Managing Transboundary Resources

By: Lindsay Key

NASA image of transboundary pollution (public domain).

Boundaries are human-developed distinctions that help us make sense of our world. Because of geographical, cultural, and political boundaries, we understand one thing as separate from another, come to understand ownership, and can delegate tasks and responsibilities.

However, what happens when an environmental issue causes all or some of those boundaries to collide? Suddenly, a seemingly black and white matter blurs to gray, and developing sound policy is not as easy as it once seemed.

A recent example of boundary crossing is U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to reverse—and then reinstate—Obama’s ban on the import of elephant trophies into the U.S. Biodiversity loss decidedly impacts the entire world—not just the country or social system in which a particular species lives.

Another example is the recent leaking of the Keystone XL pipeline that stretches 2,147 miles across the United States and Canada. Pipeline protesters argue that the issue crosses boundaries, and not just national ones—everyone, to an extent, is impacted by the environmental degradation that occurs with an oil leak.

Jenn Lawrence

Dr. Jennifer Lawrence

In NR 5884 Transboundary Resource Management, an online graduate course offered as part of the Master of Natural Resources (MNR) curriculum, CLIGS Fellow Jennifer Lawrence encourages students to examine these sorts of present-day complicated issues in light of human-developed boundaries. She asks, “how do we develop boundaries, and how do they impact policy?”

“I really want to help students understand the complexity of resource management, and the interconnectedness of it,” said Lawrence, who teaches the course again in the upcoming Spring 2018 semester. “Environmental issues don’t respect boundaries—they can’t be confined.”

In the course, Lawrence presents the idea of “systems thinking”—an approach that involves viewing a problem through multiple lens all at once, before coming to a conclusion. Students will be asked to tackle projects and present the results in a digital format.

Systems thinking is an approach that environmental policy makers will need to adapt as they establish rules around issues that transcend political, religious, and geographical boundaries. In recent years, these issues have been coined “wicked problems” due to their complexity.

“Institutional arrangements within policy, law, markets, and even social norms are essential if we are to understand the essence of transboundary resource management,” said Lawrence. “In this course, we will explore a range of boundaries – cultural, scientific, geographic, political, technological, and resource based – and we will work to understand how these boundaries intersect, shift, and change over time. Given the massive socio-environmental challenges of our time, we must become reflexive leaders who can manage environmental issues in their complexity.”

“I highly recommend taking this course as part of the MNR program,” said Megha Khadka, a 2017 alum who took the Transboundary Resource Management course in Spring 2017. “It was truly an eye opening experience to learn about the many issues and conflicts that natural resource managers around the world face due to boundaries created by social, political, economical, or even environmental reasons.”

“Transboundary Resource Management was easily one of my favorite courses during my master’s journey,” said alumna Tiona Johnson. “As an interdisciplinary student, I was becoming increasingly familiar with the ways in which subject matters overlapped, and how not a single issue occurs in isolation (especially in regards to natural resources). Through the TRM coursework I was introduced to case studies and resources that challenged me to think more critically about influences often overlooked when considering resource management issues. Beyond geo-political boundaries there are a multitude of others. Social perspectives, a community’s history, and assumptions are necessary considerations when attempting to understand and then contribute to sustainable solutions.”


Dr. Jennifer Lawrence is currently a Fellow with the Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS) and a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at The Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience, where she works collaboratively on issues at the intersection of political economy and the environment. Her work highlights the tension between chronic and acute socio-environmental disasters that account for self-legitimating cycles of disaster production and response. Prior to coming to Virginia Tech, Jennifer earned a Master of Science in International Political Economy from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where her research focused on the political economy of natural resource conflicts. In addition to her academic career, Jennifer has worked in a number of capacities on a range of international issues including: European Union energy policy while she was the Executive Director at the Foundation on Economic Trends; human trafficking and debt relief during her time in the US House of Representatives; and a number of international development projects while consulting for USAID in Jordan.