The continued emergence of major new and complex challenges described in Chapter 2—and the need to deal with the inevitable uncertainty that accompanies major environmental, technologic, and health issues—will necessitate a new way to make decisions. As described in Chapter 3, systems thinking has begun to take root in biology and other fields as a means of considering the whole rather than the sum of its parts; this will be essential as increasingly complex problems and the challenges described in Chapter 2 present themselves. The emergence of “wicked problems”, the increasing need to address exposures of humans and the ecosystem to multiple pollutants through multiple pathways (some of which are global), and the continuing challenges for the analysis and characterization of uncertainty throughout science and decision-making combine to make the adoption of systems thinking critical.
The systems-thinking perspective is useful not only for characterizing complex effects but for designing sustainable solutions, whether they are innovative technologies or behavioral changes. Understanding systems is also important for determining where leverage points exist for the prevention of health and environmental effects (Meadows 1999). To successfully inform future environmental protection decisions in an increasingly complex world, systems thinking must, at a minimum, include consideration of cumulative effects of multiple stressors, evaluation of a wide range of alternatives to the activity of concern, analysis of the upstream and downstream life-cycle implications of current and alternative activities, involvement of a broad range of stakeholders in decisions (particularly where uncertainty is significant), and use of interdisciplinary scientific approaches that characterize and communicate uncertainties as clearly as possible. As part of a systems perspective, it will be important for the agency to engage in “systems mapping” to comprehensively understand the way in which interacting stressors (such as environmental, human, technologic, socioeconomic, and political stressors) map to health and environmental impacts and to identify where intervention points can result in primary prevention solutions.
Although EPA has made efforts over the years to attempt to bring systems concepts into its work, most recently in its efforts to reorganize its activities under a sustainability framework (Anastas 2012), these efforts have rarely been integrated throughout the agency, nor sustained from one set of leaders to another. To begin to address the lack of a sustained systems perspective, the committee has developed a 21st century framework for decisions (Figure 4-1) and recommends a set of organizational changes to implement that framework (see Chapter 5). The framework features four elements that will be critical for informing the complex decisions that EPA faces:
• To stay at the leading edge, EPA science will need to