Disciplines that can contribute to sustainability science

What are the disciplines that can contribute to sustainability science?

McMichael et al (2003) specifically identifies four disciplines that are believed to be central to our understanding of sustainability. These are demography, economics, ecology, and epidemiology. But they also point out that sustainability issues are not limited to these four disciplines, but also require the engagement and interdisciplinary collaboration of other social and natural sciences, engineering, and the humanities.

Clark and Levin (2010) see it as combining practical experience with knowledge drawn from across the natural and social sciences, medicine and engineering, and mathematics and computation. The following shows a representative footprint of sustainability science in terms of traditional scientific disciplines:


Source: Bettencourt/Kaur: http://phys.org/news/2011-11-years-sustainability-science.html#jCp

Clark et al (2004) suggest that the reach is much broader. In addition to the Earth systems sciences, they point out that technology, innovation, and the tacit knowledge of practice also play a role. Even more broadly, they suggest there has been a need to understand where ideas about environment, development, and sustainability interacted with other dimensions of human thought about what we think we are and want to be.

How such integration of different disciplines might be achieved in practice?

Kates et al (2001) refer to the “systematic use of networks for the utilisation of expertise and the promotion of social learning”. Lüdeke et al (2004) suggest that various conceptual approaches have been taken within integrative interdisciplinary studies and that the technique of modelling dominates these approaches. They point out that “models are powerful tools that can incorporate knowledge from various disciplines, evaluate the complex interplay of processes, and assess the implications of explicit assumptions or particular actions.”



McMichael, A. J., Butler, C. D., and Folke, C. (2003) New visions for addressing sustainability. Science 302: 1919-1920.

Clark, William C. 2010. Sustainable development and sustainability science. In Toward a Science of Sustainability, eds. Levin, Simon A. and William C. Clark. Report from Toward a Science of Sustainability Conference, Airlie Center, Warrenton, Virginia, November 29, 2009 – December 2, 2009, 55-65. Princeton, NJ: Center for Biocomplexity, Environmental Institute, Princeton University and Cambridge, MA: Sustainability Science Program, Center for International Development, Harvard University. http://www.nsf.gov/mps/dms/documents/SustainabilityWorkshopReport.pdf

Phys.org 2011. After 25 years, sustainability is a growing science that’s here to stay, Indiana University, Bloomington. 

Clark, William C., P. J. Crutzen, and H. J. Schellnhuber. 2004. Science for global sustainability. In Earth Systems Analysis for Sustainability, eds. H. J. Schellnhuber, P. J. Crutzen, W. C. Clark, C. Martin and H. Hermann, 1-28. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 

Kates, R. W., Clark, W.C., Corell, R., Hall, J. M., Jaeger, C.C., Lowe, I., McCarthy, J.J. et al. (2001) Sustainability science. Science 292 (5517): 641-2.

Lüdeke, M. K. B., Petschel-Held, G. and Schellnhuber, H.J. (2004) Syndromes of global change: The first panoramic view. GAIA 13 (1): 42-49.

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.