadays?
That is a great question Damian. best way to answer that question is to Google it. there are hundreds of applications for buck minister fullerenes, from medical to aerospace. you can also find plenty of research papers that will give you great detail on the potential applications of fullerenes.
what is the Synthesis, properties,and applications of carbon nano chemistry
Abhijith Reply
Mostly, they use nano carbon for electronics and for materials to be strengthened.
is Bucky paper clear?
carbon nanotubes has various application in fuel cells membrane, current research on cancer drug,and in electronics MEMS and NEMS etc
so some one know about replacing silicon atom with phosphorous in semiconductors device?
s. Reply
Yeah, it is a pain to say the least. You basically have to heat the substarte up to around 1000 degrees celcius then pass phosphene gas over top of it, which is explosive and toxic by the way, under very low pressure.
Do you know which machine is used to that process?
how to fabricate graphene ink ?
for screen printed electrodes ?
What is lattice structure?
s. Reply
of graphene you mean?
or in general
in general
Graphene has a hexagonal structure
On having this app for quite a bit time, Haven't realised there's a chat room in it.
what is biological synthesis of nanoparticles
Sanket Reply
how did you get the value of 2000N.What calculations are needed to arrive at it
Smarajit Reply
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Source:  OpenStax, Sustainability: a comprehensive foundation. OpenStax CNX. Nov 11, 2013 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11325/1.43
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