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Information and entropy theory for the sustainability of coupled human and natural systems

Audrey L. Mayer, Michigan Technological University
Richard P. Donovan, University of California at Irvine
Christopher W. Pawlowski, AECOM

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-06626-190311

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Abstract

For coupled human and natural systems (CHANS), sustainability can be defined operationally as a feasible, desirable set of flows (material, currency, information, energy, individuals, etc.) that can be maintained despite internal changes and changes in the environment. Sustainable development can be defined as the process by which CHANS can be moved toward sustainability. Specific indicators that give insight into the structure and behavior of feedbacks in CHANS are of particular interest because they would aid in the sustainable management of these systems through an understanding of the structures that govern system behavior. However, the use of specific feedbacks as monitoring tools is rare, possibly because of uncertainties regarding the nature of their dynamics and the diversity of types of feedbacks encountered in these systems. An information theory perspective may help to rectify this situation, as evidenced by recent research in sustainability science that supports the use of unit-free measures such as Shannon entropy and Fisher information to aggregate disparate indicators. These measures have been used for spatial and temporal datasets to monitor progress toward sustainability targets. Here, we provide a review of information theory and a theoretical framework for studying the dynamics of feedbacks in CHANS. We propose a combination of information-based indices that might productively inform our sustainability goals, particularly when related to key feedbacks in CHANS.

Key words

CHANS; feedbacks; information theory; sustainability
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087