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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2010

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Now is the Time for Action: Transitions and Tipping Points in Complex Environmental Systems

Many of our current environmental challenges unfold over such vast spatial scales and create consequences of such broad scope that they require a qualitatively different kind of scientific and social attention. The U.S. National Science Foundation's (NSF) Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education (AC-ERE) concluded that the necessary research and education in the environmental sciences are not progressing at the pace required by challenges of such scale and scope. In its recent report, the committee issued a “call for action” for researchers, educators, and policymakers.1 This agenda called for the National Science Foundation to increase its commitment to environmental science by increasing its investment in two areas: 1) fostering research that improves our ability to live sustainably on Earth, and 2) strengthening our understanding of the links between human behavior and natural processes. Why now? And why is this call to action so prescient?

Our purpose in writing this article is to ensure that the recommendations and the larger discussion around these critical issues reach a broad audience. We anticipate a healthy discussion among many sectors, including the science community (the physical, natural, and social sciences) and policymakers. If we are to make progress toward understanding the feasible options for sustainability, the points addressed in the article need to be at the core of the conversation.

SUSAN G. STAFFORD (“Now Is the Time for Action: Transitions and Tipping Points in Complex Environmental Systems”) is chair of the U.S. National Science Foundation's (NSF) Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education (AC-ERE). She is a professor in the Department of Forest Resources in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resources Sciences at the University of Minnesota. The following co-authors are also NSF AC-ERE members.

DENNIS M. BARTELS is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Exploratorium.

SANDRA-BEGAY-CAMPBELL is an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories.

JILL L. BUBIER is the Marjorie Fisher Professor and Chair of the Environmental Studies Program in the Department of Earth and Environment at Mount Holyoke College.

JOHN C. CRITTENDEN is Director of the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Environment Magazine Executive Editor SUSAN L. CUTTER is the Carolina Distinguished Professor and Director of the Hazards Research Lab Department of Geography at the University of South Carolina.

JOHN R. DELANEY is a Professor of Oceanography and the Jerome M. Paros Endowed Chair in Sensor Networks at the University of Washington School of Oceanography.

TERESA E. JORDAN is the Chair of the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Cornell University.

ALAN C. KAY is President of the Viewpoints Research Institute, Inc.

GARY D. LIBECAP is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Sherm and Marge Telleen Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the Donald Bren Distinguished Professor of Corporate Environmental Management at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

JOHN C. MOORE is the Director of the National Research Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University-Fort Collins.

NANCY N. RABALAIS is the Executive Director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium DeFelice Center.

DAVID REJESKI is the Director of the Foresight and Governance Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.

OSVALDO E. SALA is the Sloan Lindemann Professor of Biology in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Brown University.

MARSHALL SHEPHERD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Georgia.

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