2.1.1 Characteristics of sustainability science

It is worth pausing a moment to consider what science is. It can simply be described as a system of acquiring knowledge, through a process of observation and experimentation. The value of an experiment is that it provides the most reliable form of evidence that there is. In the context of sustainability, you might immediately spot a problem: some aspects may be very difficult to observe, and may not be amenable to experimentation (how do we experiment on climate change, for example?). This illustrates the challenge facing the science of sustainability, and where arguably science may reach its limits. On the other hand, this is a very exciting and important challenge. We need the best scientific evidence on which to base the decisions that we are making, as they could affect our future very profoundly.

Some characteristics of sustainability science listed by Kates (2010) include:

  • It is use-inspired; in other words it is defined by the problems that it addresses rather than by the approaches employed. In this, it contrasts with curiosity-driven or ‘blue skies’ research. It is applied in nature, designed to meet human needs.
  • It focuses on coupled human-environment systems. Integration is therefore a core theme. It is also strongly interdisciplinary, including both social and environmental sciences, as well as other fields.
  • Sustainability science is rooted in values. Many proposed sustainable development solutions depend on the values of potential users. The subject therefore includes the science of identifying and analyzing values and attitudes, as well as actions.

This third point is particularly profound. Much of the current debate regarding land use, economic development and environmental change arises from the contrasting values held by different people. For example, should the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska be drilled for oil, or not? The answer to this arguably depends on your values. It might seem self-evident that we should, at all times, place human interests first. But there are other philosophical standpoints, which place the needs and rights of ‘nature’ as equal to those of people, such as the ‘deep ecology’ movement. This is an influential body of thought, which is worth knowing more about if it is not one that you have come across before (eg see Grey 1993). We will return to some of these philosophical standpoints later in the course.


Kates, R. W., ed. (2010) Readings in Sustainability Science and Technology. CID Working Paper No. 213. Center for International Development, Harvard University. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, December 2010. 

Grey, W. (1993) Anthropocentrism and deep ecology. Australiasian Journal of Philosophy 71 (4): 463-475.