Evidence-Based Causal Chains for Linking Health, Development, and Conservation Actions

Jiangxiao Qiu, Edward T. Game, Heather Tallis, Lydia P. Olander, Louise Glew, James S. Kagan, Elizabeth L. Kalies, Drew Michanowicz, Jennifer Phelan, Stephen Polasky, James Reed, Erin O. Sills, Dean Urban, Sarah Kate Weaver

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Sustainability challenges for nature and people are complex and interconnected, such that effective solutions require approaches and a common theory of change that bridge disparate disciplines and sectors. Causal chains offer promising approaches to achieving an integrated understanding of how actions affect ecosystems, the goods and services they provide, and ultimately, human well-being. Although causal chains and their variants are common tools across disciplines, their use remains highly inconsistent, limiting their ability to support and create a shared evidence base for joint actions. In this article, we present the foundational concepts and guidance of causal chains linking disciplines and sectors that do not often intersect to elucidate the effects of actions on ecosystems and society. We further discuss considerations for establishing and implementing causal chains, including nonlinearity, trade-offs and synergies, heterogeneity, scale, and confounding factors. Finally, we highlight the science, practice, and policy implications of causal chains to address real-world linked human-nature challenges.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)182-193
Number of pages12
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research partially originated and benefited from The Nature Conservancy workshop on causal chains principles in New York in May 2016. We are grateful for the discussions during this workshop that helped shape this manuscript. We appreciate Duan Biggs and the two anonymous reviewers, as well as the editors, for their constructive comments on previous versions of this manuscript. This work was financially supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation under grant no. 2015-63388. JQ also acknowledges the US Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Hatch (no. FLA-FTL-005640), and McIntire-Stennis (no. 1014703) projects for partial financial support of this work.


  • complex systems
  • environmental health
  • interdisciplinary science
  • landscape ecology
  • sustainability


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