2.1 Introduction

‘Sustainability science’ is a relatively new scientific discipline, focusing on the science underpinning sustainable development. It therefore addresses what the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) characterized as the most significant challenge of our age: to “make development sustainable – to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (p.8).” It can also be considered as the science underpinning the development of the green economy.

The state of the science is usefully summarized by one of its leading researchers, William Clark:

“Sustainability science has emerged over the last two decades as a vibrant field of research and innovation. Today, the field has developed a core research agenda, an increasing flow of results, and a growing number of universities committed to teaching its methods and findings. Like “agricultural science” and “health science,” sustainability science is a field defined by the problems it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs. In particular, the field seeks to facilitate … a “transition toward sustainability,” improving society’s capacity to use the earth in ways that simultaneously “meet the needs of a much larger but stabilizing human population, . . . sustain the life support systems of the planet, and . . . substantially reduce hunger and poverty.” (Clark 2007).”

Sustainability science is a new and rapidly developing area that cuts across traditional scientific disciplines, and attempts to use current knowledge to address major issues that face society. Kates (2010) provides a very useful overview of the topic, and lists some key recent literature.


United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). (1987) Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikisource/en/d/d7/Our-common-future.pdf http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm

Clark, W. C. (2007) Sustainability science: A room of its own. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104 (6): 1737-1738. http://www.pnas.org/content/104/6/1737.full.pdf

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. https://www.hks.harvard.edu/content/download/69257/1249838/version/1/file/213.pdf