What do you think is the core subject matter of sustainability science? Some might say that the answer is obvious, i.e. sustainability. I’m not sure it that’s simple or, at the very least, there is much more to the story. Sustainability can be understood as a concept, a vision, as a set of related normative assumptions, as mythology and perhaps also a science. Here I consider some ideas about what ‘sustainability science’ is, what its subject matter is, and about related proposed priorities for theory and practice.
Most definitions of sustainability science are big picture and pretty vague. An early programmatic paper in Science in 2001 laid out the core objective of understanding “the fundamental character of interactions between nature and society”. Additional core stated research goals included guiding these “interactions” along “sustainable trajectories”, and promoting social learning for navigating transitions to sustainability.
I’m not sure that broad categories like “nature” and “society” are very helpful for guiding questions. Similarly, some science studies scholars have raised questions about a focus on the relationship between science and society – instead there are multiple sciences and multiple publics (not ‘the public’). A more differentiated view is useful (e.g. specific sciences, and particular publics).
The same sort of critique could be made about the stated aspirations to build “society’s capacity to guide those interactions [between nature and society] along more sustainable trajectories”. What is meant by “interactions” and “guide”? Whose capacity needs to be enhanced, in what ways?
The section of the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences on sustainability science similarly defines it as “a field of research dealing with the interactions between natural and social systems, and with how those interactions affect the challenge of sustainability: meeting the needs of present and future generations while substantially reducing poverty and conserving the planet’s life support systems.” This points to the social problems the field wishes to help address, but little more.
Robert Kates argues (in a commentary published in PNAS) that sustainability science is primarily a use-inspired science (i.e. seeks to develop knowledge – theories, concepts, models, etc – that can be used to achieve practical results) “with significant fundamental and applied knowledge components” and commitment to moving such knowledge into societal action.
A recent paper on the future of sustainability science – published in the journal Sustainability Science – criticises the field for being “focused largely [to-date] on understanding complex coupled human-natural systems” and having limited impact. The authors suggest some refocusing on potential ways of improving decision-making and action related to sustainability and, overall, call for a more “solutions-oriented research agenda”. They propose four core research priorities:
- Mapping and deliberating sustainability values: they contend that “at its core, sustainability is a fundamentally ethical concept raising questions regarding the value of nature, responsibilities to future generations and social justice (Norton 2005). Unless those values are understood and articulated, the unavoidable political dimensions of sustainability will remain hidden behind scientific assertions, thus preventing necessary democratic deliberation and convergence on more sustainable pathways”;
- Envisioning and pursuing sustainable futures – that is, “exploring what future states are desirable to given communities (visions), in conjunction with a broader spectrum of images exploring how the future might play out (scenarios)” and advancing these approaches to enhance their relevance for developing strategies and taking action towards sustainability;
- Navigating socio-technical change – that is, facilitating or enabling “shifts in the configuration of institutions, techniques and artifacts as well as the rules, practices and norms that guide the development and use of technologies”; and
- Enabling social and institutional learning for sustainable development: the “ability of our institutions — at multiple scales — to successfully navigate along more sustainable trajectories will depend on its aptitude to learn from experience and inform and adapt future sustainability visions, values and transition strategies”. Sustainability science “must foster such social and institutional learning and experimentation”.
Woven in the arguments about these priorities are further arguments about the role of scientific knowledge and what they see as the political, social and technological dimensions “of linking knowledge and action”. This appears to reflect the background of some the authors in fields like political science, science and technology studies, and geography, and their experience in areas like participatory sustainability research and ‘transition management’. Miller et al. (2014) suggest a (re)focus on “the promise of a science that has a real impact on socio-technological change for sustainability”, and suggest that we need to ask questions about “the appropriate role of science in contributing to action and decision-making for sustainability” and “what kind of science is useful for this purpose?”
Some of their proposed research priorities may be better suited to the humanities (e.g. philosophy, ethics, etc) than to science, such as the proposed focus on the “the value of nature, responsibilities to future generations and social justice”. Think about someone like Clive Hamilton (from Charles Sturt University) who is a professor of public ethics, not sustainability science. Another interesting aspect of the paper is that words like “limits” and “boundaries” (i.e. planetary boundaries) are not used in it.
In contrast the earlier programmatic paper published in Science in 2001 argued that the following question is a core question for sustainability science: “Can scientifically meaningful “limits” or “boundaries” be defined that would provide effective warning of conditions beyond which the nature-society systems incur a significantly increased risk of serious degradation?”
The question of what the appropriate role for science is in defining limits (or boundaries) is a complex and controversial one. Social scientists like Melissa Leach (in the book The Politics of Green Transformations) argue that limits – such as the definition of “safe” and “unsafe” amounts of global warming, and green limits such as “planetary boundaries” that have recently been proposed – are socially and politically constructed, not “natural” phenomena, and require value judgements which go “well beyond the remit of scientific inquiry” (see Leach, 2015). From this perspective sustainability science should be a social science which aims to understand how such limits get defined, negotiated, subjectively interpreted and acted upon (rather than, say, part of the natural sciences).
Some thoughts on possible directions for sustainability science and research priorities
Lately I’ve been thinking about many of these issues in relation to energy. As many others have noted energy is central to many sustainability challenges, not only climate change. In particular – linked with some current research – I’ve been thinking about aviation, and this suggests to me that pragmatic approaches are needed and ought to more strongly frame sustainability research.
I say pragmatic because I can’t see humanity giving up the benefits of air travel, especially for international travel. To me this means we need to stop fretting about dreaded “techno-fixes” and embrace technological solutions for some problems. Here the sustainability challenge is arguably to support the advancement of sustainable aviation fuels and achieve related changes in the aviation sector. Some have argued that these changes will essentially be forced by rising oil prices and carbon costs (e.g. inclusion of aviation travel in carbon prices or emissions trading schemes); however a range of uncertainties – technological, market, and policy uncertainties – hamper action, along with the potential for market failures (which could constrain development of bio-derived fuel supply chains) and related biofuels supply issues (e.g. competition for biomass resources, R&D challenges, etc).
Consistent with the above example, in a paper recently published in Environmental Politics Symons and Karlsson argue that ecological values “are poorly suited to addressing the global dimensions of energy and climate challenges” and that “technophilic preservationism is incompatible with existing environmental ‘logics of practice’”. This emphasises the importance of values.
Another example on my mind is the electrical grid and enormous investments that have been made in it. Decision-making and policy around the evolution of the grid has heated up in context of climate change, technological change, and regulatory issues. The stakes are high for involved firms, policy-makers, energy users and for action on climate change and sustainability more broadly.
From these perspectives ‘sustainability science’ is less about understanding ‘coupled human-natural systems’ (and the interactions between them) or defining limits / boundaries, and is more about cultivating and directing innovation processes and capacities (Naam, 2013), building the capacity to act in the face of uncertainty and contention, technological change, and understanding factors that reduce the level of vulnerability to environmental change (e.g. climatic change, etc) and variability.
An additional aspect that I’ve addressed on this blog is the emphasis on predicting distant futures. I sometimes term this long-term orientation the ‘prophetic tradition’ of sustainability research and practice. In many sustainability-related domains and issues the quest for definitive, predictive knowledge should be abandoned – i.e. that is to say, often science cannot “be a predictive oracle to guide policy choices” (Sarewitz, 2004 p. 400). This demands alternative approaches to decision-making and greater recognition of the limitations of science (Pielke Jr, 2001; Sarewitz, 2004).
Broader pragmatic stances also seem to me to be justified. That is, global capitalism forms the context in which green transformations will have to emerge and the “terrain” on which strategies must be developed and implemented (Newell, 2015). Therefore, more thought and explicit attention needs to be given to these political economy dimensions (which often seem to be poorly addressed) and related “relations of power which enable and frustrate change” (Newell, 2015). This is not to say that issues with current forms of capitalism shouldn’t be highlighted and addressed (e.g. inequality), but it is to say that there is no point denying the realities of existing capitalist economic systems.
I’ve also been thinking about these issues in relation to debates between those who focus on social change and others (like myself) who think that minimising the need for social change is often advantageous. That is, we may ‘load the dice’ towards achieving success if we reduce the level of social disruption. This in turn links (in my mind at least) to the need to take technological innovation and our fundamental techno-human condition more seriously (in contrast to the simplistic rejection of techno-fixes) – as argued by folk like Daniel Sarewitz, co-author of The Techno-Human Condition.
Finally, I also agree with Braden Allenby’s (co-author of The Techno-Human Condition) concern that “many people meet the uncertainty and discomfort that characterize rapid, accelerating change by retreating into relatively rigid belief systems or apathy”. From this perspective, research can play vital roles in developing a better understanding of these responses to change and what interventions or strategies can counteract such processes (e.g. in public policy, private sector organisations, community contexts) in order to better enable societal action to address social challenges.
Do we need a new science for all this – i.e. sustainability science? I’m not sure. What do you think?
Some final thoughts (for now): I can see how “intelligent muddling” (see DeFries, 2014; Allenby & Sarewitz, 2011) may provide a pragmatic grounding notion for such a science. That is, sustainability science wouldn’t be about advancing a utopian social engineering project (e.g. the proposed ‘Great Transformation’ to sustainability). Instead, sustainability science should theorise and advance how to: expand ‘option spaces’ (Allenby & Sarewitz, 2011); encourage reflection at the earlier stages of technological decision-making and consideration of the implications of potential major shifts in technological systems (i.e. before implementation of policies and initiatives that aim to encourage such shifts); build the capacity to adjust flexibly to new, rapidly changing, and mostly unpredictable situations; accept and “nourish” productive forms of conflict; and engender humility.
Allenby and Sarewitz argue – with respect to the contemporary techno-human condition – that “neither ethical nor scientific analysis has much hope of predicting the future accurately enough to dictate appropriate behavior in the present” (p. 183). Unexpected outcomes from action are also emphasised, “because it is not possible to anticipate and assess the conditions of the situation at hand” (pp. 191-192). Incremental muddling processes (but more intelligent and reflective forms of ‘muddling’) are therefore advocated, which adopt neither a technophile nor technophobe position. They worry that the experience of radical technological transformations (amongst other types of disruptive change):
Provokes among some groups a turn towards fundamentalist certainties that can offer the balm of social and psychological stability amidst spiralling technological complexity. Fundamentalism is on the rise in virtually all major religions, well as in certain belief systems — e.g., environmentalism, neoconservatism – that for many people, especially in secular societies, offer certainties that serve essentially theological purposes” (p. 99)
Provocatively they suggest we “seek the sources of rationality and ethical action in our uncertainty and ignorance about most things” (p. 13). Perhaps new models of intelligent muddling are needed to “embrace contradiction, celebrate ignorance, and muddle forward (but intelligently)” (p. 160).
Useful books and papers for further reading
Allenby, B.R. & Sarewitz, D. 20111, The Techno-Human Condition, MIT Press.
DeFries, R. 2014, The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis, Basic Books.
Kates, R.W., Clark, W.C., Corell, R., Hall, J.M., Jaeger, C.C., Lowe, I., et al. 2001, ‘Sustainability Science’, Science, vol. 292, no. 5517, pp. 641-2.
Kates, R.W. 2011, ‘What kind of a science is sustainability science?’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, vol. 108, no. 49, pp. 19449-59.
Leach, M. 2015, ‘What is green? Transformation imperatives and knowledge politics’, in I. Scoones, M. Leach & P. Newell (eds), The Politics of Green Transformations, Routledge, New York, NY.
Miller, T.R., Wiek, A., Sarewitz, D., Robinson, J., Olsson, L., Kriebel, D. & Loorbach, D. 2014, ‘The future of sustainability science: a solutions-oriented research agenda’, Sustainability Science, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 239-46.
Naam, R. 2013, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, University Press of New England.
Newell, P. 2015, ‘The politics of green transformations in capitalism’, in I. Scoones, M. Leach & P. Newell (eds), The Politics of Green Transformations, Routledge, New York, NY.
Pielke Jr, R. 2001, ‘Room for doubt’, Nature, vol. 410, March 8, p. 151.
Sarewitz, D. 2004, ‘How science makes environmental controversies worse’, Environmental Science & Policy, vol. 7, no. 5, pp. 385-403.