fbpx William Clark’s “Pursuing Sustainability” | Harvard Kennedy School
About the Authors

William Clark is the Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Trained as an ecologist, his research focuses on sustainability science: understanding the interactions of human and environmental systems with a view toward advancing the goals of sustainable development. He is particularly interested in how institutional arrangements affect the linkage between knowledge and action in the sustainability arena. At Harvard, he serves as Area Chair for the program in International and Global Affairs and co-directs the Sustainability Science Program.  He is co-author of Pursuing Sustainability: A guide to the Science and Practice (Princeton, 2016), Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management (Wiley, 1978), and Redesigning Rural Development (Hopkins, 1982); editor of the Carbon Dioxide Review (Oxford, 1982); co-editor of Sustainable Development of the Biosphere (Cambridge, 1986), The Earth Transformed by Human Action (Cambridge, 1990), Learning to Manage Global Environmental Risks (MIT, 2001), Global Environmental Assessments (MIT, 2006) and The Global Health System: Institutions in a Time of Transition (Harvard, 2010); and co-chair of the US National Research Council’s study Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability (NAP, 1999). He serves on the editorial board of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Clark is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is a recipient of the MacArthur Prize, the Humboldt Prize, the Kennedy School’s Carballo Award for excellence in teaching, and the Harvard College Phi Beta Kappa Prize for Excellence in Teaching.

Pamela Matson is Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and Goldman Professor of Environmental Studies at Stanford University.

Krister Andersson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Book Description

Sustainability is a global imperative and a scientific challenge like no other. Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice provides students and practitioners with a strategic framework to evaluate alternative development pathways and to link knowledge with action in the pursuit of sustainability goals. In educational settings, the book serves as an invaluable primer and companion to more narrowly focused work dealing with sustainability in particular sectors such as energy, food, water, and cities, or in particular regions of the world. In professional settings, it offers ideas on how we all—regardless of profession—can become more effective in the pursuit of sustainability.

Written by leading experts in the field, Pursuing Sustainability shows how systems perspectives and inclusive and interdisciplinary approaches can help in the pursuit of intergenerational well-being. It illustrates how the prospects for achieving sustainability goals are ultimately shaped by five capital assets functioning within complex social-environmental systems, how committed people can use governance processes to alter the dynamics of those systems, and how successful interventions can be shaped through collaborations among researchers and practitioners on the ground.

The ideal textbook for undergraduate and graduate students and a valuable resource for leaders working in this fast-growing field, Pursuing Sustainability also features case studies, a glossary, and suggestions for further reading. The book:

  • Provides a strategic framework for linking knowledge with action
  • Serves as the ideal companion text for more narrowly focused courses
  • Utilizes interdisciplinary approaches and systems perspectives
  • Illustrates concepts with a core set of case studies used throughout the book

An online package of illustrations, along with related syllabi suggestions, can be found at pursuingsustainability.org.


If we are to make peace with nature, the effort will have to come from us all. This very moving book is the finest introduction to the subject I have seen. It does not avoid technicalities, but can be read with equal benefit by the young and the old with no prior knowledge of the complexities we face.--Sir Partha Dasgupta, Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of Cambridge

This is a beautiful, lucid, and desperately needed book about the sustainability challenge. The authors accomplish a mission impossible: providing deep analyses of complex adaptive social-environmental systems while using simple terms and compelling metaphors to expose the crucial steps we need to take for long-term inclusive well-being. A must-read for practitioners and scholars alike.--Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

Finally, a beautiful small book bringing together the thinking and practice behind sustainability science in an easily accessible and comprehensive manner, making it clear that this critical field of study for humanity provides an overarching framework for many different areas and competencies dealing with the sustainability challenge. Strongly recommended.--Carl Folke, founder of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, and director of the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Pursuing Sustainability by Matson, Clark, and Andersson is that all too rare book able to convey deepest insights in simplest words. Written to engage, inform, and provoke, it is simultaneously a call to think and act. It will find enduring appeal among students and researchers, casual readers and experts; I predict no collection on sustainability will be complete without this foundational work.--Arun Agrawal, School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan

Sustainability can seem like a faraway, nebulous dream. Through a clear framework, iconic case studies, and a beautiful, accessible style, Pursuing Sustainability brings this dream to life. A must-read for anyone concerned about the future health of our planet.--Gretchen C. Daily, Bing Professor of Environmental Science, Stanford University

The Virtual Book Tour was brought to you by HKS Library & Research Services. As of Spring 2019, our faculty video series is called Behind the Book. Contact us with inquiries.


Bill Clark:

Hi, my name is Bill Clark. I'm here to preview a new book of mine called Pursuing Sustainability, A Guide to the Science and Practice.

Sustainable development has been a long term aspiration of humanity. Pursuing our well-being, improving our well-being in the present without doing so at the expense of other people in other places or our children and grandchildren in the future.

Over the last couple of decades, this general aspiration has become more focused and vigorously pursued at all levels, individual, corporate, governmental, and so on. Most recently, in December of last year, the general assembly of the United Nations adopted a set of sustainable development goals to succeed the millennium development goals as the basic guidelines and framework on global development for the 21st century.

The problem therefore is not whether sustainable development is a goal worth pursuing, but rather how it can be done effectively. Our colleague on this campus, Amartya Sen, has long argued that the two ingredients of a successful pursuit of sustainability are informed agitation. Agitation, because sustainability is at its heart a fundamentally redistributive agenda. Redistributive in that it is taking the potential unfairness of present local generations building their livelihoods and well-being at the expense of others, and redistributing that to take account of the people on whose backyards we dump our current garbage and the people into whose future we send the results of our consumption.

So agitation will be necessary on the front lines of politics on social unrest, simply because vested interests have a set of habits in mind which are wholly incompatible with sustainable development.

Informed, the informed part of agitation is necessary because so many of the ills we face in the sustainability agenda are because of invisibility's. Things that without the aid of science we can't see, whether those are greenhouse gas emissions turning into climate change, lead in our drinking water, or vanishing species in the rain forest on the other side of the world. Informed agitation, because without new technologies and policies to help us guide action into the future, the hope of achieving sustainability is small.

So in the past decades, there has been no absence of either science to do the informing or of agitation on the front lines, 360.org, Save The Rainforest, Fair Trade Coffee and the like. The problem is that too often the two have remained disconnected. Siloed, ad hoc, piles of science have built up that don't see use on the front lines of development agitation. Agitators often end up pulling on levers of power that even if they succeeded would actually have little effect on our long run prospects.

My colleagues and I, Pam Matson, Dean of Earth Sciences at Stanford and Christopher Anderson, Professor of Political Science at Colorado therefore set out to write this book to help connect the pieces, to help our colleagues both in the scientific communities and the practice communities to see how their work fit together to provide an overall framework in which we could see where we're doing well and where we're doing badly and to help as it were, guide sustainable development, guide the pursuit of sustainability if more effectively into the future.

The way we've gone about that is to borrow from current political practice a focus on sustainability as promoting inclusive well-being over the long run. We've drawn from current scholarly practice to see the foundations of sustainability in the underlying set of capital asset stocks on which societies now and societies in the future draw to build their well-being. We've drawn from that the vision that pursuing sustainability is fundamentally about managing those asset stocks so that the social value that is inherent in them is passed on to future generations in at least as great a variety, as much fuel in the tank as we got from the generations that handed development on to us.

Which capital assets? Well, clearly the manufactured or produced capital that is the center of GNP estimates, but also human capital, health, education. Natural capital, the environment and resource base we draw on. Social capital, the rules, norms, regulations that craft how we think we ought to conduct ourselves vis-a-vis the planet and future generations. And finally knowledge capital itself, the buildup of understanding of the world around us and technologies for altering that world that give us some hope of altering the trajectory we're on.

We address in a central part of the book the current understanding of the complex interrelated social environmental systems in which that management of assets needs to be performed.

We addressed the governance challenge of crafting arrangements through which more people can cooperate in achieving sustainability goals and sideline those who would prefer to pursue their own special and selfish interests.

And finally, we focus on what we know about the conditions and procedures that make knowledge viable and usable in the agitation sphere to advance sustainability on the front lines.

Ours is a short book and we hope an accessible one. It's meant as a compliment, not a substitute, for the longer tract on sustainability in agriculture, in buildings, in health and so on, of which there are many out there in the world and on which ours relies to provide the detailed background information that's necessary to push agendas forward.

We therefore hope it will be useful to people who are teaching classes and want a broad framework in which to fit their own expertise and interests to people in the corporate sector trying to reorient their companies towards a broad sustainability agenda, and of course for people in governments and activist organizations around the world who are pushing for sustainable development.

Thank you.