Nexus and Sustainability

Each year, the Wake Forest University faculty members choose an overarching theme to use as a lens on sustainability practices and course content.  The theme’s focus creates a means to integrate material from different perspectives across our courses.  This integration gives students, faculty members, and partner organizations a trans-disciplinary perspective on sustainability.

These parts of our vision and mission stem from a long tradition of paideia which resulted in the modern day version of liberal arts and educating people and attacking problems from multiple perspectives.  The complexity of sustainability challenges demands this perspective and is best viewed as a set of complex, intractable problems that call for this interconnected, nexus, approach.

The increasing relationships among various resources and the use of those resources has far-reaching effects on global development over the next few decades.  Demand for these resources, such as air, energy, water, and land, will grow substantially as a result of an increase in the global population from 7.1 billion today to over 8.3 billion by 2030.   An expanding middle class and swelling urban populations will increase pressures on critical resources, especially water and food. Water is fundamentally important to nutrition, health, the environment, the economy, and power generation.  Food cannot be produced without water, and most of the water consumed around the world is used for agricultural purposes and needs energy for delivery.  The 2012 Global Health Index report focused particularly on how to ensure sustainable food security under conditions of water, land, and energy stress.


Forecasts relating to the expansion of renewable energies suggest that growth rates in the areas of wind and solar energy will be much higher. These technologies have the added benefit that they barely need water to operate.  Yet, the embedded energy needs of solar are high and solar panels may pose a threat to waste streams.

Experts have argued that the amount of the world’s hydropower can be tripled making this energy source the largest renewable energy source in the world. The potential of hydropower in Africa has barely been tapped, and hydroelectric power generation in the region could be increased twentyfold. The Amazon, which has more freshwater than the combination of the next five largest rivers on Earth, has hydro-electric projects slated for all its major tributaries.  Dams have caused extinctions of species and have greatly reduced food supplies for people in the U.S.  This impact threatens major protein supplies for South American and African populations.  The nexus of water, energy, and land is evident in this example.

The ways we generate biofuels could require large amounts of water: even if just five percent of cars run on biofuels in 20 years’ time, 20 percent of the water consumed for agricultural purposes will be required for biofuel production. Biofuels compete with food crops for land and water resources possibly increasing food prices and threatening food security.  We can reduce these impacts by using alternative feedstocks such grasses for cellulosic ethanol or algae generation from wastewater.

Creating a sustainable food system includes policy choices about where agriculture occurs, who has land decision rights, and what land use practices are deemed sustainable and feasible.   Citizens in states such as North Carolina face food insecurity, environmentally harmful farming practices from legacy industries such as tobacco, coastal erosion from climate change, and dramatic urban sprawl.


All of these examples illustrate what we mean by nexus.  Nexus is defined as systems approach to difficult, ill-defined, and often intractable challenges.  Challenges such as the ones discussed in this document cannot be addressed through one perspectives or focus, such as defining a problem as one of “energy,” or “public policy.”  We are advocating that most of the challenges we discuss in the MA program are approached through a transdisciplinary, multi-faceted approach.  We ask constantly “how does this nexus approach help us meet these challenges?”  You can join our program and learn much more about this approach.


Climate change is a particularly useful challenge to illustrate this nexus approach.   The readings and class discussions in our MA program will help one evaluate a vast array of statements about climate change.  Here is a sample of comments about climate change from various scientific, popular press and political sources:

1.   Global warming is a hoax. The planet is not warming.

2.   Climate models are exaggerating the extent of warming.

3.   Warming may be beneficial.

4.   Global warming is the foremost threat to humans and the natural world.

5.   Humans are a prime cause of modern climate changes.

How can you decipher these comments and respond to them?  Which are true, which are not true and which are ambiguous?  What public policy should we design to deal with climate warming?  How can we analyze evidence for each claim, identifying what evidence is valid and why this evidence is valid?  All five claims will be able to marshal evidence in some way.  The question for you to consider is what evidence is most compelling and why?  And can you communicate what evidence is best and why?


Our view is that you are obligated to approach climate change from various points of view and to consider the systemic elements in the causes and outcomes of a changing climate.  One cannot only take a climatology approach yet must add in humanities, law, and business thinking to understand the full dynamics of this important issue.  Changing climates impact social groups, economic systems, national advantages and disadvantages, and individual access to resources.

So, we are not trying to create experts in any one subject or component, but to explore how to look at the interactions among all of the resources and important outcomes — to create more holistic thinkers because that approach will be the key to sustainability.   This is what you, as a participant, can gain from our program which is unique– and as such the nexus theme emphasizes the program’s strengths.  You will explore how to think about nexus, understanding the nexus, and seeing the nexus.

The nexus approach means systemic thinking and a quest for integrated solutions to guide decision-making about resource use and development, to minimize externalities and ensure true sustainability. There is a growing recognition around the world that this is, indeed, the best approach, given the complex linkages and feedbacks involved. But successfully applying nexus thinking to specific locations and challenges is by no means a small task.

Quantifying linkages, trade-offs and potential synergies provides a factual basis for integrated management across sectors towards improved water, energy, and land security and creating a sustainable world.

Some techniques indicative of this nexus approach include outcome-based planning and reporting, design thinking, multi-stakeholder engagement and deliberation tools, integrated scientific analysis, and forward looking techniques such as scenario analysis.


To achieve lasting social and economic development around the world, the sustainable use of all resources is crucial.   We recognize that food crises, energy crises, and climate change are global and interrelated problems that can only be solved through international cooperation and nexus methodology.  How can we find a common language with which to enable international cooperation and movement towards common goals? How can we preserve the ecosystem services so that we can decrease the materials we use around the world?

Join us and be part of the solution; be part of the nexus.

Daniel S. Fogel, CEO SP3,; 1-704-604-0085


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