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Stanford Report, February 23, 2000

Holistic approach needed to confront environmental issues, Matson says


"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe," wrote environmentalist John Muir nearly a century ago.

Today researchers are discovering the wisdom of Muir's observation: When it comes to the environment, everything is indeed interconnected.

And, according to biogeochemist Pamela A. Matson, if we want a future in which people can live in balance with nature, then scientists and policymakers must join forces and take an integrated approach to solving environmental problems.

Matson, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor of Environmental Studies in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences and at the Institute for International Studies, issued her call for "a new paradigm in environmental problem solving" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on Feb. 20 in Washington, D.C.

"In the past, the research, management and policy communities have tended to think about environmental problems like air pollution, water pollution, over-fishing or climate change in isolation from each other," Matson told AAAS delegates.

"Today and in the future, we will have to discuss their interacting effects. Solving air- or water-resource problems will require working in an integrative way across multiple sectors (industry, agriculture, urban users) and with multiple stakeholders."

Because environmental problems and their causes play out in different ways in different places, Matson suggested that generic solutions may not be possible, and that "place-based, integrative approaches will be necessary."

During her presentation at the AAAS session on "Sustainability Science for an Uncertain Century," Matson cited the CALFED Bay-Delta Program and the Southern Oxidants Study as examples of fledgling integrative approaches to research and problem solving.

The Bay-Delta program is a consortium of state and federal agencies that works with agricultural, environmental and urban stakeholders to restore ecological health to the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta system. The long-range objective of the program is to provide a reliable water supply to all users while improving water quality and aquatic habitats in California.

The Southern Oxidants Study (SOS) is an effort by social and biophysical scientists, engineers and air-quality managers to understand the complex causes and consequences of smog and ozone pollution that occur across large regions of the southeastern United States, and to provide that information to policymakers and managers.

Matson noted that both SOS and the Bay-Delta program are "just starting, and it will be critically important to understand why they work or don't work, and what the impediments to their success are."

Matson also cited work she and others have done in the Yaqui Basin in Sonora, Mexico, one of Mexico's major breadbaskets. The valley has enjoyed a dramatic rise in wheat production in recent years, thanks to the increased use of pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers.

But modern agriculture also has an environmental downside, as farmers inadvertently release high levels of nitrogen into the air and water supply through excess fertilization.

Matson demonstrated that, by using less fertilizer, farmers could save up to $30 an acre and still produce as much wheat as before -- with the added bonus of reducing nitrogen pollution in the region.

Writing in the journal Nature, Matson noted that understanding the connection between farm economics and nitrogen pollution resulted in a "win-win solution" for both farmers and the environment.

Matson pointed out that researchers from Stanford and four other U.S. and Mexican institutions also are attempting to look at the big picture ­ to understand the policy drivers and environmental and resource consequences of agricultural and urban development in the Yaqui Basin.

"If the people of the region are interested in sustaining fisheries, or conserving wetlands or equitably allocating water," she said, "they have to understand and manage both the upland agricultural area and the coastal zone as a linked system."

The ultimate objective of such an integrative, place-based approach, Matson said, is to create a sustainable planet where we can "feed, house and employ all people while maintaining our natural resources and our global life support systems." SR