This report focuses on government efforts but is grounded in systems thinking, incorporating social, economic, and environmental considerations; for clarity’s sake, it uses distinct terms for the connections across social-ecological systems and governance linkages that are needed for successful management of connected systems. For example, managing water resources sustainably means considering not just water quality and quantity, but also its connection to air quality, land use that may involve food and energy production or urban development, drinking water security, electricity from hydropower, fisheries, recreation, and impacts on human health.3 Governing for sustainability requires bringing the right complement of people to the table, acknowledging the linkages across societal and governance institutions. Thus, managing water resources would require enabling and facilitating effective linkages among dozens of federal, state, local and sometimes international institutions and organizations. Governance by its traditional nature (and often by statute) is compartmentalized, but maximizing one variable at a time is a path to suboptimal results. Better results are likely to be achieved by managing the connections and optimizing governance linkages.

The systems that must be considered in addressing sustainability challenges are referred to in this report as social-ecological systems. These complex systems include the natural resource domains (air, fresh water, coastal oceans, land, forests, soil, etc.), built environments (urban infrastructure such as drinking water and wastewater systems, transportation systems, energy systems), and the social aspects of complex human systems (public health, economic prosperity, and the like).

Figure S-1 provides a graphical depiction of the challenge, where key resource domains, including water, land, energy, and nonrenewable resources, are shown as squares, and areas that require these resources (industry, agriculture, nature, and domestic) are depicted as ovals. Human health and well-being interacts with all of these. It is common that scientists and decision makers specialize in one of these topics and are relatively unaware of the important constraints that may occur as a result of inherent connections with other topics. As the diagram demonstrates, a near-complete connection exists between all of these domains, even though tradition and specialization encourage a focus on only one part of these highly interconnected systems.4


3The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Environmental Strategy refers to this as “integrated water resources management.” See OECD. 2012. Review of the Implementation of the OECD Environmental Strategy for the First Decade of the 21st Century: Making Green Growth Deliver. Meeting of the Environment Policy Committee (EPOC) at Ministerial Level, March 29-30, 2012. Online. Available at Accessed February 13, 2013.

4Graedel, T. E., and E. van der Voet. 2010. Linkages of sustainability: An introduction. Pp. 1-10 in Linkages of Sustainability, T. E. Graedel and E. van der Voet, eds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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