The New Science of Telecoupling Shows Just How Connected the World Is—For Better and For Worse

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Bay Ismoyo / AFP / Getty

I’ve got one more tidbit from last weekend’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and it’s nothing less than a new scientific concept: telecoupling.

This is not, as you might expect, a particular risqué form of conference call. Telecoupling refers to how connections between nature and human beings are growing ever tighter in a more globalized world—for good and for ill. It’s the brainchild of Jack Liu, the director of the Human-Nature Lab/Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University, who hosted a symposium on telecoupling at the AAAS meeting.”Telecoupling brings together connections between human beings and natural systems across distant spaces,” Liu said. “It’s not just biophysical but social as well, across broad distances.”

Telecoupling shows how ecology works in a globalized era. In her presentation at AAAS, Columbia University ecologist Ruth DeFries demonstrated that demand for wood or agricultural products in one country can influence rates of deforestation in tropical nations thousands of miles away. Once, deforestation in a nation like Brazil would have been driven mostly by local factors, by the need for farmers to farmers to clear land for self-supporting agriculture. That began to change with the acceleration of urbanization—as centers of population grow, both in developed and developing nations, they inevitably draw on natural resources from the countryside. “Urbanization is the telecoupling trend,” said DeFries. “Cities grow, and they put demand on forests.”

In the case of the Brazilian Amazon, much of that demand is for soy that goes to feed farm animals, which then goes to meet the growing demand for meat around the world. The price of soy and the rate of deforestation in the Amazon were linked—and since growing affluence in developing Asia is pushing up demand for food, that was bad news for the rainforest. It’s a bit like the old butterfly effect—only instead of a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking and creating a storm in America, it’s an urban laborer in Beijing buying a bowl of pork noodles and causing a tree to be cut down in Brazil.

But the same telecoupling that can lead to ecological destruction can also have a beneficial effect. DeFries noted that when the link between soy and deforestation became clear, consumers and activists in developed nations put pressure on the soy industry to stop planting on clear-cut land. In 2006 the soy industry imposed a moratorium on recently deforested land, and it’s been extremely successful in reducing the rate of forest loss. Instead, soy growers used degraded land—and still were able to produce enough to meet demand. “This is a direct result of telecoupling,” DeFries said.

So it is with another great hope for combating forest loss: REDD, or Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation. REDD would involve developed nations paying tropical countries to keep their forests standing, in exchange for the carbon sequestered by the trees, which rich countries would be able to use to meet their greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. REDD is a product of the same telecoupling forces as international demand for soy, only trees stay up, instead of being cut down. “There are good sides and bad sides to telecoupling,” said DeFries. “We have challenges and we have opportunities.”

Indeed, whether it’s deforestation or the outsourcing of polluting industries from developed nations to developing ones, telecoupling is the prime driver of ecological change today. As Liu said:

There are new and faster ways of connecting the whole planet — from big events like earthquakes and floods to tourism, trade, migration, pollution, climate change, flows of information and financial capital, and invasion of animal and plant species.

Telecoupling poses an essential challenge for traditional conservation, which depended on fencing off parts of the natural world to provide refuges and reserves for wildlife and forests. But in a telecoupled world, there is no pristine shelter. No forest is an island. But used right, telecoupling can also provide environmentalists with the tools to save species and land anywhere on the planet. We’re the ones who make the the difference.