Emergent patterns in nature and society

Sustainability science

There is a lot of talk about what is, what is not or how should it be. As a note to the self: Juan remind that ‘sustainability’ is an adjective, the noun is ‘science’. So make it science first and then add the adjective that comes more handy: social, natural, inter, trans… blah blah. Adjectives is a matter of taste, but first it has to be science.

Coming back to the ‘sustainability’ side, there has been a number of editorials in Nature and Science clarifying the need and challenges of the new international program Future Earth. Exciting news for a guy on the sustainability science business like me. However, the editorial of Nature (March 3, Vol. 531, p8) explains why the world remains skeptical of such effort, it is questioned whether the program will be able to deliver on something that is fashionable but conceptually unproven. In other words, it is calling for useful and empirically based science that helps making difficult decisions… not another conceptual framework but more jargon than substance.

Future sustainability research, no matter how interdisciplinary, should build on that heritage and focus on finding and closing knowledge gaps. In doing so, scientist involved in Future Earth can provide an invaluable service to society. And researchers in niche disciplines – paleoclimatology or behavioural science, say – who work to fill those gaps will get a welcome chance to put their work into a broader context.

Future Earth might also become a showcase for linking natural and social sciences – a real necessity given that human activity is altering the planet at worrying speed. But sustainability research must not become tied in the straitjacket of conceptualism and utilitarianism. Scientist are not merely service providers. As in any other field of science, sustainability research must remain at its core a curiosity-driven affair.

The author clarifies at the beginning of the editorial that sustainability science does not have the luxury of timelessness. Sustainability science is one of the urgent science that deals with issues with socio-economic stakes, where high decisions are needed (aka. a post-normal science), and where time, funding or ethics do not allow for the perfect experiment or traditional scientific methods.

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