Thursday, August 5, 2010 - 4:10 PM

SYMP 19-8: Sustainability science: Promoting coupled environmental conservation and human development in research and practice

Nancy Dickson and William C. Clark. Harvard University

Background/Question/Methods Sustainability science is an emerging field of use-inspired research that addresses how to improve human well-being in ways that account for the ultimate dependence of that well-being on the natural environment. In the course of addressing this ultimate question, there arise a number of subsidiary challenges for sustainability science:  How should the well-being of different people be aggregated? How do the “assets” – human, manufactured, natural, and intellectual – inherited by each generation from its past contribute to human well-being? How substitutable, within what limits, are these assets for meeting human needs and preferences?  What is the role of scientific and technological progress in improving human well-being?  What role do institutions play in enabling people to use the services that various assets provide for maintaining and improving their lives?  Such questions have motivated efforts in the field of sustainability science.  The field brings together scholarship and practice, global and local perspectives from north and south, and disciplines across the natural and social sciences, engineering and medicine.
Results/Conclusions Four broad characteristics of sustainability science, taken together, help to distinguish how it addresses its questions.  These are discussed in terms of the field’s i) problem-driven focus on human-environment systems; ii) integrative approach to understanding complex human-environment interactions; iii) special attention to the cross-scale dimensions of those interactions; and iv) its boundary-spanning work at the interface of research and practice.  Building on a foundation of work from around the world, elements of a shared conceptual framework and core research agenda for sustainability science are presented.  These include: normative, analytic, operational and strategic questions about engaging real world problems.  Suggestions for components of effective research systems for sustainability that include addressing the duality of poverty alleviation and development while promoting environmental conservation are presented.