Also in the 1990s, concerns were raised about the maintenance of endangered species, energy generation, agriculture, and recreation in the central Platte River of Nebraska. After considerable discussion, agencies of the federal government, three states, power providers, water managers, and others came together to create a shared vision and to establish responsibility for sustainable management of the central Platte River. This shared vision has led to improved environments for endangered species, better collaborative water management, and more stable hydropower production.

Why did these two situations challenge established governance systems? Why did one approach succeed, but not the other? The answer to these questions relates to systems thinking and to the challenges that arise when traditional approaches to governance meet the need for systems thinking. The legendary ecologist John Muir wrote in 1911 that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”2 His perceptive statement applies to water, land, wildlife, and other aspects of the natural world, as well as to the interactions that link humans and nature. Many decades later, it has become increasingly obvious that the statement is also relevant to resource governance.

To explore how such sustainability challenges might be better addressed, a committee with a wide range of expertise and experience in government, academia, and business was convened by the National Research Council (NRC) to provide guidance on issues related to sustainability linkages in the federal government. This report is the result of the committee’s investigations and deliberations.

The committee was charged to produce a report with consensus findings that provides an analytical framework for decision making related to linkages of sustainability. This framework can be used by U.S. policy makers and regulators to assess the consequences, tradeoffs, and synergies of policy issues involving a systems approach to long-term sustainability and decisions on sustainability-oriented programs. The framework is to include social, economic and environmental domains of sustainability, highlighting certain dimensions that are sometimes left unaccounted for in cross-media analyses. The committee was also asked to:

identify impediments to interdisciplinary, cross-media federal programs;

recommend priority areas for interagency cooperation on specific sustainability challenges; and

highlight scientific research gaps as they relate to these interdisciplinary, cross-media approaches to sustainability.

To address this statement of task, the committee convened a series of fact-finding meetings, commissioned expert-authored examples, and reviewed the pertinent literature, as discussed below in more detail.

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2Muir, J. 1911. My First Summer in the Sierra. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.



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