Academic journal article Agricultural and Resource Economics Review

Sustainability Science: A Call to Collaborative Action

Academic journal article Agricultural and Resource Economics Review

Sustainability Science: A Call to Collaborative Action

Article excerpt

Sustainability science is an emerging field directed at advancing sustainable development. Informed by recent scholarship and institutional experiments, we identify key roles for economists and encourage their greater participation in this research. Our call to collaborative action comes from positive experiences with the Sustainability Solutions Initiative based at the University of Maine, where economists collaborate with other experts and diverse stakeholders on real-world problems involving interactions between natural and human systems. We articulate a mutually beneficial setting where economists' methods, skills, and norms add value to the problem-focused, interdisciplinary research of sustainability science and where resources, opportunities, and challenges from science bolster economic research specifically and land/sea grant institutions broadly.

Key Words: economics, interdisciplinary research, problem-solving, organizational innovation, stakeholders, sustainable development

Wicked Problems and Related Challenges

There is growing recognition that conventional approaches to the use of science in solving problems are inadequate for many complex societal challenges, including sustainable development to meet human needs while protecting the planet's life support systems (Holdren 2008, Lubchenco 1998, Lee 1993], Indeed, scholars have developed criteria for identifying problems that are especially resistant to traditional problem-solving strategies. Rittel and Webber (1973] introduced the term "wicked problems" to describe such challenges, suggesting that they can be characterized by multiple criteria, including problems that are difficult to define and delimit; problems that are symptoms of other problems; a collection of unique problems, which limits the potential for generalization; difficulty assessing the effectiveness of solutions; and the problems and their potential solutions are subject to divergent views among diverse stakeholders. Although Rittel and Webber focused primarily on problems related to social policy, their ideas have been applied to a variety of problems that have intersecting economic and ecological dimensions (e.g., Batie 2008, Waring 2012, Moser, Williams, and Boesch 2012],

In fact, scholars from disparate fields have converged in seeing a need for a paradigm shift in how researchers approach and help solve complex societal problems. Although these alternative approaches have unique labels such as wicked problems (Rittel and Webber 1973], post-normal science (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1991], and mode-two knowledge production (Gibbons et al. 1994] and differ in their details, they also have much in common. In particular, all of them seek to identify societal challenges associated with understanding and solving complex systems problems for which scientific knowledge is necessary but not sufficient and then to respond to such challenges more effectively. These alternative conceptual frameworks for addressing difficult societal challenges have also helped shape the field of sustainability science (Kates etal. 2001],

The Emerging Field of Sustainability Science

Although sustainability science has deep and diverse roots (National Research Council (NRC] 1999, Kates et al. 2001, Kates 2011a, 2011b, Bettencourt and Kaur 2011], its development was profoundly shaped by two key papers. First, a report by the World Commission on the Environment and Development (1987] introduced the term "sustainable development" to characterize the challenge of balancing human well-being and environmental protection. The report succinctly described sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Second, Kates etal. (2001] described the principal characteristics and foci of sustainability science and explained how this new field could be used to advance both the theory behind and the actual practice of sustainable development. …

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