Further Reading

What is sustainability?

Sustainability science: Social–environmental systems (SES) research: How the field has developed and what we have learned for future efforts. 2016. Mooney, H. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 19, v-xii.

This article engages researchers to identify the processes and attributes of “successful” integrated social–environmental projects and programs. Using case studies of individual projects and programs to illustrate their findings, they identify three components that enhance success: 1) co-design, 2) adaptive (or flexible) management, and 3) knowledge diversity.  They also outline five key challenges that must be addressed to improve the success of future work in this science: 1) accounting for change, 2) addressing sponsorship and timelines, 3) appreciating different knowledge systems, 4) adopting adaptive communication, and 5) improving linkages to policy.
        [View Paper]

Top 10 myths about sustainability. 2009. Lemonick, M. D. Scientific American 19, 40-45.

When a word becomes so popular you begin hearing it everywhere, in all sorts of marginally related or even unrelated contexts, it means one of two things. Either the word has devolved into a meaningless cliché, or it has real conceptual heft. “Green” (or, even worse, “going green”) falls squarely into the first category. But “sustainable,” which at first conjures up a similarly vague sense of environmental virtue, actually belongs in the second. True, you hear it applied to everything from cars to agriculture to economics. But that’s because the concept of sustainability is at its heart so simple that it legitimately applies to all these areas and more.
        [View Paper]

Environment and development: Sustainability science. 2001. Kates, et al. Science 292, 641-642.

Meeting fundamental human needs while preserving Earth's life support systems will require an accelerated transition toward sustainability. A new field of sustainability science is emerging that seeks to understand the fundamental character of interactions between nature and society and to encourage those interactions along more sustainable trajectories. Such an integrated, place-based science will require new research strategies and institutional innovations to enable them especially in developing countries still separated by deepening divides from mainstream science. Sustainability science needs to be widely discussed in the scientific community, reconnected to the political agenda for sustainable development, and become a major focus for research.
        [View Paper]

Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. 2012. Lang, Daniel J., et al. Sustainability Science 7, 25-43.

There is emerging agreement that sustainability challenges require new ways of knowledge production and decision-making. One key aspect of sustainability science, therefore, is the involvement of actors from outside academia into the research process in order to integrate the best available knowledge, reconcile values and preferences, as well as create ownership for problems and solution options. Transdisciplinary, community-based, interactive, or participatory research approaches are often suggested as appropriate means to meet both the requirements posed by real-world problems as well as the goals of sustainability science as a transformational scientific field. Dispersed literature on these approaches and a variety of empirical projects applying them make it difficult for interested researchers and practitioners to review and become familiar with key components and design principles of how to do transdisciplinary sustainability research. Starting from a conceptual model of an ideal–typical transdisciplinary research process, this article synthesizes and structures such a set of principles from various strands of the literature and empirical experiences. We then elaborate on them, looking at challenges and some coping strategies as experienced in transdisciplinary sustainability projects in Europe, North America, South America, Africa, and Asia. The article concludes with future research needed in order to further enhance the practice of transdisciplinary sustainability research.
        [View Paper]

Evolution and structure of sustainability science. 2011. Bettencourt, L., and J. Kaur. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, 19540-19545.

The concepts of sustainable development have experienced extraordinary success since their advent in the 1980s. They are now an integral part of the agenda of governments and corporations, and their goals have become central to the mission of research laboratories and universities worldwide. However, it remains unclear how far the field has progressed as a scientific discipline, especially given its ambitious agenda of integrating theory, applied science, and policy, making it relevant for development globally and generating a new interdisciplinary synthesis across fields. To address these questions, we assembled a corpus of scholarly publications in the field and analyzed its temporal evolution, geographic distribution, disciplinary composition, and collaboration structure. We show that sustainability science has been growing explosively since the late 1980s when foundational publications in the field increased its pull on new authors and intensified their interactions. The field has an unusual geographic footprint combining contributions and connecting through collaboration cities and nations at very different levels of development. Its decomposition into traditional disciplines reveals its emphasis on the management of human, social, and ecological systems seen primarily from an engineering and policy perspective. Finally, we show that the integration of these perspectives has created a new field only in recent years as judged by the emergence of a giant component of scientific collaboration. These developments demonstrate the existence of a growing scientific field of sustainability science as an unusual, inclusive and ubiquitous scientific practice and bode well for its continued impact and longevity.
        [View Paper]

Toward a science of sustainability. 2010. Levin, Simon A., and William C. Clark.

This report presents an overview of research horizons in sustainability science. Its motivation is to help harness science and technology to foster a transition toward sustainability – toward patterns of development that promote human well-being while conserving the life-support systems of the planet. It builds on but does not explicitly address the vast range of relevant sector-specific and cross-sectoral problem-solving work now underway in fields ranging from green technologies in energy and manufacturing to urban design to agriculture and natural resources. It focuses on the narrower but essential task of characterizing the needs for fundamental work on the core concepts, methods, models, and measurements that, if successful, would support work across all of those sectoral applications by advancing fundamental understanding of the science of sustainability. The report emerged from a workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation at Airlie Center in late 2009 under the direction of Simon A. Levin (Princeton University) and William C. Clark (Harvard University). It brought together thirty-eight scientists and practitioners from across a broad spectrum of disciplines. Building on a series of commissioned background papers included in the report, working groups addressed a wide range of conceptual, methodological, and empirical issues now facing sustainability science. The workshop thus constitutes the first US-based effort in a decade to create a systematic, community-based evaluation of the state of the field and to identify research priorities reaching across the full substantive and methodological breadth of the sciences of sustainability.
        [View Paper]

Science for Global Sustainability: Toward a New Paradigm. 2005. Clark, W.C., Crutzen, P. J. & Schellnhuber, H.J. KSG Working Paper No. RWP05-032.

This paper provides a context for the Dahlem Workshop on “Earth System Analysis for Sustainability.” The authors begin by characterizing the contemporary epoch of Earth history in which humanity has emerged as a major—and uniquely self-reflexive—geological force. They turn next to the extraordinary revolution in our understanding of the Earth system that is now underway, pointing out how it has built on and qualitatively extended the approaches that have served science and society so well since the first Copernican revolution. The authors then discuss the novel challenges posed by the urgent need to harness science and other forms of knowledge in promoting a worldwide sustainability transition that enhances human prosperity while protecting the Earth’s life-support systems and reducing hunger and poverty. Finally, the authors provide an overview of how the contributions to this Dahlem Workshop addressed the themes and challenges outlined in this introductory chapter.
        [View Paper]

Sustainability research in action

Crafting usable knowledge for sustainable development. 2016. Clark, William C., et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113.17: 4570-4578.

This paper distills core lessons about how researchers (scientists, engineers, planners, etc.) interested in promoting sustainable development can increase the likelihood of producing usable knowledge. We draw the lessons from both practical experience in diverse contexts around the world, and from scholarly advances in understanding the relationships between science and society. Many of these lessons will be familiar to those with experience in crafting knowledge to support action for sustainable development. But few are included in the formal training of researchers. As a result, when scientists and engineers first venture out of the lab or library with the goal of linking their knowledge to action, the outcome has often been ineffectiveness and disillusionment. We therefore articulate here a core set of lessons that we believe should become part of the basic training for researchers interested in crafting usable knowledge for sustainable development. These lessons entail at least four things researchers should know, and four things they should do. The “knowing” lessons involve understanding the coproduction relationships through which knowledge making and decision making shape one another in social-environmental systems. We highlight the lessons that emerge from examining those coproduction relationships through the ‘ICAP’ lens, viewing them from the perspectives of Innovation systems, Complex systems, Adaptive systems, and Political systems. The “doing” lessons involve improving the capacity of the research community to put its understanding of such systems into practice. We highlight steps though which researchers can help build capacities for stakeholder collaboration, social learning, knowledge governance, and researcher training.
        [View Paper]

Leverage points for sustainability transformation. 2016. Abson, David J., et al.  Ambio: 1-10.

Despite substantial focus on sustainability issues in both science and politics, humanity remains on largely unsustainable development trajectories. Partly, this is due to the failure of sustainability science to engage with the root causes of unsustainability. Drawing on ideas by Donella Meadows, we argue that many sustainability interventions target highly tangible, but essentially weak, leverage points (i.e. using interventions that are easy, but have limited potential for transformational change). Thus, there is an urgent need to focus on less obvious but potentially far more powerful areas of intervention. We propose a research agenda inspired by systems thinking that focuses on transformational ‘sustainability interventions’, centred on three realms of leverage: reconnecting people to nature, restructuring institutions and rethinking how knowledge is created and used in pursuit of sustainability. The notion of leverage points has the potential to act as a boundary object for genuinely transformational sustainability science.
        [View Paper]

Making technological innovation work for sustainable development. 2016. Anadon, Laura Diaz, et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113.35: 9682-9690.

This paper presents insights and action proposals to better harness technological innovation for sustainable development. We begin with three key insights from scholarship and practice. First, technological innovation processes do not follow a set sequence but rather emerge from complex adaptive systems involving many actors and institutions operating simultaneously from local to global scales. Barriers arise at all stages of innovation, from the invention of a technology through its selection, production, adaptation, adoption, and retirement. Second, learning from past efforts to mobilize innovation for sustainable development can be greatly improved through structured cross-sectoral comparisons that recognize the socio-technical nature of innovation systems. Third, current institutions (rules, norms, and incentives) shaping technological innovation are often not aligned toward the goals of sustainable development because impoverished, marginalized, and unborn populations too often lack the economic and political power to shape innovation systems to meet their needs. However, these institutions can be reformed, and many actors have the power to do so through research, advocacy, training, convening, policymaking, and financing. We conclude with three practice-oriented recommendations to further realize the potential of innovation for sustainable development: (i) channels for regularized learning across domains of practice should be established; (ii) measures that systematically take into account the interests of underserved populations throughout the innovation process should be developed; and (iii) institutions should be reformed to reorient innovation systems toward sustainable development and ensure that all innovation stages and scales are considered at the outset.
        [View Paper]

Report | Innovation for 2030. 2016. UNDP.

The UNDP Innovation Facility’s second annual Review focuses on 62 initiatives across 45 countries sponsored by the Facility in 2015 with seed-funding and technical assistance. This includes Innovation Labs to improve public service delivery to foresight-based techniques that enhance planning processes; from real-time information that improves decision-making to behavioral insights that facilitate evidence-based policy-making. UNDP’s geographic reach, field presence and understanding of the local contexts, allows us to experiment with  different innovation methods quickly and maximize the learning from those interventions that can be scaled up. This contributes to de-risking investment of public funds.
        [View report]

The future of sustainability science: a solutions-oriented research agenda. 2014. Miller, Thaddeus R., et al.  Sustainability science 9.2: 239-246.

Over the last decade, sustainability science has been at the leading edge of widespread efforts from the social and natural sciences to produce use-inspired research. Yet, how knowledge generated by sustainability science and allied fields will contribute to transitions toward sustainability remains a critical theoretical and empirical question for basic and applied research. This article explores the limitations of sustainability science research to move the field beyond the analysis of problems in coupled systems to interrogate the social, political and technological dimensions of linking knowledge and action. Over the next decade, sustainability science can strengthen its empirical, theoretical and practical contributions by developing along four research pathways focused on the role of values in science and decision-making for sustainability: how communities at various scales envision and pursue sustainable futures; how socio-technical change can be fostered at multiple scales; the promotion of social and institutional learning for sustainable development.
        [View Paper]

Landscape sustainability science: ecosystem services and human well-being in changing landscapes. 2013. Wu, Jianguo. Landscape Ecology 28.6: 999-1023.

The future of humanity depends on whether or not we have a vision to guide our transition toward sustainability, on scales ranging from local landscapes to the planet as a whole. Sustainability science is at the core of this vision, and landscapes and regions represent a pivotal scale domain. The main objectives of this paper are: (1) to elucidate key definitions and concepts of sustainability, including the Brundtland definition, the triple bottom line, weak and strong sustainability, resilience, human well-being, and ecosystem services; (2) to examine key definitions and concepts of landscape sustainability, including those derived from general concepts and those developed for specific landscapes; and (3) to propose a framework for developing a science of landscape sustainability. Landscape sustainability is defined as the capacity of a landscape to consistently provide long-term, landscape-specific ecosystem services essential for maintaining and improving human well-being. Fundamentally, well-being is a journey, not a destination. Landscape sustainability science is a place-based, use-inspired science of understanding and improving the dynamic relationship between ecosystem services and human well-being in changing landscapes under uncertainties arising from internal feedbacks and external disturbances. While landscape sustainability science emphasizes place-based research on landscape and regional scales, significant between landscape interactions and hierarchical linkages to both finer and broader scales (or externalities) must not be ignored. To advance landscape sustainability science, spatially explicit methods are essential, especially experimental approaches that take advantage of designed landscapes and multi-scaled simulation models that couple the dynamics of landscape services (ecosystem services provided by multiple landscape elements in combination as emergent properties) and human well-being.
        [View Paper]

Reconnecting to the biosphere. 2011. Folke, Carl, et al. Ambio 40.7: 719-738.

Humanity has emerged as a major force in the operation of the biosphere, with a significant imprint on the Earth System, challenging social–ecological resilience. This new situation calls for a fundamental shift in perspectives, world views, and institutions. Human development and progress must be reconnected to the capacity of the biosphere and essential ecosystem services to be sustained. Governance challenges include a highly interconnected and faster world, cascading social–ecological interactions and planetary boundaries that create vulnerabilities but also opportunities for social–ecological change and transformation. Tipping points and thresholds highlight the importance of understanding and managing resilience. New modes of flexible governance are emerging. A central challenge is to reconnect these efforts to the changing preconditions for societal development as active stewards of the Earth System. We suggest that the Millennium Development Goals need to be reframed in such a planetary stewardship context combined with a call for a new social contract on global sustainability. The ongoing mind shift in human relations with Earth and its boundaries provides exciting opportunities for societal development in collaboration with the biosphere—a global sustainability agenda for humanity.
        [View Paper]

Earth system science for global sustainability: grand challenges. 2010. Reid, Walter V., et al.  Science 330.6006: 916-917.

Tremendous progress has been made in understanding the functioning of the Earth system and, in particular, the impact of human actions (1). Although this knowledge can inform management of specific features of our world in transition, societies need knowledge that will allow them to simultaneously reduce global environmental risks while also meeting economic development goals. For example, how can we advance science and technology, change human behavior, and influence political will to enable societies to meet targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid dangerous climate change? At the same time, how can we meet needs for food, water, improved health and human security, and enhanced energy security? Can this be done while also meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and ensuring ecosystem integrity?
        [View Paper]

Earth system research priorities. 2009. Reid, Walter V., Catherine Bréchignac, and Yuan Tseh Lee. Science 325.5938: 245-245.

Human-induced climate change was unknown outside of limited scientific circles just 25 years ago, but it has now become the focus of intense national discussions and international negotiations. One chapter in the story of how this issue moved from lab benches to national capitals was recognized by the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, which was co-awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for its influential assessments of the state of scientific knowledge. But the story also involves the research itself; in particular, that catalyzed by the Global Environmental Change Research Programmes* and the Earth System Science Partnership. These programs, sponsored by the International Council for Science (ICSU) in partnerships with other international science organizations (www.icsu.org), have helped to catalyze and guide global environmental research for several decades. But it's time to propose new research priorities, and ICSU seeks input through a Web consultation process now under way.
        [View Paper]

‘Just sustainability’: the emerging discourse of environmental justice in Britain?. 2004. Agyeman, Julian, and Bob Evans. The Geographical Journal 170.2: 155-164.

Environmental justice is both a vocabulary for political opportunity, mobilization and action, and a policy principle to guide public decision making. It emerged initially in the US, and more recently in the UK, as a new vocabulary underpinning action by community organizations campaigning against environmental injustices. However, as the environmental justice discourse has matured, it has become increasingly evident that it should play a role in the wider agendas for sustainable development and social inclusion. The links between sustainability and environmental justice are becoming clearer and more widely understood in the UK by NGOs and government alike, and it is the potential synergy between these two discourses which is the focus of this paper. This paper argues that the concept of ‘just sustainability’ provides a discourse for policymakers and activists, which brings together the key dimensions of both environmental justice and sustainable development.
        [View Paper]

Green cities, growing cities, just cities?: Urban planning and the contradictions of sustainable development. 1996. Campbell, S. Journal of the American Planning Association 62(3), 296-312.

Nothing inherent in the discipline steers planners either toward environmental protection or toward economic development -- or toward a third goal of planning: social equity. Instead, planners work within the tension generated among these three fundamental aims, which, collectively, I call the "planner's triangle," with sustainable development located at its center. This center cannot be reached directly, but only approximately and indirectly, through a sustained period of confronting and resolving the triangle's conflicts. To do so, planners have to redefine sustainability, since its current formulation romanticizes our sustainable past and is too vaguely holistic. Planners would benefit both from integrating social theory with environmental thinking and from combining their substantive skills with techniques for community conflict resolution, to confront economic and environmental injustice.
        [View Paper]