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Arizona State University's Decision Theater offers balance to an off-kilter world

What we know as the "Earth system" was, until recently, composed of several large-scale natural processes all seeking a balance with each other. For example, atmospheric activity and carbon and phosphorus cycles tended toward stability with Earth ecosystems. In the last 100 years or so, however, many human activities have scaled up so dramatically they have begun to knock the old equilibriums off-kilter.

"Humans have, essentially, created a coupled human-natural system for our planet," says George Basile, executive director of Arizona State University's Decision Theater and a professor in the School of Sustainability. No one, however, completely understands the ramifications of this change. Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting on Feb. 20, Basile compared humanity's rapid consumption and waste of natural resources to running a massive science experiment without safeguards or monitoring.

What is a major cause of humanity's reckless behavior? We don't know how to make good, sustainable decisions.

"Sustainability challenges are decision challenges," says Basile. "Decision-makers today require clarity of issues and an array of possible responses far beyond the simple cause-and-effect models applied in the past." In his presentation, "Visualization in decision support for sustainability," Basile discussed the primary obstacles to making good decisions: mind-bendingly complex systems, extreme large-scale processes, long-term causes and effects, and chronic uncertainty regarding catastrophic thresholds and the probability of disastrous interactions.

Using two case studies from Decision Theater's experience an effective response strategy for pandemic flu and water planning for climate change Basile illustrated how a "systems approach" to decision-making can mitigate uncertainties and create robust solutions.

"We work with decision-makers to understand what success looks like from their perspective," he says. "Then we layer in what success requires from a biophysical or socio-politico perspective this is where experts add a lot. Bringing these diverse perspectives together helps us create flexible steps forward that embrace both the best science and key policy realities. We then 'exercise' the most promising possibilities through visualizations and other strategies to help people see their decisions in an action-oriented way and find their optimal short-term and long-term solutions."

The key, says Basile, is to focus on the decision-makers first. "Today's emerging sustainability challenges are complex and new to us all," he says. "Meeting them is both increasingly critical and increasingly difficult." By focusing on the needs of decision-makers first, then applying a transdisciplinary framework and working collaboratively with experts and current research, the best decisions can be identified and then adapted through an iterative process that links informed planning to sustainable actions.


Contact: Karen Leland
Arizona State University

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