Sustainability Science: Towards a Synthesis

Sustainability Science Program Working Paper No. 2019-01

William C. Clark and Alicia G. Harley


We review recent scholarship relevant to the pursuit of sustainable development. We find a compelling argument that the interactions of nature and society in the Anthropocene constitute a globally interconnected, complex adaptive system in which heterogeneity, nonlinear relationships, and innovation play formative roles. The dynamics of this system cannot be fully predicted but can be partially guided through appropriate interventions. We synthesize the diverse research approaches that have been applied to sustainable development challenges and construct an integrative framework that highlights elements and relationships they have found to be important for understanding the Anthropocene System. From this integrative perspective we identify six capacities that research suggests are necessary to foster sustainable development. The capacities are: i) the capacity to measure sustainable development; ii) the capacity to promote equity; iii) the capacity to adapt to shocks and surprises; iv) the capacity to transform the system onto more sustainable development pathways; v) the capacity to link knowledge with action; and vi) the capacity to devise governance arrangements that support collective action to nurture shared resources, promote equity, and confront uncertainty in pursuit of sustainability.

Keywords: sustainability science; sustainable development; Anthropocene; well-being; inclusive wealth; adaption; sustainability transformations; governance

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