Sustainability science

Sustainability science 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] Ecologist William C. Clark proposes that 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" and that 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". In an overview presented on its website in 2008 the Sustainability Science Program at Harvard University described the field in the following way, stressing its interdisciplinarity:

'Sustainability science' is problem-driven, interdisciplinary scholarship that seeks to facilitate the design, implementation, and evaluation of effective interventions that foster shared prosperity and reduced poverty while protecting the environment. It is defined by the problems it addresses rather than the disciplines it employs. It thus draws as needed from multiple disciplines of the natural, social, medical and engineering sciences, from the professions, and from the knowledge of practice.[9]

Susan W. Kieffer and colleagues, in 2003, suggested, more specifically, that sustainability science 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 advancing 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] In 2010 a compendium of basic papers in this new discipline was published as Readings in Sustainability Science and Technology, edited by Robert Kates, with a preface by William Clark.[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, more and more university degree programs have developed formal curricula which address issues of sustainability science and global change:

  • B.A. or B.S. Sustainability at Arizona State University, USA
  • B.S. Sustainability Studies at Florida Institute of Technology, USA
  • B.S. or B.S./M.S. combined - Sustainability Science at Montclair State University, NJ, USA
  • B.Sc. Environmental Sciences at Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany
  • B.Sc. Environmental and Sustainability Studies at Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany
  • B.Sc. Sustainability Science at Solent University, UK
  • M.S. Sustainability: Science and Society at Brock University, ON, Canada
  • M.Sc. Sustainability Science and Solutions, Lappeenranta University of Technology, Finland
  • M.Sc. Sustainability Science at Montclair State University, NJ, USA
  • M.Sc. Sustainability Science at Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany
  • MBA Sustainability Management at Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany
  • Master's degree at the IATEUR - Urban, Regional Planning and Sustainability Science Institute, Reims University, France
  • M.Sc. "Sustainability Science and Policy" at Maastricht University - ICIS, The Netherlands
  • MS/MBA Erb Institute for Sustainable Enterprise (multiple sub specialties) at the University of Michigan, USA
  • M.Sc. "Sustainable Resource Management" at the Technical University of Munich, Germany
  • M.Sc. "Global Change Ecology" at the University of Bayreuth, Germany
  • M.Sc. "Global Change Management" at the University of Applied Sciences Eberswalde, Germany
  • M.Sc. "Environmental Change and Global Sustainability" at the University of Helsinki, Finland
  • M.Sc. "Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science" at the University of Lund, Sweden
  • "Master of Development Practice Degree Program" at the University of Minnesota, USA
  • "Lund University's International Master's Programme in Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science" at Lund University, Sweden.
  • "Master`s Degree in Creative Sustainability" at Aalto University, Finland
  • M.Sc. Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability at Blekinge Institute of Technology, Karlskrona, Sweden
  • Master's in Sustainable Product-Service System Innovation at Blekinge Institute of Technology, Karlskrona, Sweden
  • MSc Environmental Technology at Imperial College London, UK, offers eight specialist streams in: water, pollution, business, global environmental change & policy, economics & policy, ecological management, environmental analysis & assessment, energy policy.
  • MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development, University of Cambridge, UK
  • M.Sc. Sustainability Science, University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA
  • MSEM (Professional Masters in Sustainability and Environmental Management), at the University of Saskatchewan, School of Environment and Sustainability, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
  • M.S. Sustainability Management, Columbia University, USA
Master's and doctoral
  • M.Sc/M.A/Ph.D in Sustainability Science at School of Sustainability, Arizona State University, Tempe, USA
  • M.Sc. in Sustainability Science and PhD in Environmental Management at Montclair State University, NJ, USA
  • M.Sc./Ph.D. "Building Science and Sustainability" in the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, USA
  • M.Sc. Sustainability/PhD in Sustainability Science at the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability, Tokyo, Japan
  • M.Sc./Ph.D. in Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan, School of Environment and Sustainability, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
  • "Graduate Program in Sustainability Science" at the University of Tokyo, Japan
  • "Graduate Program in Sustainability Science" at Hosei University, Japan
  • M.Sc/Ph.D. in Sustainability Science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Mexico City, Mexico
  • Ph.D. in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, USA
  • Course on the Science of Sustainability by the department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Indian Institute of Science Education & Research, Bhopal.
  • Environmental Science and Policy Program at Clark University, Worcester, MA, USA, offers a graduate seminar "Sustainable Consumption Production."
  • "Global Change Ecology" at the University of California, Irvine, USA
  • "Sustainability Specialization" at Michigan State University, USA
  • Graduate Certificate in Sustainability at Michigan Technological University, USA
  • Undergraduate certificate in environment and sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan, School of Environment and Sustainability, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
  • Minor in Global Environmental Sustainability and Sustainable Water Interdisciplinary Minor (SWIM) at the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at Colorado State University , USA

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. 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. "Sustainability Science". Task Force on Conceptual Foundations. Earth System Governance Project. Retrieved 2017-07-16.
  6. Environmental Science: Iowa State University
  7. Komiyama, H., Takeuchi, K. 2006. Sustainability science: building a new discipline. Sustainability Science 1:1–6.
  8. "Sustainability Accounting in UK Local Government". The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. Archived from the original on 2008-04-11. Retrieved 2008-06-18.
  9. "Overview". Sustainable Science Program. Harvard University. Archived from the original on November 19, 2008. Retrieved 2017-07-16.
  10. Kieffer, S.W., Barton, P., Palmer, A.R., Reitan, P.H., & Zen, E. 2003. "Megascale events: Natural disasters and human behavior". Geological Society of America Abstracts with programs: 432.
  11. Reitan, P. 2005. Sustainability science – and what’s needed beyond science. Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 1(1):77-80. /vol1iss1/communityessay.reitan.html Archived 2007-01-24 at the Wayback Machine.
  12. 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.
  13. Kauffmann, Joanne 2009. Advancing sustainability science: report on the International Conference on Sustainability Science (ICSS) 2009. Sustainability Science 4: 233-242.
  14. Kates, Robert W., ed. (2010). Readings in Sustainability Science and Technology. CID Working Paper No. 213. Center for International Development, Harvard University. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, December 2010. Abstract and PDF file available on the Harvard Kennedy School website; retrieved 2017-07-16.
  15. Meyers, R. (2012). Encyclopedia of sustainability science and technology. New York: Springer.
  16. Consilience. Accessed: 19 May 2018.
  17. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology. Accessed: 19 May 2018.
  18. Surveys and Perspectives Integrating Environment & Society. Accessed: 19 May 2018.
  19. 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.
  20. The journal Sustainability Science
  21. Sustainability: science, practice, policy journal
  22. Sustainability: the journal of record
  23. "Sustainability Science". Retrieved 2014-03-10.
  24. "GAIA". Retrieved 2014-03-10.

Further reading

  • Bernd Kasemir, Jill Jager, Carlo C. Jaeger, and Matthew T. Gardner (eds) (2003). Public participation in sustainability science, a handbook. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-0-521-52144-4
  • Kajikawa Yuya (2008), "Research core and framework of sustainability science", Sustainability Science, n° 3, pp. 215–239, Springer DOI 10.1007/s11625-008-0053-1
  • Kates, Robert W., ed. (2010). Readings in Sustainability Science and Technology. CID Working Paper No. 213. Center for International Development, Harvard University. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, December 2010. Abstract and PDF file available on the Harvard Kennedy School website
  • Jackson, T. (2009), "Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Final Planet." London: Earthscan
  • Brown, Halina Szejnwald (2012). "Sustainability Science Needs to Include Sustainable Consumption." Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 54: 20-25
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