What is Sustainability Science?
by Dr. Nicholas J. Smith-Sebasto

This is probably the most common question I am asked by potential students.

It has been suggested that sustainability science “has emerged over the last two decades as a vibrant field of research and innovation.” It is a “field defined by the problems it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs.” It focuses “on the dynamic interactions between nature and society, with equal attention to how social change shapes the environment and how environmental change shapes society.”

Sustainable Earth

As a field, sustainability science addresses the “widely shared view that the challenge of sustainable development is the reconciliation of society’s development goals with the planet’s environmental limits over the long term.”

The perception that sustainability science as a field was a “maturing” one lead the National Academies of Science to create a new section on sustainability science that “now shares the masthead [of its Proceedings] with other long-term residents such as Physics, Genetics, and Cell Biology.”

Key questions considered by sustainability scientists include:

  • How can the dynamic interactions between nature and society-including lags and inertia-be better incorporated in emerging models and conceptualizations that integrate the Earth system, human development, and sustainability?
  • How are long-term trends in environment and development, including consumption and population, reshaping nature-society interactions in ways relevant to sustainability?
  • What determines the vulnerability or resilience of the nature-society system in particular kinds of places and for particular types of ecosystems and human livelihoods?
  • 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?
  • What systems of incentive structures-including markets, rules, norms and scientific information-can most effectively improve social capacity to guide interactions between nature and society toward more sustainable trajectories?
  • How can today's operational systems for monitoring and reporting on environmental and social conditions be integrated or extended to provide more useful guidance for efforts to navigate a transition toward sustainability?
  • How can today's relatively independent activities of research planning, monitoring, assessment, and decision support be better integrated into systems for management and societal learning?