Toward a Science of Sustainability: Report from Toward a Science of Sustainability Conference

CID Faculty Working Paper No. 196

Simon A. Levin and William C. Clark, Eds.
May 2010


This report presents an overview of research horizons in sustainability science. Its motivation is to help harness science and technology to foster a transition toward sustainability – toward patterns of development that promote human well-being while conserving the life-support systems of the planet. It builds on but does not explicitly address the vast range of relevant sector-specific and cross-sectoral problem-solving work now underway in fields ranging from green technologies in energy and manufacturing to urban design to agriculture and natural resources. It focuses on the narrower but essential task of characterizing the needs for fundamental work on the core concepts, methods, models, and measurements that, if successful, would support work across all of those sectoral applications by advancing fundamental understanding of the science of sustainability.

The report emerged from a workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation at Airlie Center in late 2009 under the direction of Simon A. Levin (Princeton University) and William C. Clark (Harvard University). It brought together thirty-eight scientists and practitioners from across a broad spectrum of disciplines. Building on a series of commissioned background papers included in the report, working groups addressed a wide range of conceptual, methodological, and empirical issues now facing sustainability science. The workshop thus constitutes the first US-based effort in a decade to create a systematic, community-based evaluation of the state of the field and to identify research priorities reaching across the full substantive and methodological breadth of the sciences of sustainability. The report sets forth the workshop’s findings and recommendations on six fundamental questions now facing scholars seeking to harness science and technology to foster sustainability:

1. What are the principal tradeoffs between human well-being and the natural environment, and how are those tradeoffs mediated by the ways in which people use nature?

2. What determines the adaptability of coupled human-environment systems and, more broadly, their vulnerability and robustness/resilience in the face of external shocks and internal dynamics?

3. What shapes the long term trends and transitions that set the stage on which human-environment interactions are played out?

4. How can theory and models be formulated that better account for the variation in types or trends of human-environment interactions?

5. How can society most effectively guide or manage human-environment systems toward a sustainability transition?

6. How can the “sustainability” of alternative trajectories of human-environment interactions be usefully and rigorously evaluated?

Keywords: sustainability science, sustainability transition, sustainable development, sustainability, human-environment systems, environmental policy, environment and development, science and technology

JEL subject codes: Q01, Q56, O31, O32, O33, F02, I3