Sustainability science

Sustainability science has emerged in the 21st century as a new academic discipline.[1] This new field of science was officially introduced with a "Birth Statement" at the World Congress "Challenges of a Changing Earth 2001" in Amsterdam organized by the International Council for Science (ICSU), the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change[2] and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP).

The field reflects a desire to give the generalities and broad-based approach of “sustainability” a stronger analytic and scientific underpinning as it:

... brings together scholarship and practice, global and local perspectives from north and south, and disciplines across the natural and social sciences, engineering, and medicine[3] — it can be usefully thought of as "neither ‘‘basic’’ nor ‘‘applied’’ research but as a field defined by the problems it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs; it serves the need for advancing both knowledge and action by creating a dynamic bridge between the two."[4]

The field is focused on examining the interactions between human, environmental, and engineered systems to understand and contribute to solutions for complex challenges that threaten the future of humanity and the integrity of the life support systems of the planet, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and land and water degradation.[5]

Sustainability science, like sustainability itself, derives some impetus from the concepts of sustainable development and environmental science.[6] Sustainability science provides a critical framework for sustainability[7] while sustainability measurement provides the evidence-based quantitative data needed to guide sustainability governance.[8]


Consensual definition of sustainability science is as elusive as the definition of "sustainability" or "sustainable development". As outlined by the Sustainability Science Program at Harvard University's Center for International Development sustainability science seeks to:

Advance basic understanding of the dynamics of human-environment systems; to facilitate the design, implementation, and evaluation of practical interventions that promote sustainability in particular places and contexts; and to improve linkages between relevant research and innovation communities on the one hand, and relevant policy and management communities on the other.[9]

A more broad-based definition is:

The cultivation, integration, and application of knowledge about Earth systems gained especially from the holistic and historical sciences (such as geology, ecology, climatology, oceanography) coordinated with knowledge about human interrelationships gained from the social sciences and humanities, in order to evaluate, mitigate, and minimize the consequences, regionally and worldwide, of human impacts on planetary systems and on societies across the globe and into the future – that is, in order that humans can be knowledgeable Earth stewards.”[10]

It has been noted that the new paradigm

"must encompass different magnitudes of scales (of time, space, and function), multiple balances (dynamics), multiple actors (interests) and multiple failures (systemic faults)."[11]

Others take a much broader view of sustainability science, emphasizing the need to analyze the root causes of the fundamental unsustainability of the prevailing economic system, such as the emphasis on growth as key to solving political and social problems and advancying society's well-being. In a 2012 article entitled "Sustainability Science Needs to Include Sustainable Consumption," published in Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, Halina Brown argues that sustainability science must include the study of the sociology of material consumption and the structure of consumerist society, the role of technology in aggravating the unsustainable social practices, as well as in solving the problems they create, the macroeconomic theories that presuppose economic growth as a necessary condition for advancing societal well-being, and others.[12]

Broad objectives

The case for making research and development an important component of sustainable development strategies was embraced by many international scientific organizations in the mid-1980s, promoted by the Brundtland Commission's report Our Common Future in 1987, and noted in the Agenda 21 plan that emerged from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 and further developed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg in 2002.

The topics of the following sub-headings indicate recurring themes that are addressed in the literature of sustainability science.[13] Only in 2010 have the seminal papers and thinking of sustainability scientists been drawn together.[14] In 2010 a compendium of basic papers in this new discipline was published by Robert Kates, with introduction by William Clark, as : Readings in Sustainability Science and Technology - an introduction to the key literature of sustainability science.[14] The 2012 Commentary by Halina Brown extensively expands the scope of that seminal publication.[12] This is work in progress. The 2012 Encyclopedia of Sustainability Science and Technology was created as a collaboration of over 1000 scientists to provide peer-reviewed entries covering sustainability research and policy evaluations of technology.[15]

Knowledge structuring of issues

Knowledge structuring has been identified as an essential first step in the effort to acquire a comprehensive view of sustainability issues which are both complex and interconnected. This is needed as a response to the requirements of academia, industry and government.

Coordination of data

The key research and data for sustainability are sourced from many scientific disciplines, topics and organisations. A major part of knowledge structuring will entail building up the tools that provide an “overview” of what is known. Sustainability science can construct and coordinate a framework within which the vast amount of data can be easily accessed.

Interdisciplinary approaches

The attempt, by sustainability science, to understand the integrated “whole” of planetary and human systems requires cooperation between scientific, social and economic disciplines, public and private sectors, academia and government. In short it requires a massive global cooperative effort and one major task of sustainability science is to assist integrated cross-disciplinary coordination.


List of sustainability science programs

In recent years, there have been set up more and more study courses that are directly addressing the issues of sustainability science and global change:

Master's & Doctoral

In 2010, a compendium of basic papers in this new discipline was published by Robert Kates as Readings in Sustainability Science and Technology - an introduction to the key literature of sustainability science.[25]

Recently, numbers of people doing a PhD gather under the title of sustainable sciences purposes. They come from different backgrounds and work around this topic. This sort of work enables the topic to be interdisciplinary and improve the work of PhDs. Here is an example of such gathering : BhIOSS Group (Birmingham Initiative on Sustainable Sciences)

See also


  1. Kates, R.; Clark, W.; Corell, R.; Hall, J.; Jaeger, C.; et al. (2001). "Sustainability science". Science. Science. 292 (5517): 641–642. doi:10.1126/science.1059386.
  2. IHDP of the United Nations University
  3. Clark, W.C., & Dickson, N. M. 2003. Sustainability science: The emerging research program. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 100(14): 8059-8061.
  4. Clark, W.C. 2007. Sustainability Science: A room of its own. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 104: 1737-1738; published online on February 6, 2007, 10.1073/pnas.0611291104
  5. Environmental Science: Iowa State University
  6. Komiyama,H. , Takeuchi,K. 2006. Sustainability science: building a new discipline. Sustainability Science 1:1–6.
  7. "Sustainability Accounting in UK Local Government". The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. Retrieved 2008-06-18.
  8. Sustainability Science Program at Harvard's Center for International Development
  9. Kieffer, S.W., Barton, P., Palmer, A.R., Reitan, P.H., & Zen, E. 2003. Megascale events: Natural disasters and human behavior. Geol. Soc. America Abstracts with programs: 432.
  10. Reitan, P. 2005. Sustainability science – and what’s needed beyond science. Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 1(1):77-80. /vol1iss1/communityessay.reitan.html
  11. 1 2 Brown, Halina Szejnwald (24 January 2012). "Sustainability Science Needs to Include Sustainable Consumption". Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development. 54 (1): 20–25. doi:10.1080/00139157.2012.639598.
  12. Kauffmann, Joanne 2009. Advancing sustainability science: report on the International Conference on Sustainability Science (ICSS) 2009. Sustainability Science 4: 233-242.
  13. 1 2 Kates, Robert W., ed. (2010). Readings in Sustainability Science and Technology - an introduction to the key literature of sustainability science CID Working Paper No. 213. Center for International Development, Harvard University. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, December 2010.
  14. Meyers, R. (2012). Encyclopedia of sustainability science and technology. New York: Springer.
  15. Consilience
  16. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology
  17. S.A.P.I.EN.S (Surveys and Perspectives Integrating Environment and Society)
  18. Boulanger, P-M. Sustainable development indicators: a scientific challenge, a democratic issue . S.A.P.I.EN.S 1(1) Online since 23 December 2008. Accessed 9 July 2009.
  19. The journal Sustainability Science
  20. Sustainability: science, practice, policy e-journal
  21. Sustainability: the journal of record
  22. "Sustainability Science". Retrieved 2014-03-10.
  23. "GAIA". Retrieved 2014-03-10.
  24. "" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-04-24. External link in |title= (help)

Further reading

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