Sustainability Science

Sustainability science is an applied post-normal science for tackling wicked problems. Post-normal means that answers emerge from interactions between scientific facts and people’s values. Objective impersonal facts are not sufficient to address wicked problems because people don’t share the same priorities or meanings. As a result, in democratic societies action is impacted and there is a need for people to act as citizens and not consumers. Citizens have responsibilities and rights as opposed to merely passively consuming the benefits of the environment and society.

Five Big Ideas

  1. Values influence how people prioritize sustainability approaches and goals
  2. Everything is connected – systems thinking, it is not an excuse for not acting
  3. No single discipline has the answer, so teamwork and cooperation is needed
  4. Sustainability is an emergent property, not a destination, requiring citizenship
  5. Sustainability priorities are contextual, but not just what is convenient

1. Values influence how people prioritize sustainability approaches and goals

Values are “…cognitive representations of three types of universal human requirements: biologically based needs of the organism, social interactional requirements for interpersonal coordination, and social institutional demands for group welfare and survival…“. 1]Schwartz, S. H., & Bilsky, W. (1987). Toward a universal psychological structure of human values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(3), 550–562. Since people have different world views and personal circumstances they also have different values. Most people do not cut the forest down or put CO2 into the atmosphere just for fun. A coal miner is trying to provide for his/her family not cause climate change. One of the clues to addressing wicked problems is shifting values. Maybe the coal miner who has other realistic options to take care of their family will shift values. The majority of people are just trying to live their daily lives in a meaningful manner.

Transdisciplinary approach

2. Everything is connected – systems thinking, it is not an excuse for not acting

There is a disconnect between people’s actions and the impact on the environment and society. The reality is everything is connected. The connections are complex and need to be understood. However, understanding is an iterative process. There will never be a 100% understanding and that is not a reason for not acting.

3. No single discipline has the answer, so teamwork and cooperation are needed

Sustainability is transdisciplinary. Solutions depend on combining multiple sources of knowledge at the same time because problems are wicked. Business, Ecology, Urban-Planning, Biology, etc. are not sustainability science just because they look at environmental problems. When these disciplines actively work together to solve problems this is sustainability science.

4. Sustainability is an emergent property, not a destination, requiring citizenship

There is not one sustainability out there waiting to be discovered. Deforestation and poverty are both sustainability problems. Which problem should be a priority? People living in a city might prioritize poverty assuming they have no influence on deforestation. Why should it matter? Andy Dobson 2]Andy Dobson in Adger, W. N., & Jordan, A. (Eds.). (2009). Governing sustainability. Cambridge University Press. Chicago makes the case for sustainability citizenship arguing people have moral obligation linked to the suffering we cause through our consumption. He asserts justice is the appropriate response and that requires constant vigilance and political commitment in our role as citizens. This view of our responsibilities puts in a different light statement like “I need to drive to work today in order to support my family”. Yes, this statement is true, but the pollution from that trip will shorten lives in that city and impact future generations. What is the appropriate trade-off? There are no simple answers but questions demanding we all act like citizens and not consumers.

5. Sustainability priorities are contextual, but not just what is convenient

Water is a bigger priority in some places compared to others. Thus, actions targeting changing water usage behaviors may be a higher priority than recycling. However, some times people prioritize based upon what is convenient for them or their organization. It is important to return to the idea of citizenship. Where are people causing the big impacts which adversely impact others? Consumers think about how they alone maximize their benefit. Citizens think about how to maximize the benefit for everyone including themselves.

In Summary

In summary, sustainability science seeks to grapple with society’s complex relationship with itself and the environment. It seeks to maintain life-supporting ecosystems while also expecting people to act as citizens who take responsibility for their individual and collective actions in a just manner. The idea of justice is applied to all humans regardless of their social-economic status and non-human life which cannot represent itself in human decision making. Sustainability science looks to help society work with wicked problems.

References   [ + ]

1. Schwartz, S. H., & Bilsky, W. (1987). Toward a universal psychological structure of human values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(3), 550–562.
2. Andy Dobson in Adger, W. N., & Jordan, A. (Eds.). (2009). Governing sustainability. Cambridge University Press. Chicago