Sustainability science

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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.



Geoscience is the study of the Earth and all fields of Earth sciences. Geoscience is a broad term that includes various disciplines such as: geology, hydrology, geological engineering, volcanology, and environmental geology.

Geology and Sustainable Development Goals

Geologists are very crucial to the sustainability movement. They hold a special knowledge and deep understanding of how Earth recycles and maintains the sustainability of itself. [16] To gain a better understanding of how sustainability and geology are closely related, there is the definition: the notable changes in geologic processes that land between how Earth was before humans existed and currently exist. [17] Therefore, the relationship between these two sciences is not a new idea but also an old concept. [18] They are very similar in that they have many limitations due to gradual changes. However, there is an issue between this relationship. Geologists do not always find themselves centered with sustainable thoughts. One of the reasons for this is that many geologists can not agree on the issue with the Anthropocene Epoch debate [19] which focuses on how humans can adapt to the environmental changes in comparison to how these changes are neglected. [20] Regardless of Geologists not always finding themselves centered with this thinking, society has made an effort to link the two by creating Sustainable Development Goals. These goals however, do not overlap with many of the jobs that geologists perform.

Geology is a science that is critical in understanding many of modern societies environmental challenges. [21] This science is important to understand because it has a major role to play in deciding if humans can live sustainably on Earth. Having a lot to do with energy, water, climate change, and natural hazards, geology can be used to interpret and solve a wide variety of problems. [21] However, few geologists make any contributions towards a more sustainable future. [19] Many geologists end up working for oil and gas or mining companies which are typically not focused on sustainability. In order to be more sustainably minded, geologists must collaborate with many and all types of Earth sciences. For example, if geologists collaborated with sciences like ecology, zoology, physical geography, biology, and environmental sciences as [22] well as engineers they could gain a better understanding of the impact their work could have on the environment. [19] By working with more fields of study and broadening their knowledge of the environment geologists and their work could be more environmentally conscious.

To ensure that sustainability and geology can maintain their relationship, it is essential that schools globally make an effort to add geology into curriculum. [23] and society incorporates the international development goals. [24] A misconception many people have is that geology is the study of rocks however it is much more complex. Geology is the study of the Earth, how Earth works, and what it means for life on Earth. [23] Understanding the Earth and its natural processes opens many doors for understanding how humans affect the Earth and ways to protect it. In order to allow more people to understand this field of study, more schools must begin to advertise this known information. When more people hold this knowledge, it will then be easier to incorporate the international development goals and continue to better the Earth.


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:

Undergraduate programmes in sustainability science

Bachelor of Applied Science (Sustainable Science) Universiti Malaysia Kelantan Jeli, Kelantan Malaysia Asia
B.A. or B.S. Sustainability Arizona State University Phoenix, Arizona Flag of the United States.svg  United States North America
B.S. Ecosystem Science and SustainabilityColorado State UniversityFort Collins, COFlag of the United States.svg  United States North America
B.S. Sustainability Studies Florida Institute of Technology Melbourne, Florida Flag of the United States.svg  United States North America
B.S. or B.S/M.S. Sustainability Science Montclair State University Montclair, New Jersey Flag of the United States.svg  United States North America
B.Sc. Environmental Sciences Leuphana University of Lüneburg Lüneburg, Lower Saxony Flag of Germany.svg  Germany Europe
B.Sc. Environmental and Sustainability Studies Leuphana University of Lüneburg Lüneburg, Lower Saxony Flag of Germany.svg  Germany Europe
B.Sc. Environment & Sustainability Keele University Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom Europe
B.Sc. Sustainability Science Solent University Southampton, Hampshire Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom Europe
M.Sci. Sustainability Science Solent University Southampton, Hampshire Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom Europe
B.Sc. Global Sustainability Science Utrecht University Utrecht, Utrecht Province Flag of the Netherlands.svg  Netherlands Europe

Graduate degree programmes in sustainability science

MS/MA/MSUS/EMSL/MSL/PhD. Sustainability (with or without Energy/Complex Adaptive Systems concentration) [34] Arizona State University - School of Sustainability Tempe, Arizona Flag of the United States.svg  United States North America
M.Sc. Regenerative Studies [35] California State Polytechnic University - Pomona Pomona, California Flag of the United States.svg  United States North America
M.Sc. Sustainability Science [36] Columbia University New York, New York Flag of the United States.svg  United States North America
PhD, M.Sc. Ecosystem Sustainability Colorado State University Fort Collins, Colorado Flag of the United States.svg  United States North America
M.Sc. Sustainability Science Montclair State University Montclair, New Jersey Flag of the United States.svg  United States North America
M.S. Natural Resources & Environment University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability [37] Ann Arbor, Michigan Flag of the United States.svg  United States North America
M.L.A Landscape Architecture University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability [38] Ann Arbor, Michigan Flag of the United States.svg  United States North America
Ph.D. Resource Ecology Management and Resource Policy and Behavior University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability [39] Ann Arbor, Michigan Flag of the United States.svg  United States North America
PhD (Sustainability Science) Universiti Malaysia Kelantan Jeli, Kelantan Malaysia Asia
M.Sc (Sustainability Science) Universiti Malaysia Kelantan Jeli, Kelantan Malaysia Asia
M.Sc (Dual Degree Programme in Innovation, Human Development and Sustainability) University of Geneva / Geneva-Tsinghua Initiative Geneva, Switzerland and Beijing, China Switzerland and China Europe and Asia
M.S. Sustainability: Science and Society Brock University St. Catharines, Ontario Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg  Canada North America
M.Sc. Sustainability Science Leuphana University of Lüneburg Lüneburg, Lower Saxony Flag of Germany.svg  Germany Europe
M.Sc. in Sustainability Management Program University of Toronto Mississauga Mississauga, Ontario Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg  Canada North America
M.B.A Sustainability Management Leuphana University of Lüneburg Lüneburg, Lower Saxony Flag of Germany.svg  Germany Europe
M.Phil. Engineering for Sustainable Development University of Cambridge Cambridge, Cambridgeshire Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom Europe
M.Sc. Sustainability University of Southampton Southampton, Hampshire Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom Europe
M.Sc. Environmental Sustainability & Green Technology Keele University Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom Europe
M.Sc. Environmental Technology Imperial College London Kensington, London Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom Europe
M.Sc. Sustainability Science and Solutions Lappeenranta University of Technology Lappeenranta, South Karelia Flag of Finland.svg  Finland Europe
M.Sc. Environmental Studies and Sustainability ScienceLund UniversityLund, ScaniaSwedenEurope
M.Sc. Social-Ecological Resilience for Sustainable Development Stockholm University Stockholm, Stockholm Flag of Sweden.svg  Sweden Europe
PhD Sustainability Science Stockholm University Stockholm, Stockholm Flag of Sweden.svg  Sweden Europe
Master of Environment and Sustainability Monash University Melbourne, Victoria Flag of Australia (converted).svg  Australia Oceania
M.Sc. Sustainability Science and Policy Maastricht University Maastricht, Limburg Flag of the Netherlands.svg  Netherlands Europe
M.Sc. Sustainability University of Sao Paulo Sao Paulo Flag of Brazil.svg  Brazil South America
Ph.D. Sustainability University of Sao Paulo Sao Paulo Flag of Brazil.svg  Brazil South America
Ph.D. Sustainability Science Lund University Lund, Scania Province Flag of Sweden.svg  Sweden Europe
M.Sc. Environmental Studies & Sustainability Science Lund University Lund, Scania Province Flag of Sweden.svg  Sweden Europe
M.Sc. Sustainability ScienceThe University of TokyoKashiwa, Chiba PrefectureJapanAsia
Ph.D. Sustainability ScienceThe University of TokyoKashiwa, Chiba PrefectureJapanAsia

See also

Related Research Articles

Sustainable development is the organizing principle for meeting human development goals while simultaneously sustaining the ability of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services upon which the economy and society depend. The desired result is a state of society where living conditions and resources are used to continue to meet human needs without undermining the integrity and stability of the natural system. Sustainable development can be defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Environmental science The integrated, quantitative, and interdisciplinary approach to the study of environmental systems.

Environmental science is an interdisciplinary academic field that integrates physical, biological and information sciences to the study of the environment, and the solution of environmental problems. Environmental science emerged from the fields of natural history and medicine during the Enlightenment. Today it provides an integrated, quantitative, and interdisciplinary approach to the study of environmental systems.

Human ecology Study of the relationship between humans and their natural, social, and built environments

Human ecology is an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary study of the relationship between humans and their natural, social, and built environments. The philosophy and study of human ecology has a diffuse history with advancements in ecology, geography, sociology, psychology, anthropology, zoology, epidemiology, public health, and home economics, among others.

Economic geology Science concerned with earth materials of economic value

Economic geology is concerned with earth materials that can be used for economic and/or industrial purposes. These materials include precious and base metals, nonmetallic minerals, construction-grade stone, petroleum, natural gas, coal, and water. Economic geology is a subdiscipline of the geosciences; according to Lindgren (1933) it is “the application of geology”. Today, it may be called the scientific study of the Earth's sources of mineral raw materials and the practical application of the acquired knowledge. The term commonly refers to metallic mineral deposits and mineral resources. The techniques employed by other earth science disciplines might all be used to understand, describe, and exploit an ore deposit.

Geological Society of London learned society

The Geological Society of London, known commonly as the Geological Society, is a learned society based in the United Kingdom. It is the oldest national geological society in the world and the largest in Europe with more than 12,000 Fellows.

The American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) is one of the world's largest professional geological societies with more than 35,000 members as of 2017. The AAPG works to "advance the science of geology, especially as it relates to petroleum, natural gas, other subsurface fluids, and mineral resources; to promote the technology of exploring for, finding, and producing these materials in an economically and environmentally sound manner; and to advance the professional well-being of its members." The AAPG was founded in 1917 and is headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma; currently almost one-third of its members live outside the United States.

Environmental education Branch of pedagogy

Environmental education (EE) refers to organized efforts to teach how natural environments function, and particularly, how human beings can manage behavior and ecosystems to live sustainably. It is a multi-disciplinary field integrating disciplines such as biology, chemistry, physics, ecology, earth science, atmospheric science, mathematics, and geography. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) states that EE is vital in imparting an inherent respect for nature amongst society and in enhancing public environmental awareness. UNESCO emphasises the role of EE in safeguarding future global developments of societal quality of life (QOL), through the protection of the environment, eradication of poverty, minimization of inequalities and insurance of sustainable development. The term often implies education within the school system, from primary to post-secondary. However, it sometimes includes all efforts to educate the public and other audiences, including print materials, websites, media campaigns, etc.. There are also ways that environmental education is taught outside the traditional classroom. Aquariums, zoos, parks, and nature centers all have ways of teaching the public about the environment.

Calestous Juma FRS HonFREng was an internationally recognised authority in the application of science and technology to sustainable development worldwide. He was named one of the most influential 100 Africans in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by the New African magazine. He was Professor of the Practice of International Development and Faculty Chair of the Innovation for Economic Development Executive Program at Harvard Kennedy School. Juma was Director of the School's Science, Technology and Globalization Project at Harvard Kennedy School as well as the Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. His latest book, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. was published by Oxford University Press in 2016.

The Earth Institute is a research institute at Columbia University that was established at in 1995. Its stated mission is to address complex issues facing the planet and its inhabitants, with a focus on sustainable development. With an interdisciplinary approach, this includes research in climate change, geology, global health, economics, management, agriculture, ecosystems, urbanization, energy, hazards, and water. The Earth Institute's activities are guided by the idea that science and technological tools that already exist could be applied to greatly improve conditions for the world's poor, while preserving the natural systems that support life on Earth.

Ethnogeology is the study of how geological features were understood by ancient peoples around the globe from a "place-based" perspective, in specific reference to traditional knowledge and to the stories and ideas about the Earth that were passed down through traditions and the wisdom of elders. The focus in past research tended to be on the unique ideas and knowledge of minorities and distinct cultural groups, and how this relates to universal and cross cultural knowledge discovered by humanity as a whole. Knowledge claims that are based more on universal discoveries and natural science can be found in the subjects of philosophy, chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, and geology. The term "ethnogeology" first enters the geological literature through the work of John Murray of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada in the mid-1990s by virtue of his studies of the Northern Cree First Nation geological worldviews in the Province of Manitoba in Canada. At that time, a cadre of geologists and geoscience educators - particularly Dr. Steven Semken of Navajo Community College in Shiprock, New Mexico and colleagues - were examining the interesting connections among Native American traditional knowledge, geoscience concepts, and the unique vision of planet Earth's history as articulated by indigenous ethnogeological wisdom.

The United Nations General Assembly declared 2008 as the International Year of Planet Earth to increase awareness of the importance of Earth sciences for the advancement of sustainable development. UNESCO was designated as the lead agency. The Year's activities spanned the three years 2006–2009.

The Jackson School of Geosciences at The University of Texas at Austin unites the Department of Geological Sciences with two research units, the Institute for Geophysics and the Bureau of Economic Geology.

The Geological Association of Canada (GAC) is a learned society that promotes and develops the geological sciences in Canada. The organization holds conferences, meetings and exhibitions for the discussion of geological problems and the exchange of views in matters related to geology. It publishes various journals and collections of learned papers dealing with geology.

Religion and environmentalism is an emerging interdisciplinary subfield in the academic disciplines of religious studies, religious ethics, the sociology of religion, and theology amongst others, with environmentalism and ecological principles as a primary focus.

Earth science or geoscience includes all fields of natural science related to the planet Earth. This is a branch of science dealing with the physical and chemical constitution of the Earth and its atmosphere. Earth science can be considered to be a branch of planetary science, but with a much older history. Earth science encompasses four main branches of study, the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, and the biosphere, each of which is further broken down into more specialized fields.

Earth system science The scientific study of the Earths spheres and their natural integrated systems

Earth system science (ESS) is the application of systems science to the Earth. In particular, it considers interactions and 'feedbacks', through material and energy fluxes, between the Earth's sub-systems' cycles, processes and "spheres"—atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, geosphere, pedosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and even the magnetosphere—as well as the impact of human societies on these components. At its broadest scale, Earth system science brings together researchers across both the natural and social sciences, from fields including ecology, economics, geography, geology, glaciology, meteorology, oceanography, climatology, paleontology, sociology, and space science. Like the broader subject of systems science, Earth system science assumes a holistic view of the dynamic interaction between the Earth's spheres and their many constituent subsystems fluxes and processes, the resulting spatial organization and time evolution of these systems, and their variability, stability and instability. Subsets of Earth System science include systems geology and systems ecology, and many aspects of Earth System science are fundamental to the subjects of physical geography and climate science.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to social science:

Systems geology emphasizes the nature of geology as a system – that is, as a set of interacting parts that function as a whole. The systems approach involves study of the linkages or interfaces between the component objects and processes at all levels of detail in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the solid Earth. A long-term objective is to provide computational support throughout the cycles of investigation, integrating observation and experiment with modeling and theory, each reinforcing the other. The overall complexity suggests that systems geology must be based on the wider emerging cyberinfrastructure, and should aim to harmonize geological information with Earth system science within the context of the e-science vision of a comprehensive global knowledge system.

The contributions of women in climate change have received increasing attention in the early 21st century. Feedback from women and the issues faced by women have been described as "imperative" by the United Nations and "critical" by the Population Reference Bureau. A report by the World Health Organization concluded that incorporating gender-based analysis would "provide more effective climate change mitigation and adaptation."

Planetary health refers to "the health of human civilization and the state of the natural systems on which it depends". In 2015, the Rockefeller Foundation and The Lancet launched the concept as the Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on Planetary Health.


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Further reading