The Sustainability Transition
Meeting basic human needs without degrading the planet’s vital systems will require an ambitious, interdisciplinary, and solution-oriented research program.
One of the greatest challenges confronting humanity in the 21st century is sustainability: how to meet the basic needs of people for food, energy, water, and shelter without degrading the planet’s life support infrastructure, its atmosphere and water resources, the climate system, and species and ecosystems on land and in the oceans on which we and future generations will rely. Although the precise definition of sustainability continues to be discussed and debated, general agreement has emerged about what areas deserve most attention, and actions are being taken in all of them. Although we won’t meet the sustainability goal overnight, humanity is beginning to make decisions based on criteria that show concern both for people and for our life support systems. We are embarked on a transition toward sustainability.
With a still-growing human population, rapidly increasing consumption, and ever-increasing stresses on the environmental services on which we rely, however, this transition needs to accelerate. The engagement of the science and technology (S&T) community will be essential, though not sufficient, for achieving that acceleration. Like the fields of medical science and agricultural science, the emerging field of sustainability science is not defined by disciplines but rather by problems to be addressed and solved. It encompasses and draws on elements of the biophysical and social sciences, engineering, and medicine, as well as the humanities, and is often multi- and interdisciplinary in effort. The substantive focus of sustainability science is on the complex dynamics of the coupled human/environment system. The field reaches out to embrace relevant scholarship on the fundamental character of interactions among humans, their technologies, and the environment, and on the utilization of that knowledge by decisionmakers to address urgent problems of economic development and environmental and resource conservation.
Sustainability research is appearing in scientific journals and influencing some real-world decisions, and the field is now in need of a well–thought-through plan that engages the broad research, educational, and funding communities. Although sustainability, like all long-term societal challenges, will ultimately benefit from an S&T approach that “lets a thousand flowers bloom,” such an approach is not enough. We need solution-oriented, use-inspired R&D for a sustainability transition, and we need it fast, so we need a clear plan for research. And although literally every discipline can and needs to contribute gems of scientific and technological knowledge to help meet the sustainability challenge, none can make sufficient progress working alone; thus, we need concerted efforts to bring those disciplines together to work on integrative challenges.
A research plan
The need for integrative, problem-focused research becomes clear when addressing some of the grand challenges of sustainability. Consider energy. The vast majority of the world’s energy is provided by fossil fuels, and demand for energy is rapidly increasing in the developing nations. Much attention has been paid to the “end of oil” and the security concerns about increasing worldwide competition for oil and gas, but the most critical and immediate sustainability challenge is the energy system’s effect on climate and on air and water pollution. Research endeavors that focus simply on new energy resources are critical, but from a sustainability standpoint, they’re just part of the puzzle. Research must focus at the interface of the technology/environment/social system to develop energy sources that reduce environmental consequences and are broadly implementable and available to the world’s poorest people. The challenge is to understand not just what new technologies are necessary, but also how to implement them in a way that avoids unintended consequences for people and the planet. Our recent experience with biofuels from food crops shows what can happen when we focus too narrowly on a specific energy goal in isolation from its interaction with food production, water and air pollution, trade, climate, and other environmental and social needs.
Another key challenge in sustainable development is biodiversity conservation. The disciplines of evolutionary biology and ecology have provided fundamental insights into factors that maintain species or prevent them from flourishing, but research on biodiversity is by itself not sufficient for sustainability science. Efforts that focus on the connections between biodiversity conservation and the economic and social needs of people are also needed. The emergence of research and on-the-ground efforts to account for benefits derived from ecosystems and use them explicitly for the well-being of people is a clear illustration of sustainability science.
The climate challenge similarly provides an illustration of the particular needs of sustainability science. A research endeavor that addresses climate change needs to focus not only on understanding change in the physical climate system through observations and models, but also on the ways in which people and ecosystems respond, adapt, and mitigate. Doing these things separately from each other, without a coherent program, leads to critical gaps. Moreover, many such challenges in the coupled human/environment system play out at different scales. Efforts focused on evaluating and reducing the vulnerability of human/environment systems to climate change, for example, require interdisciplinary efforts at local, regional, and national scales, with vulnerability potentially playing out very differently across space, scale, and time.
As these examples suggest, research for the sustainability transition needs to be integrative and coordinated. Great progress in one narrow area does not ensure success. We need to make sure we are covering the right research territory so that solutions are possible and new technologies and approaches can actually be useful and used. This is going to require a balanced and coordinated research endeavor with balanced research fund allocations.
Such a coordinated plan is important not just for its near-term practical benefits in challenging resource areas, but also for the fundamental development of the field and its longer-term advances. Although sustainability science addresses a broad and sometimes seemingly unrelated range of specific science needs, it is linked by core themes and questions that emerge no matter what set of resources or environmental challenges is being addressed. For example, questions about driving forces of change such as consumption, behavior and values, and population trends that underlie resource use and depletion are common to all. Likewise, questions about the responsiveness of the human/environment system—its vulnerability and adaptive capacity, its limits and thresholds—are relevant whether one is addressing the climate/energy nexus or the interactions between food security and environment. Underlying questions about institutions, incentives, and governance structures are critical across all. Although the core questions of sustainability science have been discussed in the literature and around the conference tables of the National Academy of Sciences and other institutions, there has been no recent international effort to outline the fundamental components of the research agenda for sustainability science. This needs to be a part of the five-year plan and perhaps can best be led by organizations such as the U.S. National Academies and their international equivalents.
The research agenda of sustainability science will be an enormous one. Mobilizing the S&T community to support the sustainability transition will entail a concerted effort and will require doing things differently than we typically have in the past. A number of changes are needed in our research institutions and in our funding organizations if we are to move more quickly down the path to sustainability.
For many academic institutions, the sustainability challenge is a particularly difficult one because it requires us to work together in ways that are not particularly well supported by the institutional structures of our universities; because it requires a focus on problem solving along with fundamental learning; and because it requires the S&T community to actively engage with decisionmakers rather than assume a one-way handoff of knowledge, followed by its automatic use. These difficulties suggest a number of necessary actions within academia.
First, our academic institutions need to find ways to facilitate interdisciplinary efforts that draw on the strengths of many different disciplines, allowing them to combine and integrate their knowledge around specific sustainability challenges. A number of universities are now engaged in experiments around this theme. Some have identified new schools or colleges within the university with the explicit role of interdisciplinary problem solving. Others have developed umbrella institutions that are meant to harness the dispersed disciplinary strengths of the university and facilitate and incentivize research interactions that integrate them. Still others have instituted free-standing centers that operate more or less independently from the academic portions of the university. And some have employed more than one approach. In many cases, these experiments provide room not just for the coming together of different disciplines, but also for the emergence of new interdisciplinary foci and the development and training of experts who work in them. We should learn from these experiments.
Increasingly, these universities are also training a next generation of leaders who understand and work within the broad context of sustainability; who sometimes carry the strengths of more than one discipline; and who can combine multiple disciplines, either themselves or through team efforts, to address questions that most of us more traditionally trained disciplinarians are challenged to do. There is no doubt that demand for such interdisciplinary programs is on the rise and at rates much greater than demand is growing in many of the core disciplines.
Another key aspect of academic programs around sustainability science is the purposeful intent to link knowledge to action. Much of sustainability science is hard-core fundamental research, but the field is essentially use-inspired and is oriented toward decisionmaking of all sorts. Just as in the agricultural and medical fields, public outreach and knowledge extension are crucial aspects of sustainability science, yet most universities do not have well-honed mechanisms for the kind of dialogue and partnerships that are needed for sustainability science to be actually useful and used in decisionmaking. A multidirectional flow of information is required, both to help the academic community understand the key challenges from the decisionmaker’s perspective and to engage the academic community in integrative efforts that focus not just on the development of new innovations and approaches, but also on their actual implementation. Again, experiments are taking place with new kinds of research partnerships, dialogues and workshops, communication strategies, and the development of in-house “boundary organizations” that purposefully link researchers and decisionmakers. Such efforts are exceptionally challenging, especially to universities, because they represent costs for which there are no traditional sources of funds.
The linking of S&T to decisionmaking is made even more difficult because sustainability challenges differ by location as a function of characteristics of both the social and biophysical systems of the place. It is in specific places that the interactions among local- to global-scale environmental changes, public policies, geographic and resource endowments, and individual decisionmaking and action play out. This argues for place-based analytical frameworks and mechanisms that link work across spatial scales. This is more easily said than done; national-scale programs and centers established to address sustainability challenges may not be effective at the place-based scale if there is no regional or local entity to provide integration and connection with the local actors. There is a need for regional or state-level experiments in the development of sustainability resource and research centers and knowledge systems. Such centers could quite logically be partnerships of academic, public, and private institutions, as has been suggested in discussions about the possible organization of a national climate service.
Perhaps most important, sustainability challenges cannot be dealt with effectively if the federal research and mission agencies are not engaged. Understanding the fundamental functions of human/environment systems and their ability to adapt and respond to multiple environmental and social challenges has emerged as a critical scientific need, yet there is very little focused effort on this need in the agencies. The development of innovative knowledge, tools, and approaches that simultaneously address the needs of people while protecting environment and resources needs to be a focus of attention, but today is being done only piecemeal in various programs across numerous agencies. Again, one can look at the history of the development of biofuels in the United States to see the consequences of a lack of dialogue and coordination among agencies focused on energy, food, water resources, and environment. And within the area of climate science and policy, recent analyses have identified the critical gaps that have resulted from the lack of integration and coordination across the physical and social sciences.
This integration should be another critical step of the five-year plan to develop a coordinated interagency sustainability effort at the national scale, focused on fundamental research that is use-inspired and well linked to decision makers and that ultimately contributes to our understanding of the world and its sustainable management. If sustainability science has as its analog the health or agricultural sciences, perhaps the call should be for a new agency focused specifically on sustainability challenges. I believe, however, that the sustainability challenge requires a coordinated effort that includes all of us, in all fields and disciplines and all programs and agencies. Organizations that leave some of us on the outside run the risk of foregoing critical knowledge, tools, and perspectives. What is needed is a careful coordinating effort that ensures that we are taking into account all the dimensions of a problem. This will involve more than dialogue. It will require coordinated national and international R&D efforts; and in the United States, joint ventures, public/private partnerships, coordinated research programs, and the engagement of new players. Institutional change is hard, but it is needed today at local, national, and international levels if we are to successfully engage the S&T community in a transition to sustainability.
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Pamela Matson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor of Environmental Studies and the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth Sciences at Stanford University.