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I will present worked examples of coupled human-environment systems (CHES) from traditional pastoralist systems in East Africa. The cases illustrate how different ways of characterizing CHESs can guide the development of appropriate research approaches, and can also have significant consequences for evaluations of sustainability. I focus on two characteristics that were identified as “deal-makers and breakers” for sustainability by a trans-disciplinary workshop of scholars and pastoralists from East Africa and Mongolia, which was held earlier this year. First, CHESs that are undergoing broad transformations, involving multiple components and novel interactions, are nearly impossible to study using typical predictive and modeling methodologies. In systems governed by ‘noncomputable’ dynamics, the system’s adaptive capacity and the feasibility of novel configurations arise as critical research themes and targets for promoting sustainability. Secondly, studying the nature of networks and connectivity among social and environmental components of a CHES provides a critical lens for understanding how individual versus collective risk, equity, and social capital shape our approaches to sustainability. In traditional pastoralism, the livelihood mode generates particularly immediate connections between human and environmental dynamics, with few degrees of separation. These place-based, proximal examples will be followed by another set of worked examples, presented by the Florida International University student group. Their examples echo the same themes, but in broader contexts and revolving around cases of population displacements.