What is Sustainability Science?

Share with your friends!
Sustainability Science is a new academic field that many--even some who work in it--question whether it should be a field at all. When I started here I took a stab at defining Sustainability, but Sustainability Science as an academic discipline while related needs its own defining. At the top of my reading list is former classmate Thad Miller's1)One of the first graduates of ASU Sustainability PhD program the book is titled: Reconstructing Sustainability Science: Knowledge and action for a sustainable future. recent book which delves deeply and broadly into what makes research Sustainability science. Another former colleague of mine, Ben Warner, recently wrote a post asking, Is sustainability science sustainable?2)This title is a good example of why I think we should capitalize the S in Sustainability. In this case it would distinguish it from the second sustainable which Ben means the older definition of the word of carrying on into the future. The post is worth quoting at length:

... This new discipline was founded upon the idea that scientific research should do more to understand and solve society’s most complex problems.

...The difficulty begins when scientists try to design research projects with the ultimate goal of solving complex real-world problems. I will clarify. We use the word complex to distinguish sustainability scientists from scientists who solve simple problems. My use of the word ‘simple’ should not be taken lightly, as I am describing the problem, not the solution. The entire engineering discipline has evolved to solve simple problems, although the solutions to these problems are often quite complex. If an individual would like to cross to the opposite side of a river, the problem is simple but the solution may take the form of a complex public-infrastructure project.

...but the problem arises as we try to embrace society’s complexity by avoiding well-established reductionist methods. We become lost in the complexity of the problem. We do not know what questions to ask or what hypotheses to test.

...First, sustainability science programs must be interdisciplinary in order to increase the scope of its research capabilities. This is easier said than done – tradition is very important in academia. Second, sustainability science research must be applicable to real-world problems while contributing to discovery-based science. Again, this is a difficult line to walk, but sustainability science must not become pigeonholed because solutions to complex problems will likely be innovative. Finally, sustainability science must be integrated into society. The myopic perspective resulting from academics practiced in isolation cannot provide useful solutions to complex problems.

My thoughts on 'what is Sustainability Science' range from a rough, and overly long laundry list to the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's method for identify pornography, "I know it when I see it." Since my intuition seems like a terrible basis for a scientific discipline, lets go ahead and stick with the list for now. When I have previously presented on Sustainability Science I have described it as having seven characteristics: Transdisciplinary, multi-scalar, normative, cascading effects (or system effects), future orientation, recognition of planetary limits, and a focus on improving the human condition.

My new thoughts…but where does that take us?

Ben's post generated several new items to my list. First of all I really liked his distinction between "complex" and "simple" problems. So add complex problems to the list. Secondly this is a discipline with a solution orientation (up to 9). And to round out the list at ten, the blog post brought to mind another distinction. Sustainability Science does not start with a narrow and specific tool kit of methods and solutions that it tries to apply to any problem. Rather, based on the problem methods and solutions are selected which best fit. This is a distinct departure from other academic (and professional) fields. Economics for example, likes to believe it can address any problem, particularly complex ones, with a narrow set of analytical tools AND their solutions also tend to only be drawn from a very narrow pool (you could guess what they would be before an economic analysis even begins: i.e. pigovian tax or creating a marketplace most likely).

What I am left with at the end is more questions which I hope to devote many words to in the future:

  • Is Sustainability Science a process for doing science?
    • Is there actually a single, or single set of processes that can be identified?
    • Could this process be applied to any appropriately complex problem regardless of topic?
    • Or does Sustainability Science have to be about problems that are at least socio-ecological?
  • What can we exclude as NOT Sustainability Science?
    • How complex does the problem need to be?
    • Does it have to meet all the characteristics?
    • What do we count research areas that contribute to Sustainability (i.e. improving solar panels) but are clearly NOT Sustainability Science themselves?
  • Can Sustainability Science continue to include basically everything?
    • Are there problems we don't include or just problems of insufficient complexity?
    • Per Ben's point, how can we know what methods or approaches to take when essentially the entire scientific repertoire is at our disposal?3)I would say that a Sustainability Scientist must be familiar with several disciplines but to be so with all that are connected to Sustainability would be impossible.
  • Is there separate "Sustainability Science" to be done? Or is it about bringing together the necessary experts together to confront a complex problem? The Sustainability Scientists' role would be in mediating between experts and organizing and driving the process forward to solutions.4)Wiek called this role "epistemediation".
    • Can Sustainability Science be done by an individual researcher not part of an interdisciplinary team?
The last real question is whether we can come to answers on what characterizes this new discipline faster than we can generate new questions and doubts about it.

Aaron Redman is the founder of Achieving Sustainability and what passes for an administrator in these parts. Currently he is working on his Sustainability PhD at ASU while raising a baby daughter and taking advantage of nap time to foment discussions on this here blog.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. One of the first graduates of ASU Sustainability PhD program the book is titled: Reconstructing Sustainability Science: Knowledge and action for a sustainable future.
2. This title is a good example of why I think we should capitalize the S in Sustainability. In this case it would distinguish it from the second sustainable which Ben means the older definition of the word of carrying on into the future.
3. I would say that a Sustainability Scientist must be familiar with several disciplines but to be so with all that are connected to Sustainability would be impossible.
4. Wiek called this role "epistemediation".
Print This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

Leave a Comment