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Chapter 1.3 The Human-Environment System

The overarching puzzle of sustainability science is this: How can we transition to a world in which the needs of humankind can be met without threatening the life support systems of Earth? This challenge addresses a basic relationship between humans and their reliance on the environment and resources of the planet. Conceptualizations of sustainability are built from rich intellectual traditions about the relationship between nature and humankind, originally focused on land degradation and resource depletion in antiquity, subsequently crafted into general theories about the relationship, and currently evolving in scope to embrace the contemporary understanding of human impacts on environment at a global scale and the importance of those changes for human well-being. At its heart, the concept of coupled human-environment systems (also termed social-ecological systems, coupled human and natural systems, and coupled human-biophysical systems) recognizes that the social, economic, and cultural well-being of people depends not only on their relations with other people, but with the physical and biological environment as well. These relations transcend the environment as stocks of resources (e.g., fresh water) to the capacity of the environment to function as a life support system (e.g., climate). The coupling of people and environment ranges across spatial and temporal scales, from the local and short term to the global and long term. It also involves relationships that vary in scope from relatively simple to extremely complex system interactions.

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