The evolving nature of sustainability science

When business-as-usual in sustainability science isn’t bringing us any closer to global sustainability, we need to shake up the system.

Recently, researchers from Pennsylvania State University, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the University of Oslo and Corvinus University of Budapest, published the perspective article “Transforming Sustainability Science to Generate Positive Social and Environmental Change Globally” in the journal One Earth that discusses the need for not only a sustainability transformation, but a transformation of sustainability science itself. It calls for a shake-up of the research ecosystem and stepping beyond multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research towards transdisciplinary co-design and co-production of research.

What does this mean? 

Traditionally, sustainability science and its related programs focus on the natural sciences, promoting a systems approach to environmental problems. It has studied the relationships and interactions between the earth’s systems such as the atmosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere, and how they are influenced by our activities and vice versa. 

This conventional analysis has given scientists the ability to articulate the risks of business-as-usual and development-as-usual, however following decades-long efforts and calls-to-action, we are still no closer to achieving global sustainability. 

Why is this? The authors suggest that it comes down to scalability of solutions and our human nature: our culture, our behavior, our institutions.

So, if ‘sustainability science-as-usual’ isn’t working for us, what do we need to do to make lasting and impactful change for the future of our planet? 

According to the authors, the most pressing environmental problems we face are a result of, and are conditioned by, social, cultural, economic and business activities that are grounded in the profit-seeking models of economics and finance. 

To address this, sustainability research must continue its evolution towards becoming a transdisciplinary enterprise that can generate not only positive environmental change, but that can also generate positive social change to influence these activities.  

“In such transformation,” the authors argue, “the social sciences, humanities, and the arts can play an important role to address the complex problems of culture, institutions, and human behavior.” 

However, “to realize truly integrated sustainability science, we need renewed research and public policies that reshape the research ecosystem of universities, funding agencies, science communications, policymaking, and decision making.” 

Global efforts towards a more equitable and sustainable world, engaging multiple knowledge streams and sectors of society, have been underway since the 1972 UN Environment Conference in Stockholm. However, progress has been modest, and current research paradigms have proven unable to meet the global challenges. For substantive impact, sustainability science needs to become a transdisciplinary enterprise “that can generate positive social and environmental change globally”.

The evolution of events and initiatives over the past 50 years. Image credit: P. Shrivastava, et al.

The authors acknowledge the Sustainability Research and Innovation Congress 2021 (SRI2021) as the pinnacle of sustainability events to date. At SRI2021, we are dedicated to building on this important legacy while contributing to the necessary change in sustainability science and innovation. Next year, we are facilitating this transformation towards transdisciplinary sustainability research while standing on the foundations of significant sustainability events of the last four decades. 

Together, with our conveners, hosting consortium and sponsors, our goal is to encourage the co-evolution of transdisciplinary sustainability science and sustainable societies. SRI2021 plans to “unite global researchers, industry practitioners, and world leaders to inspire action and promote sustainability transformation,” with the aim of “cultivating a space for sustainability scholarship, innovation and collaboration” across all sectors, write the authors. 

In June 2021 in Brisbane, Australia, we will begin writing this narrative collectively. Will you be part of it?

Photo by Dan Roizer on Unsplash.