2010 President's Report

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How do Humans and the environment coexist? WE’RE HELPING PUT THE NATURE BACK IN HUMAN NATURE.

If humans are going to save the planet, first they need to remember they aren't the only ones living on it.

That’s why Michigan State University is leading Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS)—a discipline that examines ways to both benefit the environment and enable people to thrive—and CHANS-Net, an international network of scientists dedicated to that discipline.

Led by Jianguo “Jack” Liu, MSU’s Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability, and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the network explores the relationships between humans and nature and how those intertwined systems affect each other and the environment.

Case in point: the complex dance between tigers and people in and around the Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Call it the human–nature tango—a dance duplicated around the world where wild animals and people live in proximity. Neil Carter, a doctoral student in MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, is collecting data on that dance.

Carter, one of a new breed of scientists in CHANS-Net, mixes and matches the sciences of sustainability across the natural and social disciplines. He is one of more than 500 ecologists, economists, scientists, and scholars around the world who are connected by the network and striving to find sustainable solutions.

And Liu, who also is the director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, is working to harness this collective power. He has coined the term “telecoupling” to explain new and faster ways of connecting the planet—from big events like earthquakes and floods to tourism, trade, migration, pollution, and climate change.

“We needed to have an umbrella concept that would capture all different kinds of connections among human and natural systems in different areas,” Liu says. “Telecoupling helps us more systematically understand connections between different regions. That way we should be able to develop more consistent and comprehensive policies to help protect the environment, conserve the natural systems, and benefit the people.”

In Nepal, Carter is working to understand how people and tigers move in respect to each other, both directly and indirectly. He also seeks a better understanding of how tigers’ behavior changes the behavior of their human neighbors and visa versa.

He uses camera trapping to understand the tigers, their prey, their competitors, and the people in their habitat.

Carter’s work, funded by NSF, NASA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also features a strong social science component as he evaluates local attitudes and tolerance towards tigers—the first time this had been done systematically.

His goal: incorporate all the relationships into a computer model that can be used to forecast tiger–human interactions. The results will help shape conservation policies that promote long-term coexistence between humans and tigers—and inform conservation plans anywhere around the globe where humans and wildlife share the same backyard.

For more information:

Neil Carter

Coupled Human and Natural Systems

This research is funded by the National Science Foundation.