The Sustainability Transition: Meeting Basic Human Needs without Degrading the Planet's Vital Systems Will Require an Ambitious, Interdisciplinary, and Solution-Oriented Research Program

By Matson, Pamela | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Sustainability Transition: Meeting Basic Human Needs without Degrading the Planet's Vital Systems Will Require an Ambitious, Interdisciplinary, and Solution-Oriented Research Program


Matson, Pamela, Issues in Science and Technology


One of the greatest challenges confronting humanity in the 21st century is sustainability: how to meet the basic needs of people for food, energy, water, and shelter without degrading the planet's life support infrastructure, its atmosphere and water resources, the climate system, and species and ecosystems on land and in the oceans on which we and future generations will rely. Although the precise definition of sustainability continues to be discussed and debated, general agreement has emerged about what areas deserve most attention, and actions are being taken in all of them. Although we won't meet the sustainability goal overnight, humanity is beginning to make decisions based on criteria that show concern both for people and for our life support systems. We are embarked on a transition toward sustainability.

With a still-growing human population, rapidly increasing consumption, and ever-increasing stresses on the environmental services on which we rely, however, this transition needs to accelerate. The engagement of the science and technology (S&T) community will be essential, though not sufficient, for achieving that acceleration. Like the fields of medical science and agricultural science, the emerging field of sustainability science is not defined by disciplines but rather by problems to be addressed and solved. It encompasses and draws on elements of the biophysical and social sciences, engineering, and medicine, as well as the humanities, and is often multi- and interdisciplinary in effort. The substantive focus of sustainability science is on the complex dynamics of the coupled human/environment system. The field reaches out to embrace relevant scholarship on the fundamental character of interactions among humans, their technologies, and the environment, and on the utilization of that knowledge by decisionmakers to address urgent problems of economic development and environmental and resource conservation.

Sustainability research is appearing in scientific journals and influencing some real-world decisions, and the field is now in need of a well-thought-through plan that engages the broad research, educational, and funding communities. Although sustainability, like all long-term societal challenges, will ultimately benefit from an S&T approach that "lets a thousand flowers bloom," such an approach is not enough. We need solution-oriented, use-inspired R&D for a sustainability transition, and we need it fast, so we need a clear plan for research. And although literally every discipline can and needs to contribute gems of scientific and technological knowledge to help meet the sustainability challenge, none can make sufficient progress working alone; thus, we need concerted efforts to bring those disciplines together to work on integrative challenges.

A research plan

The need for integrative, problem-focused research becomes clear when addressing some of the grand challenges of sustainability. Consider energy. The vast majority of the world's energy is provided by fossil fuels, and demand for energy is rapidly increasing in the developing nations. Much attention has been paid to the "end of oil" and the security concerns about increasing worldwide competition for oil and gas, but the most critical and immediate sustainability challenge is the energy system's effect on climate and on air and water pollution. Research endeavors that focus simply on new energy resources are critical, but from a sustainability standpoint, they're just part of the puzzle. Research must focus at the interface of the technology/environment/social system to develop energy sources that reduce environmental consequences and are broadly implementable and available to the world's poorest people. The challenge is to understand not just what new technologies are necessary, but also how to implement them in a way that avoids unintended consequences for people and the planet. Our recent experience with biofuels from food crops shows what can happen when we focus too narrowly on a specific energy goal in isolation from its interaction with food production, water and air pollution, trade, climate, and other environmental and social needs.

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