In 1999 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a landmark report, Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability, which attempted to “reinvigorate the essential strategic connections between scientific research, technological development, and societies’ efforts to achieve environmentally sustainable improvements in human well-being.”1 The report emphasized the need for place-based and systems approaches to sustainability, proposed a research strategy for using scientific and technical knowledge to better inform the field, and highlighted a number of priorities for actions that could contribute to a sustainable future.
Now, more than 15 years later, the scholarship and practice of sustainability has matured, making it timely to reflect on how the recommendations of Our Common Journey have been implemented, what have been the most significant hurdles to date, what new challenges will need to be faced in the transition to sustainability, and what possible course corrections will need to be taken. Our Common Journey outlined three priority tasks for advancing sustainability science:
- “Develop a research framework that integrates global and local perspectives to shape a ‘place-based’ understanding of the interactions between environment and society;
- Initiate focused research programs on a small set of understudied questions that are central to a deeper understanding of interactions between society and the environment; and
- Promote better utilization of existing tools and processes for linking knowledge to action in pursuit of a transition to sustainability.”
The past 15 years brought significant advances in observational and predictive capabilities for a range of natural and social systems, as well as the development of other tools and approaches useful for sustainability planning. In addition, other frameworks for environmental decision making, such as those that focus on climate adaptation or resilience, have become increasingly prominent. A careful consideration of how these other approaches intersect with sustainability is warranted, particularly in that they may affect similar resources or rely on similar underlying scientific data and models.
1 National Research Council (NRC). 1999. Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Our Common Journey made a strong call for indicators as an essential way to track progress toward attaining sustainability. At the time, the report committee found there was “no consensus on the appropriateness of the current sets of indicators or the scientific basis for choosing among them.” Some progress has been made since. For example, federal agencies developed such measures to support their sustainability research. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for instance, developed a framework in response to the recommendation in the 2011 National Research Council report Sustainability and the U.S. EPA that the agency “develop a set of indicators and associated metrics (associated with goals and objectives) and indicators associated with international reporting protocols” to assess progress toward national objectives and goals.2 Other agencies undertook similar initiatives. On a global scale, Rockstrom et al. (2009) proposed defining “planetary boundaries within which we expect that humanity can operate safely.”3 However, despite these efforts, no set of indicators has been widely adopted, questions remain about whether our current observing systems are sufficient to track changes in sustainability, and federal agencies continue to struggle with how to monitor and measure the effectiveness of their sustainability initiatives and progress toward achieving sustainability.
To further the discussion on these outstanding issues, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a workshop on January 14–15, 2016, for leading scientists in the field of sustainability science. Participants discussed progress in sustainability science during the last 15 years, potential opportunities for advancing the research and use of scientific knowledge to support a transition toward sustainability, and challenges specifically related to establishing indicators and observations to support sustainability research and practice. A focus on indicators and observing capabilities at the workshop tied into several other ongoing dialogues at the national level. The Office of Science and Technology Policy recently unveiled a new climate data initiative intended to accelerate the nation’s ability to make use of environmental observations to improve climate resilience,4 the U.S. Global Change Research Program developed a pilot system of indicators,5 and lastly, the Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate (BASC) released a report on abrupt impacts of climate change that recommended the development of an early warning system for identifying emerging climate threats.6
This workshop was a collaboration between the Science and Technology for Sustainability Program and BASC, and was organized around several key questions:
- What are the major advances in sustainability science since Our Common Journey was released in 1999, what are the remaining gaps, and what have been critical barriers to progress?
- What progress has been made in establishing sustainability indicators, what are the remaining gaps, and what have been critical barriers to progress?
- What progress has been made in developing models that are appropriate for supporting decisions related to sustainability, what are the remaining gaps, and what have been critical barriers to progress?
- What advances in other areas of science (e.g., observing capabilities, models, technology development, indicator development, social sciences) might be usefully applied to advancing sustainability science?
- How can advances in other frameworks for environmental decision making (e.g., climate adaptation, resilience, early warning systems) inform advances in and be integrated with sustainability science?
- What new efforts might be needed to address the range of needs and opportunities related to sustainability?
The workshop was divided into several panels that addressed specific activities, and included the following:
- Sustainability and Economic and Population Growth
- Urban Systems and Resource Sustainability
2 National Research Council (NRC). 2011. Sustainability and the U.S. EPA. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
3 Rockstrom, J., et al. 2009. Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2):32.
5 U.S. Global Change Research Program. 2014. Indicators of Climate Change. Online. Available at http://www.globalchange.gov/what-we-do/assessment/indicators-system.html.
6 National Research Council (NRC). 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
- Sustainable Manufacturing
- Sustainable Food Systems and Diet
- Ocean Sustainability
- Integrated Analysis
- Paths Forward
The following workshop summary captures the presentations and discussion from each of these panels. Each panel was tasked with focusing on advances in three areas: sustainability indicators and metrics, models for supporting decision making, and opportunities to inform decision making.
Ralph Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Sciences, in his opening remarks on the state of sustainability science and role of the Academies since the publication of Our Common Journey, indicated that there has been substantial progress in sustainability science. In particular, there have been significant advances in metrics and indicators due, in part, to the number of satellite instruments and observatories in place, as well as statistical measurements, such as in the areas of demography and public health. It is important, he said, to note which measurements are necessary to make the adjustments needed to navigate a transition and hopeful trajectory toward sustainability. Dr. Cicerone concluded by providing a brief overview of the goals for the workshop, which included determining progress in the science of sustainability and providing clarity on which goals are central to sustainability. He challenged the participants to engage during the workshop to better define the goals of sustainability, identify the remaining large questions that are pertinent to those goals, examine how those goals have been approached, and finally, to deliberate on the prospects for future progress.
Pamela Matson, Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor in Environmental Studies, and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, provided an overview of the state of sustainability science in her keynote remarks at the onset of the workshop. The report committee for Our Common Journey stated that there were many goals that needed to be met to sustain planetary life support systems (e.g., oceans, climate, water). The report also stated that although there had been great improvements in many metrics within these life support systems, there remained major outstanding needs. Society’s efforts to meet the needs of people resulted in major unintentional negative consequences, such as airshed-wide smog, climate change, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and major changes in global biogeochemical cycles.
The report committee for Our Common Journey, Dr. Matson said, identified key priority areas: create and use a framework for integrative understanding of and problem solving in social environmental systems, create focused research programs on under-studied issues, and promote the use of knowledge and tools for linking knowledge and action. The report committee also identified priority areas for action, which included human population, agriculture, living resources, energy, industry, and cities. The report committee discussed many other issues, but addressing the nexus between resource domains was key to the discussion. These domains do not exist in isolation, but instead interact and affect each other. For example, in order to address food security, other issues must also be addressed, such as ecosystems, water security, and climate change (Figure 1-1).
Dr. Matson said that launching the sustainability science section of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was an important step that allowed the scientific community to ask big questions about the characteristics of sustainability science. Her list of characteristics of sustainability science included the following:
- Involves use-inspired fundamental research
- Is interdisciplinary
- Focuses on coupled social-environmental systems
- Recognizes complexity of interactions, feedbacks, thresholds, and potential for unintended consequences
- Links knowledge to action
Researchers engaged in sustainability science come from many different disciplines and use different methods and frameworks. Thus, to better link and integrate work across different fields requires a “bridge” for framing research questions, such as specific “use” questions. Interdisciplinary scientists are an imperative. A diversity of
knowledge and perspectives is needed from many different disciplines, cultures, and perspectives. Coupling social research to environmental systems is a fundamental component to place-based analysis, which was discussed extensively in Our Common Journey. The complexity of interactions, feedbacks, and unintended consequences can be illustrated well with biofuels. Corn ethanol production has multiple interactions and trade-offs among resources, including competition for agricultural lands designated for food crops and large ranges of water withdrawals that vary regionally depending on irrigation needs. The final characteristic Dr. Matson presented was linking knowledge to action. Sustainability scientists intend that the knowledge developed through research be usable. Our Common Journey recommended that the design of research programs and systems promote collaborative production of trusted knowledge, engage stakeholders in its creation, and create science and technology systems from the funding needed to accomplish these initiatives and develop more usable knowledge.
Dr. Matson presented five observations on progress. Firstly, there has been tremendous progress in the reorientation of research so that science can better address the needs of decision makers. Researchers are building on basic and applied sciences to create new approaches, tools, and methods for understanding social-environmental systems. Areas of use and solutions-oriented fundamental research for sustainability goals include hazards and resilience, food security, climate change, natural capital and ecosystem services, and global health. Secondly, there has been progress in the focusing and framing of the study and pursuit of sustainability. Researchers are moving away from environmental-, economic-, or socially-focused efforts, and instead are integrating all three into sustainability-focused efforts. Reaching intergenerational well-being results in long-term sustainability, but there are many factors involved, such as goods and services and consumption processes (Figure 1-2).
This conceptual framework reminds us that no one scientist will provide knowledge of all determinants of well-being; and that this knowledge comes from many fields. Some scientists may focus on natural capital, but
others may focus on social capital, governance, financial situations, or other factors that determine how the relationship between manufactured capital and natural capital is managed.
Thirdly, there has been much progress in developing metrics and indicators. For example, indicators are increasingly integrative. Indicator systems help decision makers understand trade-offs and gain a fuller understanding of coupled social-environmental systems. There are also novel uses of information technology for collecting and sharing indicators and metrics. Researchers made advances toward an inclusive set of indicators related to capital assets, such as with the inclusive wealth index, which aims to provide countries with a realistic understanding of their wealth and prospects for long-term sustainability.7 In some research areas, however, there is a drive to create new indicators while not giving enough attention to how indicators relate to other indicators. Instead of collecting data on new indicators, it would be more useful to map existing indicators against ongoing efforts.
Fourthly, the number of data-rich empirical models that support decision making increased significantly and are increasingly more precise and rigorous. Ecosystem services models, for example, are used more in strategic planning. Dr. Matson said there is an interesting debate on integration assessment models in that they may be grossly underestimating the risks of climate change. Assumptions built into economic models imply that impacts and costs of climate change will be modest. These economic models are then incorporated into the overall integrated model which leads to underestimates of the impact of climate change. There is a call for a new generation of climate models focused on livelihoods that also include human migration and conflict.
Lastly, Dr. Matson said, there has been much progress in efforts and opportunities to link knowledge to action with advances in efforts to engage stakeholders, run deliberative knowledge-action processes, and improve such processes. One example is boundary organizations, which play a functional role at the science-policy interface; however, there is little research documenting where knowledge was used in decision making and the extent of success it had.8 Researchers have generally not developed the type of knowledge decision makers need. It takes
8 See the special feature Sustainability Governance and Transformation 2016: Informational Governance and Environmental Sustainability in Current Opinions in Environmental Sustainability: www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/18773435/18.
important skills to link, interact, and be part of the boundary function between science and decision making. As a result, a lot of expertise is ignored. Linking knowledge to action needs to be collaborative and adaptive; thus, fragmentation remains a major challenge. A researcher may work on their part of a problem, but no one may be working on the next piece. Ecosystem services models and insufficient data for ecosystem services models is one example of this fragmentation. There needs to be a way to incentivize the development of knowledge for decision makers.
Dr. Matson concluded that there have been important strides in the scientific foundations for sustainability and a lot of useful knowledge created, but more can be done. Opportunities and organizations need to be created to help achieve more. Actors engaged in the supply chain of knowledge to action at universities needs to be incentivized around particular problems and engaged with nongovernmental organizations, corporations, municipalities, and federal agencies. A professional organization that draws the discussion together around sustainability science would also help advance efforts and build capacity. The field of sustainability science is in a transition, but researchers need to keep designing research efforts that focus on the supply chain of knowledge needed to push the field forward.