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Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief (2021)

Chapter: PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief

Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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Proceedings of a Workshop


IN BRIEF

March 2021

PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE

Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief

In 1999 the National Research Council issued a forward-looking report entitled Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability.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 pursue sustainability, and highlighted action priorities to contribute to a sustainable future. Since then, important scientific strides have been made, along with new challenges and opportunities to achieve inclusive, intergenerational human well-being. Recognition has also grown that meeting the needs of all people while arresting and reversing degradation requires systems-level changes in the use of technological, social, human, and natural assets.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies) convened a virtual workshop on November 30–December 2, 2020 to examine scientific progress and gaps in sustainability science around six cross-cutting themes. These themes include the challenges of measuring progress toward sustainability; promoting equity and justice in sustainability efforts; adapting to change; moving beyond incremental change to transformational change; effectively linking knowledge with decision making; and governance of complex nature-society systems. The workshop was designed to explore opportunities for science to contribute to research-based knowledge in sustainability, and to provide scientific input to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Grand Challenges in Science and the Nobel Prize Summit “Our Planet, Our Future,” scheduled for April 2021.2 Invited speakers from academic institutions around the world were selected by the planning committee to discuss opportunities to contribute to research-based knowledge and use that knowledge in decision-making. Workshop participants included approximately 150 invited scholars and nearly 800 registrants from government, the private sector, academia, and non-governmental sector who viewed the virtual workshop. This proceedings in-brief provides a high-level summary of the presentations and discussions that took place.3 In keeping with the Academies guidelines, neither it, nor the workshop itself, present a consensus view or recommendations.

WELCOME AND FRAMING REMARKS

In launching the workshop, NAS President Marcia McNutt discussed the role of cutting-edge research to help societies meet their goals of sustainable development. During the symposium to discuss the concept of the Grand Challenges, she noted, “the challenges of sustainability, and the need for equitable improvements in human well-being over the near and long term, emerged from multiple directions.” She expressed hope that the workshop would identify critical roles, capacities, and research needs related to sustainability.

Workshop co-chair Pamela Matson, Stanford University, acknowledged the growing body of sustainabil-

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1 National Research Council. 1999. Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/9690.

2 For the Grand Challenges, see http://www.nasonline.org/about-nas/events/annual-meeting/nas157/symposium.html. For the Summit that will bring together Nobel Laureates, scientists, policymakers, business leaders, and youth leaders, see https://www.nobelprize.org/events/nobel-prize-summit/washington-2020.

3 For a video of the workshop, agenda, and other materials including a list of invited participants who were not the speakers at this workshop, see https://www.nationalacademies.org/event/11-30-2020/progress-challenges-and-opportunities-for-sustainability-science-a-workshop. A rich set of online comments among those invited participants is not summarized in this proceedings.


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Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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ity science research by scientists, engineers, humanists, and others who want their research not only to contribute to new understanding, but also improve the well-being of people today and in the future, and she listed research efforts focused on issues such as sea level rise, food insecurity, carbon-neutral energy, and conservation as examples. This workshop, she explained, was designed not to review the state of all that research, but to assess underlying and crosscutting research and the six themes that are relevant to all.

Common foundations serve as a way to connect areas of inquiry, suggested workshop co-chair William Clark, Harvard University. “Research on the challenges for sustainable development has blossomed,” he stated. “The diversity has created a sort of hybrid vigor, but sometimes has left people only partially aware of the contributions of each other.” While the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 definition of sustainable development has withstood the test of time, questions remain on how to achieve it.4 Answers are context-specific, but he noted “research on sustainability is now sufficiently mature that we know some elements and relationships that figure prominently in understanding and explaining specific situations.”

He and colleague Alicia Harley undertook an extensive literature review to suggest nine generalizable insights.5 First, he said, nature and society are intertwined as a co-evolving system. Second, goals for sustainable development must be fair or equitable, in the present and not jeopardize future generations. Third, resources and people’s access to them are the fundamental determinants of sustainability. Fourth, analyzing consumption-production relationships (neither one in isolation) can link resources and goals. Fifth, governance is required to advance well-being equitably. Sixth, the connections among places and sectors are central to understanding sustainability. Seventh, nature-society interactions constitute complex adaptive systems. Eighth, the result of this complexity are pathways of development that can be understood but not fully predicted. Ninth, and leading to how the steering committee structured the workshop, six interlinked and interdependent capacities are needed because of this inability to predict. These capacities became the panels topics: measurement, equity, adaptation, transformation, linkages between knowledge and action, and governance.

MEASURING PROGRESS TOWARD SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT

Moderator Stephen Polasky (NAS), University of Minnesota, noted the breadth of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to inform sustainability science and policy. However, he noted, their hundreds of targets and indicators serve more as aspiration than practical-level guidance. The Inclusive Wealth framework looks at achievement of non-declining wealth: leaving the next generation with sufficient assets to live at least as well as the current generation. But the problem with Inclusive Wealth is that it is not measureable. Hence, this frames the challenge of measuring progress towards sustainable development.

Shunsuke Managi, Kyushu University, elaborated on the framework as director for the UN Environment Programme’s Inclusive Wealth Reports.6 Inclusive Wealth encompasses three capitals: manufactured (e.g., products and infrastructure); human (e.g., education and health); and natural (e.g., natural resources). Natural capital, he acknowledged, is the most difficult to quantify, but a key message from the report is the value of natural capital has decreased over the past few decades. The framework will link to the SDGs to measure progress.7 It can also look at trans-national impacts such as climate change or COVID-19 globally or disaggregated by country. He concluded that research is needed to determine natural capital globally, use the estimates for policy evaluation, and set targets.

Picking up on challenges to measure natural capital, Eli Fenichel, Yale University, first stated a role for measurement for sustainable development. Measurement does not solve the sustainable development problem, but getting everyone on the same page including scientists, economists, and business leaders creates the space for informed conversation, he asserted. Inclusive Wealth facilitates communication between people who look at the world through a lens of physical quantities and those who focus on money and prices. Clarity about units would be important for measurement to play this role.

Examples that integrate quantity and price include a study of Baltic Sea fishery resources8 in which changes

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4 For the commission’s full definition of sustainable development, see World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future.

5 Clark, W. L., and A. Harley. 2020. Sustainability science: Towards a synthesis. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 45(1):331–386.

6 The most recent was published in 2018: UNEP. 2018. Inclusive Wealth Report. https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/report/inclusivewealth-report-2018.

7 Dasgupta, P., A. Duraiappah, S. Managi, E. Barbier, R. Collins, B. Fraumeni, H. Gundimeda, G. Liu, and K. J. Mumford. 2015. How to measure sustainable progress. Science 350(6262):748. DOI: 10.1126/science.350.6262.748.

8 Yun, S. D., B. Hutniczak, J. K. Abbott, and E. P. Fenichel. 2017. Ecosystem based management and the wealth of ecosystems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 114(25):6539-6544.

Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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in natural capital wealth were measured in Euros. Another example focused on groundwater in Kansas.9 Valuing the change in natural capital in US dollars facilitated a conversation among farmers and policymakers, some of whom were more conservation oriented and others more production oriented. In these and other cases, he said, the problem becomes determining “what’s in, what’s out, and what should be counted.” Dashboards are one solution to allow users to consider variables and boundaries.10 “We can solve the technical measurement challenges,” he said. The bigger challenges are what to measure and how to aggregate. These are not scientific questions, but they do need to be science-enabled.

Satellite imagery can complement traditional measurements, as Marshall Burke, Stanford University, explained. On-the-ground surveys to measure consumption expenditures are expensive, time-consuming, lack granular data, and are infrequent in lower-income and/or autocratic countries. By contrast, satellites revisit locations almost daily and at high resolution. Models are being developed to use what he called this “firehose of data.” For example, he and colleagues used Landsat imagery to predict household asset wealth, with their model trained using sub-Saharan village-level survey data.11 A compilation of studies is showing satellites can explain 70–80 percent of village-level variability, he said. In addition to refining methods, he and colleagues generate scaled estimates (estimate that can be scaled at national and global levels) to enable new insights. Satellite-derived data, for example, show 65 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s wealth variation is within, rather than across, countries.

According to Elena Irwin, The Ohio State University, the theory of sustainability helps understand global issues, but it is important to downscale to subnational regional levels. Frameworks to consider for downscaling include Planetary Boundaries12 (considered a strong sustainability theory) and Inclusive Wealth (a weak sustainability theory).13 She said a weak sustainability theory presents challenges when downscaled because of regions’ openness created by trade and migration, limited substitution between natural and built capital, and uneven wealth distribution. New theories are being developed that focus on place-specific attributes such as built capital, natural capital that generates ecosystem services, human capital, and health capital. Limited substitution within regions may call for strong sustainability constraints, particularly under highly uncertain or critical conditions, she said. Irwin stressed the importance of subnational regional theory because decisions are made at these scales.

Discussant Catherine Kling (NAS), Cornell University, cited Clark and Harley (2020), who commended human achievements but also warned no place on Earth has escaped human transformation. These two contrasting trends speak to intragenerational and intergenerational equity in the context of measurement, she said. She noted the contributions of the Inclusive Wealth framework, as described by Managi, but also its uncertainties, especially in measuring natural capital. She underscored Fenichel’s point that measurement is “not prices versus quantities, it is both.” Burke showed how satellite imagery can make predictions for policy and behavior change, while Erwin’s focus on regional scales points to the need to consider place-bound capitals, she said. Discussion with invited participants focused on how measurement can aid decision making and whether it illuminates or reinforces power structures.

PROMOTING EQUITY AND JUSTICE IN SUSTAINABILITY EFFORTS

Intra- and intergenerational equity issues were further explored in a panel moderated by Arun Agrawal (NAS), University of Michigan. While sustainability science has made progress toward greater well-being and environmental conservation, most economic prosperity is directed towards a small minority of people, he said, continuing, “We need to think about sustainability challenges more, and more often, through a justice and fairness frame... Our limits to measure explain and address injustices will clearly prevent the achievement of all other sustainability goals.”

Melissa Leach, Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, reflected on the interactions between sustainability and equity. Recent debates have distinguished between equality and more justice-focused equity, she pointed out, and have made a moral and pragmatic case about why equity matters.14 As stated in the World Social Science Report, equity

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9 Fenichel, E. P., J. K. Abbott, J. Bayham, W. Boone, E. M. K. Haacker, and L. Pfeiffer. 2016. Measuring the value of groundwater and other forms of natural capital. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113(9):2382–2387.

10 Fenichel, E. P., E. T. Addicott, K. M. Grimsrud, G-M. Lange, I. Porras, and B. Milligan 2020. Modifying national accounts for sustainable ocean development. Nature Sustainability 3:889-895; Fenichel, E. P., B. Milligan, and I. Porras. 2020. National Accounting for the Ocean and Ocean Economy. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

11 Yeh, C., A. Perez, A. Driscoll, G. Azzari, Z. Tang, D. Lobell, S. Ermon, and M. Burke. 2020. Using publicly available satellite technology and deep learning to understand economic well-being in Africa. Nature Communications 11: 2583. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16185-w.

12 See https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html.

13 See https://aede.osu.edu/news/downscaling-measurement-sustainability for additional information regarding strong and weak sustainability approaches.

14 See, for example, the World Social Science Report (2016) and the Human Development Report (2019).

Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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has seven dimensions: economic, social, cultural, political, spatial, environmental, and knowledge-based. They intersect to shape the experiences of particular groups toward marginalization or its opposite, she said. The economic dimension is usually dominant, but should not be; further, she argued, justice needs broader conceptualization beyond distributive justice to consider procedural, recognitional, and intergenerational forms of justice (Figure 1).

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FIGURE 1 Integration of broad concepts of equity and justice.
SOURCE: Melissa Leach, presentation, November 30, 2020, from Leach et al (2018).

Leach and colleagues have proposed an integrated perspective to consider how equity intersects with sustainability from small-scale to systems levels.15 While steps to achieve equity are straightforward to list, they require transformative change and deeper attention to politics and power to achieve. Equitable sustainability, she concluded, requires a “challenge to political and knowledge inequities in debates and approaches that foster cognitive justice16 and leave no one behind.”

Laura Pulido, University of Oregon, discussed white supremacy as a roadblock to sustainability. She defined white supremacy as “a set of attitudes, values, and practices emanating from the belief that white people and Europe are superior to people of color and non-European places.” Sustainability, she said, “has suffered from a surplus of white supremacy,” which she illustrated with two examples. First was how the Trump administration may have used white supremacy to obscure environmental deregulation. Pulido described the President’s tweets about “Mexican killers and rapists” as “spectacular racism” that obscured policy, institutional, and legal changes. During his first year of office, while he talked more about race, he took more concrete action against the environment. Second, she characterized as climate denial the false rumors that Black Lives Matter and antifa activists set the 2020 wildfires in the U.S. West. “The rumors may seem outlandish, but we must not dismiss them,” she said. “We must understand their world view… We cannot make genuine progress without addressing this massive roadblock.”

As a natural scientist, Jaboury Ghazoul, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), blends ecological process-based understanding of landscapes with the social dynamics within which human decisions are made. His work is with the objective of developing strategies to resolve landscape management challenges, which usually involve inequities, power differences, and knowledge uncertainties. As an example, the oil palm industry supports livelihoods but often at great cost to the environment and traditional ways of life, he stated. By integrating natural and social science approaches, the Ecosystem Management group at ETH Zurich uses role-playing games as participatory models of landscape systems. Communities, companies, policy makers, NGOs, and others use these games to build shared understanding of the socioecological system, as well as to negotiate collective strategies for addressing social and environmental problems.17 “The games are effective to allow people to explore different pathways in an interactive and par-

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15 Leach, M., B. Reyers, X. Bai, E. S. Brondizio, C. Cook, S. Díaz, G. Espindola, M. Scobie, M. Stafford-Smith, and S. M Subramanian. 2018. Equity and sustainability in the Anthropocene: A social-ecological systems perspective on their intertwined futures. Global Sustainability 2.

16 See https://www.ids.ac.uk/publications/towards-transformative-climate-justice regarding cognitive justice.

17 For more information, see https://sae.ethz.ch/outreach-and-engagement/role-playing-games/planspiel-palmoel1.html.

Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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ticipatory way,” he said. They are fun but also help share and explore knowledge in a non-conflictual space. Since each exercise must reflect local conditions, building the games empowers local communities, as they become the experts with valuable knowledge for scientists. “The games are a means to an end to discuss strategies and policies,” Ghazoul said, although “whatever strategies are developed must be tested with the communities to see if they are workable.”

Flor Avelino, Erasmus University, studies power in transformative social innovation. She defined social innovation as a set of ideas, objects, and/or activities that involve a change in social relations with new ways of doing, thinking, and organizing. To view innovation in action, she and colleagues analyzed 20 movements in 27 countries.18 As a commonality, social movements empower when they are both locally embedded and globally connected. However, she said, systemic transformative change is not a given. “Social innovation is transformative to the extent that it challenges, alters, and replaces dominant systems, structures, and institutions,” she said. “We need to ask how and to what extent social innovations are challenging or reproducing existing power relations.” This is easier said than done, she acknowledged, because power is a contested concept in social and political theory.19 For an innovation to have transformative impact, it must become mainstreamed, but, she noted, this process may reduce its novelty and reproduce existing problems. “I am convinced that sustainability and innovation research must more explicitly engage with age-old discussions of power,” she concluded.

Yadvinder Malhi, Oxford University, pointed to a common thread linking equity and sustainability. First, on a finite planet, progress requires as much “leveling down” as “leveling up.” How people in power will “level down” is key to tackling inequity and sustainability, he suggested. His second reflection centered on urgency. Will addressing long-standing inequity delay urgently needed environmental action? He recognized the need for both, but also the trade-offs. Third, equity and sustainability are framed as seeking a safe and just place, while he questioned how to determine when this is achieved. Finally, he asked how to reconcile with environmental sustainability policies that may increase inequity, such as carbon-capture markets or policies that slow rural growth.

Discussion topics included how to address power imbalances and confront decolonization in education and other relationships. The presenters emphasized the need to confront unease in discussing equity in the context of finite resources. “The only way to grapple with these issues is by actually grappling with them,” said Pulido. “Use data to see what is happening. Conversations can be fraught but must be done.”

ADAPTING TO SHOCKS AND SURPRISE

Moderator Carl Folke (NAS), Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, described that adaptation concerns not only the dynamic interplay of people, communities, societies, and cultures but also the coevolution of people and nature as part of the biosphere and at global levels. This third panel focused on adapting to shocks and surprises in the context of the Anthropocene, where our connectivity, speed, and spread have become a force shaping the world from local to global scales in new ways, types of interactions, and dynamics.

Connectivity, risks, and shocks characterize the Anthropocene, agreed Victor Galaz, Stockholm University and Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Although the field of adaptive governance has advanced to navigate complexity, he said it has not yet integrated the socio-political dynamics of crises. Barriers include the politics of early warning signals and response capacities, tragic choices, “blame games,” and the politics of addressing root causes, he suggested.20

A number of frameworks capture connectivity, to which Galaz added capital and information flows. “The reason why investments are so important is economic activity needs funding,” he said, “and if you are an owner or providing capital, that ownership can be leverage for change.” New methods and modeling data are developing to understand the impact of capital flows to improve causality, transparency, and accountability during crises. As for information flows, the production and sharing of information affects agency and adaptive capacity during crises. But, he stressed, “information is not just passed on, it is filtered through algorithmic systems,” such as search engines, trending topics, and automated bots. Misinformation can hamper sustainability efforts. “Capital investment and information are moving rapidly and challenging our capacity to respond,” he concluded. “It’s about speed, scale, and depth.”

Christina Hicks, Lancaster University, cited a definition of adaptive capacity as “conditions that enable people to anticipate and respond to change, to minimize the consequences, to recover, and to take advantage of new

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18 For a description of the movements, see www.transitsocialinnovation.eu/discover-our-cases-2.

19 Avelino, F. Theories of Power and Social Change (in press). Power Contestations and Their Implications for Social Change Research. Journal of Political Power.

20 Galaz, V. 2011. Institutional and political leadership dimensions of cascading ecological crises. Public Administration 89(2):361-380; Boin, A., P. ‘t Hart., E. Stern, and B. Sundelius. 2005. The Politics of Crisis Management. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
×

opportunities.”21 She said the emphasis is usually on economic assets, but other assets contribute to adaptive capacity: flexibility (ability to switch pathways), organization (how societies inhibit or enable change), learning (capacity to absorb new information), and agency (one’s free choice in responding to change). Although situation- and context-specific, she said, these assets co-exist and can strengthen or weaken adaptive capacity. For example, heeding indigenous knowledge rather than western fire-fighting techniques has reduced wildfires in northern Australia. On the other hand, subsistence fishers’ lack of agency means changes in global trade have reduced livelihoods and increased food insecurity.22 “Global inequities are a key constraint on local adaptive capacities,” she commented.

Theoretical insights can connect disparate empirical observations and help construct governance structures to deal with change, suggested Marty Anderies, Arizona State University. He began with a simple feedback loop, the fundamental building block of all complex systems, and explained power emerges when many loops are networked in different social-ecological systems.

An idealized policy feedback control loop might begin with a single goal that leads to decisions to reach that goal. In the real world, however, control loops are complicated, with contested goals, decentralized decision making, and other disturbances (Figure 2). A function of feedback control is to take variable signals and create a flatline structure, but with this control comes fragility in two ways. First is a tension between what he termed fast and slow tradeoffs. For example, irrigation can reduce interyear variation in water availability but increases vulnerability to a 100-year flood. The second involves system architecture. “Bow-tie structures are ubiquitous in the living world,” he said, in which large numbers of inputs are processed in the “knot” of the tie, resulting in new outputs. Adaptive capacity in the knot makes it vulnerable to shocks. Spiraling complexity in networks means as we build feedbacks and cope with different types of variation at different scales, the networks become more complex, eventually hit “hard robustness limits,” and can no longer adapt, leading to the potential for cascading failures. These principles require tradeoffs between robustness and fragility, he said.

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FIGURE 2 Robustness must be built upon real-world, not idealized, feedback loops.
SOURCE: Marty Anderies, presentation, December 1, 2020.

Belinda Reyers, University of Pretoria, highlighted new insights about resilience emerging from social-ecological systems research. She noted a convergence across fields to define resilience “as a set of absorptive, adaptive, and transformative capacities that enable individuals, households, nation states, and systems to continue developing with and through change.” She called for a dynamic lens to look at the social-ecological interactions shaping resilience capacities. “Looking at just ecosystem capacities or just social capacities, without understanding how they interact has the potential to undermine them both,” she said. “Moving beyond false choices between environment and develop-

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21 Grothmann, T., and A. Patt. 2005. Adaptive capacity and human cognition: The process of individual adaptation to climate change. Global Environmental Change 15:199–213.

22 Hicks, C., P. J. Cohen, N. A. J. Graham, K. L. Nash, E. H. Allison, C. D’Lima, D. J. Mills, M. Roscher, S. H. Thilsted, A. L. Thorne-Lyman, and M. A. MacNeil. 2019. Harnessing global fisheries to tackle micronutrient deficiencies. Nature 574 (7776):95–98.

Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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ment will help make decisions that are good for both”23 she concluded referring to observations by the late biodiversity scientist Professor Dame Georgina Mace on the need for more interdisciplinary social-ecological perspectives on people and nature relationships.

The complementary of the presentations at different scales was noteworthy, commented discussant Neil Adger, University of Exeter. He asked the panelists about the effect of globalization on adaptive capacity. Galaz responded that rapid information flows have negative consequences but also such positive ones as enhanced and more rapid scientific collaboration. Hicks stressed the value in broadening knowledge to understand underlying causes of change. Reyers commented while “place is ultimately where people and nature meet,” the place might not be local and might not stay constant. Anderies said from a systems and regulatory feedback perspective, a focus on place is critical. After discussion with participants, Folke concluded, “This intertwined system is embedded in the biosphere, which we are part of….It is about our future, not the survival of the biosphere as such. When the connection is not explicitly made, we are inside the ant’s nest and do not see the whole picture.” As lead-in to the next session, he stressed, “Adaptation won’t be sufficient for a sustainable future for 9 to 10 billion people. Transformative change is needed.”

FOSTERING INNOVATION FOR TRANSFORMATIONAL CHANGE

Ruth DeFries (NAS), Columbia University, opened this panel by reflecting on a theme heard throughout the workshop that “sustainability ultimately depends on fundamental transformations of the technological, social, and economic systems that comprise the human enterprise and interact with the natural world.” She posed several questions as she introduced the speakers. Can systemic change arise from local initiatives, and are top-down innovations necessary, get in the way, or sometimes trickle down? Who has agency to decide what is a “good transformation”? Is it possible to have a generalizable, universal theory about what fosters innovation or is the way forward a learn-by doing approach?

Frank Geels, University of Manchester, described the growing field of sustainability transitions research. It moves from focusing on place to resource use as the driver of environmental problems, he explained. While systems are unique, they share common elements related to production and consumption. Geels has looked at how change happens within these systems. Common elements include they are co-evolutionary, multi-actor processes; have multiple phases; exhibit struggles between forces of stability and change; and are characterized by regime shifts. He has also identified four phases of transformation: (1) emergence; (2) stabilization and upscaling; (3) diffusion into mainstream markets; and (4) reconfiguration with wider system change.24 He noted the third phase is when transformations happen, but also when resistance increases, particularly among those threatened by the decline of existing systems. Areas of future and ongoing research, he suggested, include better understanding of transition pathways, incumbents, decline of old systems, conditions for political acceleration, and system change.

As discussed throughout the workshop, the pandemic has highlighted challenges of the current system and brought new opportunities into relief, commented Reinette (Oonsie) Biggs, Stellenbosch University. While the need for transformational shift is increasingly clear and there are multiple good trajectories, how to think about what is ‘good’ may be very different, she said. The goal of the Seeds of Good Anthropocenes Initiative (https://goodanthropocenes.net) is to explore different visions and ideas, particularly from nondominant groups and cultures. An underlying premise is the need for change as pronounced as the shift from the medieval to industrial era. Because most people can only imagine smaller changes, the focus is on “seeds” (new ways of doing and thinking), such as community currencies in Kenya or land ownership change in Scotland. A combination of these seeds, called a Mánoa mash-up, leads to developing future visions and exploring new pathways.

Common leverage points seem to include the need for a compelling vision to provide direction, forming networks, and weakening dominant structural forces. Emerging insights show similarities across seeds, such as the role of technology and decentralized participatory decision-making. Risks include dealing with entrenched power structures, divergent values and groups, and (as both plus and minus) technology. Research frontiers include how to explore and co-produce future visions, identify key areas of investment, and explore and co-develop governance and institutional arrangements, Biggs said.

Garry Peterson, Stockholm Resilience Center, explained that the social-ecological resilience community identifies two faces of resilience: persistence and transformation. He presented a quadrant matrix divided along two axes to organize resilience strategies based on the extent of persistence or transformation and whether the actor is in-

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23 Reyers, B. and Selig, E. 2020. Global targets that reveal the social-ecological interdependencies of sustainable development. Nature Ecology & Evolution 4:1011–1019; Schlüter, M., L. J. Haider, S. J. Lade, E. Lindkvist, R. Martin, K. Orach, N. Wijermans, and C. Folke. 2019. Capturing emergency phenomena in social-ecological systems: an analytical framework. Ecology and Society 24(3):11.

24 Geels, F. W., B. K. Sovacool, T. Schwanen, and S. Sorrell. 2017. Sociotechnical transitions for deep decarbonisation: Accelerating innovation is as important as climate policy. Science 357(6357):1242–1244.

Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
×

side or outside the system (Figure 3).25 In work for the Arctic Council, he and colleagues were asked to determine which social-ecological traits provide resilience. They studied how communities navigated change and uncertainty, created opportunities for self-organization, nurtured diversity, and combined types of knowledge. A key finding was that loss of ability to self-organize was strongly related to loss of resilience.26 He also discussed how scenario methods developed by the Seeds of Good Anthropocene Project were used to create transformative, pluralistic nature-based visions for the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).27 He explained, “rather than look at what we expect to happen, can we articulate positive pathways to desirable futures that will motivate actions to achieve the goals stated by nature.” Stakeholders came together to develop pluralistic visions of alternative futures to explore different types of nature-oriented values. He said better articulating pathways to such futures requires developing social-ecological models that can better incorporate a richer variety of cultural, social, and ecological dynamics.

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FIGURE 3 Alternative resilience strategies.
SOURCE: Garry Peterson, presentation, December 1, 2020, adapted from Quinlan et al. (2016).

Humans are shaped by imagination, stated Harini Nagendra, Azim Premji University, yet more expectation seems to be placed on the role of science, rather than imagination, in shaping societal transformation. She argued that the common conceptions of environmentalism of the rich/Global North (biocentric, top-down) and the poor/Global South (anthropocentric, driven by livelihoods, bottom-up) are incomplete. Both types of environmentalism interact with each other in richly productive ways. For example, she noted a local struggle against bauxite mining in Niyamgiri Hills, initially framed in Global South terms, also succeeded because it received support from national and international activists and India’s Supreme Court. Another example comes from the Narmada Bachao Andolan movement, which originally formed to stop a dam. Although unsuccessful in its main purpose, it is India’s most influential environmental movement, questioning the dominant paradigm equating development with economic growth. She also pointed to the power of dialogues and connections across the Global South, reminding participants that the Global South is not just indigenous and rural communities. The Global South is also defined by rapid urbanization, reshaping connections to place and stimulating environmental movements. As an example, Nagendra is involved in efforts to revive Bangalore’s lakes. “Nature plays a key role in stimulating a new sense of place,” she said. Her research explores how this lake restoration makes people connect with other local sustainability challenges from traffic to malnutrition. She suggested an expanded focus on understanding the role of imagination in sustainability science.

Discussant Stephen Carpenter (NAS), University of Wisconsin-Madison, identified several cross-cutting points. Futures are shaped by imaginations, but imaginations can impede movement to sustainable futures. The goal, he said, is to connect “imaginaries that drive transformation,” as the Seeds Project attempts to do. Technology plays a role in scenarios of sustainable futures, but research is needed to overcome resistance and accelerate uptake. Questions from invited participants centered on greater involvement by non-traditional groups, including corporate actors,

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25 Quinlan, A. E., M. Berbés‐Blázquez, L. J. Haider, and G. D. Peterson. 2016. Measuring and assessing resilience: Broadening understanding through multiple disciplinary perspectives. Journal of Applied Ecology 53(3):677–687.

26 Hutric, M., G. D. Peterson, and J. C. Rocha. 2016. What factors build or erode resilience in the Arctic? In M. Carson and G. D. Peterson, eds. Arctic Resilience Report. Stockholm Environment Institute and Stockholm Resilience Centre.

27 Pereira, L. M. et al. 2020. Developing multiscale and integrative nature–people scenarios using the Nature Futures Framework. People and Nature 2(4):1172–1195.

Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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religious leaders, and artists; evaluation; and scale-up. Research on the interaction between scales seems fruitful, commented DeFries. “Transformation is the crux of sustainability,” she concluded. “It is very much a scientific effort….But transformation is as much about science as about imaginations, cultures, and being practical and recognizing who has the levers to make transformative change.”

LINKING KNOWLEDGE WITH ACTION

An important challenge is to conduct sustainability science research that supports sustainable development, reduces environmental degradation, and reduces human suffering, asserted Diana Liverman (NAS), University of Arizona. How to connect research and action is an emerging field, but the paradigm of science’s “loading dock model,” with research “put out there in hopes it would be useful” is rarely effective. The presenters suggested alternative approaches.

Maria Carmen Lemos, University of Michigan, discussed the evolution of engagement, characterized by co-production between scientists and practitioners. She paid tribute to Elinor Ostrom as key to this work and noted descriptive and normative co-production. The normative approach, which she practices, values participation, interaction and iteration, recognition of pluralities, and use of science to achieve desirable outcomes. Lemos urges moving research from useful to usable.28 Further, she said, a gap in the literature is to understand how decision makers use knowledge.

Her research to understand usability pathways traced how information about U.S. National Climate Assessments diffused throughout the Great Lakes region.29 It moved slowly, she found, and usability increased at the edges among practitioners and decision makers. Another study focused on “boundary chains” that connect researchers, organizers, and users. Working with organizations that already have the trust of users decreases costs, but she noted these chains are not sustainable on their own. A challenge is how to scale up co-production, since personal interactions with everyone are not possible. She was already testing technology, such as webinars, when COVID-19 hit, and will continue this experiment in 60 cities in the Gulf of Mexico region.

Global environmental science can be transformed to become more responsive to diverse user needs, stated Esther Turnhout, Wageningen University. A contract exists between science and global governance which assumes that science can and should inform decision making. However, the linear model on which this contract is based is no longer working; science has legitimacy problems and policy uptake of science has been limited. Future Earth, IPBES, and other groups have taken steps to address these problems, for example by incorporating indigenous and local knowledge, she noted. She identified three reasons behind the lack of deeper transformation: scientists’ fear of anti-science and anti-environmentalism, their commitment to a singular global reality, and a locking-in of science-policy contracts.30 “Instead of guarding against public scrutiny, we [scientists] should open up further to diverse global perspectives, including those we find uncomfortable,” she urged. Scientists should position themselves as part of democratic society, not just impartial observers, she said.

The need for transformation of science has been increasingly recognized, but this is not an easy task, Turnhout said. As seen in sustainability more generally, transformation cannot just be about “having more good things,” like inclusion and fairness. Transforming science requires dis-empowering dominant approaches. It is provocative, she acknowledged, but “it is where I would locate the frontier in linking knowledge and action.”

Meaghan Daly, University of New England, noted her ideas about the role of power in creating actionable knowledge come through work on climate services. Knowledge production, she said, is affected by power structures. A growing literature shows how power disparities are created and perpetuated at all stages of climate services, including design and allocation of resources development and production, use, and evaluation. “It is important to interrogate at each step who is authorized to participate in and exert influence within the creation and deployment of climate services,” she said. Referring to normative and descriptive approaches to co-production, she noted, “Descriptive co-production tells us how the world is, and normative co-production involves propositions about how we think the world should be.” The normative approach, when applied to climate services, often fails to account for power.

As an example, she referred to a project in Tanzania under the Global Framework for Climate Services Adaptation Programme. Although agropastoralists were involved in co-production with national and global stakeholders, the process minimized their knowledge and values.31 Without intentionally considering power, she said, co-production can

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28 Lemos, M. C., C. Kirchhoff, and V. Ramparasad. 2012. Narrowing the climate information usability gap. Nature Climate Change 2(11):789–794.

29 Kalafatis, S. E., M. C. Lemos, Y-J. Lo, and K. A. Frank. 2015. Increasing information usability for climate adaptation: The role of knowledge networks and communities of practice. Global Environmental Change 32:30-39.

30 Lahsen, M., and E. Turnhout. 2021. How norms, needs, and power in science obstruct transformations towards sustainability. Environmental Research Letters 16:025008.

31 Daly, M., and L. Dilling. 2019. The politics of “usable” knowledge: examining the development of climate services in Tanzania. Climatic Change 157(1):61–80.

Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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“paradoxically re-inscribe epistemic boundaries and reproduce existing configurations of power,” she said.

According to Sarah Burch, University of Waterloo, drilling down locally helps understand the ripple effects of sustainability transformations. One impactful method, she suggested, is through futures-oriented visioning and technology. At issue is to learn how to spread and support isolated interventions for transformational change.32 Small businesses, she argued, are a set of actors to accelerate and amplify uptake. In Canada, about 30 percent are run by women, are more likely to be run by people of color and/or newcomers to Canada, and cover a diverse swath of the economy. They have agency, responsibility, and transformative potential, and many collaborate with one another. To work with these businesses on sustainability, a network of researchers and practitioners called TRANSFORM has been created. The network has identified characteristics of small businesses that have fostered resilience and sustainability during the pandemic: (1) collaboration and interpersonal relationships; (2) strategic place-making; (3) social connections through digital spaces; (4) rapid business pivots and responsiveness; (5) unique skillsets; and (6) empowerment and ownership.33 Small firms should be considered part of the ecosystem for sustainability, she suggested.

In her role as discussant, Lorrae Van Kerkhoff, Australian National University, began by questioning the phrase “knowledge to action,” which has been used for several decades. “What if we could dissolve the distinction between knowledge and action?” she asked. “Would our experiences as researchers…be different?” Awareness of the politics of knowledge allows researchers to think about equity, fairness, and power dynamics. It also raises questions about the dynamics of stasis and transformation, she added, and why some knowledge remains in place even when better alternatives exist. She urged researchers to place themselves in political and contested spaces. She also reflected on decolonization. “Decolonizing approaches to research makes us step back with humility and understand there are material consequences in how we conduct our research,” she stated. “In this era of transformation, can we transform ourselves?”

Participants asked about case studies that extract lessons learned and embody inclusiveness. Discussion also arose about decolonizing research practices, training, and ways of knowing. Scaling up research, balancing urgency and deliberative processes, understanding differences in definitions of sustainability, and the role of social media were also raised.

MANAGING AND GOVERNING COMPLEX NATURE-SOCIETY SYSTEMS

Robert Keohane (NAS), Princeton University, explained that the governance panel draws on analytical approaches and questions brought up throughout the workshop to look at issues related to disease, urban complexity, and climate change. He defined governance as the establishment and operation of institutions and policy practices that shape behavior through some combination of social norms, incentives, and coercion. Sustainability governance seeks to manage intertwined social, ecological, and technical issues.

Michael Osterholm (NAM), University of Minnesota, focused on federal and state governance during a public health crisis, specifically COVID-19. One year ago, no one had experienced COVID-19 nor understood the governance decisions needed. In the United States, cases have skyrocketed, the health system is overwhelmed, and virtually all parts of the country are affected. He noted the crisis was predictable. In a 2005 article in Foreign Affairs, he questioned the country’s preparedness to deal with a pandemic. In July he co-authored an update, referring to the 2005 piece.34

“Governance during a crisis is very different than governance in what we call non-crisis times,” he said. “All levels are involved. Science and citizens must become one. In our country, we witnessed the situation where science was degraded in the public discourse, which meant what role could it play in governance?” He distinguished between planning versus plans. Plans will go out the window, he said, but “having planning in place makes the difference to know who to call and how to have back-up.”

Harriet Bulkeley, Durham University, discussed governance in what she termed a serious, but slower-burning crisis than COVID-19: cities’ role in climate change. Over the last 30 years, cities have been part of the problem and the solution. Evidence is mixed on the results, she said, partly because of the difficulty in comparing multiple approaches to governing nature-society systems. The scope has changed from framing climate change as a discrete problem concerning end-of-pipe emissions to a set of systemic socioeconomic, multi-actor, multi-sited issues. It means cities must govern for climate change as an ongoing condition with multiple visions and actors, rather than a single blueprint, she explained.

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32 Abson, D. J., J. Fischer, J. Leventon, J. Newig, T. Schomerus, U. Vilsmaier, H. von Wehrden, P. Abernethy, C. D. Ives, N. W. Jager, D. J. Lang. 2016. Leverage points for sustainability transformation. Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment.

33 TRANSFORM. 2020. Sustainable Business Practices Can Build Resilient Local Economies for a Post-COVID-19 Recovery.

34 Osterholm, M., and M. Olshaker. 2020. Chronicle of a pandemic foretold: Learning from the COVID-19 failure—before the next pandemic arrives. Foreign Affairs.

Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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In the absence of U.S. federal governance on climate change, states and localities have taken the lead, said Leah Stokes, University of California, Santa Barbara. Examples include clean electricity standards, net-metering, and building standards. “If we could clean up our electricity system and electrify everything we can, it would reduce emissions 70 to 80 percent, because electrification is the key linchpin in decarbonization,” she said.35 To help achieve this goal, the Standards, Investment and Justice Approach has emerged, she continued. It sets clear timelines and outcomes, centers on benefits rather than costs, and focuses on income inequality and racial inequality.

One implication is that governments, not just consumers, should invest in climate change improvements. She noted the flaw in the theory that low-income people pay the cost of transition through higher electric bills. Increasingly, she said, political scientists are moving to an argument that distributional politics are at the center of climate policy. For example, a government committed to climate action can invest in technology, such as solar PV, that will reduce in costs. Policy innovations can also spill across states. For the path forward, it is important to consider what coalitions are needed and whether decarbonizing specific sectors requires different political and governance approaches, she suggested.

As discussant, Chukwumerije Okereke, Alex-Ekwueme Federal University, Nigeria, lauded the workshop’s emphasis on human well-being but noted the reality that 75 percent of the global population live in poverty, with 10 percent in extreme poverty. Efforts to tackle global poverty have begun to slow because of climate change, conflict, and now COVID-19. A deep recession is projected, while science is showing the need to radically cut greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2035 to achieve the Paris temperature goal. “The battle to control climate change is going to be won or lost in developing countries,” he stated. “We are not on track, and the reason is because we have focused on managing carbon in developed countries without thinking about how to help the developing world decarbonize while also pursuing their legitimate aspirations of economic development.” A central challenge is to address climate change without exacerbating poverty and inequality. Climate change is not solely a technical or financial problem, he stressed, but one of ethics, leadership and distributional justice.

Topics discussed with invited participants included the importance of networks and agency in scientific discovery, the role of institutions to build on experience without being locked in by it, positive and negative impacts of globalization and connectedness, metrics for policy effectiveness, and short-term versus long-term innovations. Keohane summarized four points: (1) power disparities reinforce inequality; (2) innovations from science are crucial to solve problems, but must be fostered by government and public-private collaboration; (3) globalization is pervasive, neither a problem nor solution; (4) coherent institutions are crucial to manage change. Okereke commented, “We have to follow the numbers and follow the money. These two will lead us to where to tackle our efforts.”

WORKSHOP SYNTHESIS

Each session chair provided an overview of the panel that she or he moderated.

Measuring Progress

Polasky highlighted advances in measurement thinking, tools, and data over the past 20 years to promote equitable treatment of current and future generations. However, he said, “we are still far from a practical measure of sustainable development.” He identified three challenges. First is the difficulty in moving from biophysical measures to those that measure human well-being. Second is the need to develop models to predict future conditions. Third is how to incorporate equity and justice in development measures. A large gap exists between science and practice, but he expressed hope that the demand for this information will lead to more systematic use in the near future.

Equity

Agarwal noted the panel highlighted the necessity for a common vocabulary when talking about justice, equity, fairness, and inclusion in the context of sustainability. He suggested this area of sustainability science may have the least developed knowledge about what works. Presenters discussed the goals of inclusion, equity, and redress, but each concept is different and not necessarily hierarchical. Recognitional, procedural, and allocative mechanisms of justice are also orthogonal, he observed. Justice can be based on rights, contributions, merit, or need, and stakeholders are intragenerational, intergenerational, or non-human. He identified as a critical task how to describe, understand, and predict power distributions; pathways and connections across scales; and resource deployment.

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35 Stokes, L. C. 2020. Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States. Oxford University Press.

Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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Adaptation

Adaptation to shocks and surprises covers many areas, noted Folke, and while necessary, is not enough to lead to just and sustainable futures. Social, economic, and technical forces intertwine across spatial and temporal scales. Adapting to shocks and surprises concerns not only the interplay of people, communities, societies, and cultures, he said, but also the co-evolution of people and nature as part of the Anthropocene biosphere. This means a shift from responding to single shocks to interconnected systemic risks. Sustainable futures require systemic transformation framed by narratives that reconnect development to the biosphere, he concluded.

Transformation

DeFries said a message from this panel is that transformation at all scales is a process with phases, not something that just “happens.” Many research questions exist, but she said urgency requires learning how to find the leverage points for transformative change in any particular system. To link research and action, she said, requires recognizing that power dynamics and vested interests pose key barriers to transformation. “That might get us out of our comfort zone, but in transformation science, we cannot ignore that reality,” she said.

Knowledge and Action

Liverman said lessons learned include that the “loading dock” delivery of science to users rarely works. Listening and co-production provide better alternatives but take time and deliberation. Collaboration between scientists and users, if not well thought out, can lead to backlash, at which point many scientists retreat into their ivory towers, she said. Challenges include how we can de-colonize knowledge and processes and also include how to define and study sustainability, consider power and authority, ensure international assessments use all knowledges, and considering how to change teaching and research methods to include principles of how best to link knowledge to action.

Governance

Keohane reflected on a takeaway from his and other panels about the reality of power structures. Sustainability strategies must generate self-interested incentives to achieve support from powerful coalitions, which requires analysis of political-economic structures and path-dependent dynamics of complex systems. Important questions for research, he suggested, include the conditions to generate desirable outcomes and robust political support, how innovations can transform systems, and how near-term steps open or limit future options. Success requires focal points and institutions, he said, but also leadership and willingness to follow enlightened leadership.

Cross-Cutting Considerations

The moderators also connected their panels with those of their colleagues. Polasky said measurements must be richer and more detailed to support intelligent and deliberative transformation and co-evolution between people and nature. Agarwal commented “a surfeit of data seduces us to use the data we have, not the data we need.” Folke stressed the need to redirect action through leadership. DeFries highlighted networks and connectedness as inherent outcomes of globalization, noting that connectedness has both positive and negative impacts. She also pointed to the need to build resilience and immunity to shocks before crises happen. Liverman stressed how to define and measure targets for sustainability that include social goals and justice, as well as the role of culture and the arts in sustainability. Keohane suggested follow-on workshops to cover “what we are not measuring and how we can do it” and the boundaries of science relative to politics.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS FOR THE FUTURE

Sustainability Science as a Growing Field of Scholarship

In considering the growth of research and understanding over the past 25 years, B.L. Turner (NAS), Arizona State University, said the lens has greatly enlarged from a focus on human impacts on the Earth’s system to questions of intergenerational sustainable development. These efforts now deal with the integration of social and environmental sub-systems and are expanding the range of expertise and voices needed for these inquiries. Essential is what he termed the “intellectual glue,” or theory, to understand and direct sustainability research. Social-environmental theory, in his view, remains weak in construction and testing, but it is critical across topics, even recognizing the complexity and context- and place-specific nature of sustainability.

According to Turner, current systems approaches do not necessarily explain phenomena, events, and processes central to sustainable development queries. Discipline-specific theories, known in the social sciences as “theories of the middle range,” focus on only a few elements or variables, he noted. In contrast, sustainability science recog-

Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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nizes multiple, interacting social and environmental elements. While no unitary theory may be possible, he suggested developing theory sets that link and aggregate various interactions. This would require foundational research to select a range of phenomena to explain; explore which elements and formulations from extant theories and frameworks would provide robust outcomes; and integrate this work into social and environmental subsystems. The process would be difficult, he acknowledged, but advances in analytical capabilities suggest new efforts are warranted.

Sustainability Science as a Guide to the Pursuit of Sustainability

Matson reminded the participants that the workshop was constructed for sustainability scientists to share insights with others in the sustainability research community. But, she said, she expected that some of the information could be highly useful to decision makers as well as the broader research community, and summarized some of those takeaways.

From the discussions on measurement and metrics for sustainability, Matson noted progress in the development of measurement approaches and metrics that focus on options for future sustainability as well as the current state across a range of aspects of coupled, intertwined social-natural systems—in other words, indices of what is actually needed for the achievement of sustainability. The Inclusive Wealth Index is one such metric that strives to provide a more complete picture of intra and intergenerational well-being for use by decision makers. She also noted that new tools and approaches such as multi-indicator dashboards and remotely sensed information are currently available for decision makers to use and likewise can give insight into intertwined social-human systems.

With respect to discussions of equity, diversity and inclusion, she noted the now-widely recognized need to engage a broad range of actors with agency and a diversity of types of knowledge, ways of knowing, and values in order to work successfully toward the solution of sustainability challenges of any type, including all of those discussed in the workshop. Indeed, she noted that “embrace plurality and equity” was a mantra repeated across the six panel discussions, and needs to be for any practical effort towards sustainability. Increasingly, approaches are available to assist communities and organizations in doing so.

From the discussions of adaptation, Matson noted that conditions that allow people and organizations to anticipate and respond to multiple and interacting stresses depend on both their biophysical assets (for example, their land and water resources and climate) as well as the social, cultural and human assets of the system, and that ignoring the reality of that coupled, intertwined system or assuming that some parts are static will not work. Thinking of adaptive capacity in terms of the ability to make and remake relationships across both biophysical and social processes may have immediate practical applications, as is the reminder that being adaptive in the short run may not be adaptive in the longer run.

Following the panel discussion on governance systems, Matson commented that many sustainability challenges play out at the intersections of things like poverty, climate change, food security, infectious disease and so on, where multiple players and assets and distributional issues across scales come to bear. As a result, governance systems cannot focus on singular issues or singular communities, and must be on-going processes that allows different visions, different views of what is “good,” different capacities, and different kinds of leaders at every level. Multiple new forms of collaborative governance are needed to replace or expand the more typical top-down 20th century governance approach.

Matson noted that the discussions about transformation for sustainability identified usable frameworks that suggest how to break down the economic, social and political drivers of lock-in, and to drive transformative change through bottom up experimentation and diffusion of innovations and destabilization of established regimes. Such frameworks are important, and even in their current stage of development may help many different players (researchers, NGOs, governments, companies) understand the roles they can play. But, greater insights into leverage points, partnerships and institutional structures and governance systems that can help transformational change happen efficiently remain to be fully developed and tested. She also noted that those in the action world (such as practitioners and policymakers) can learn from the research-based assessments of current approaches for visioning “seeds and scenarios of good futures.”

Based on discussions of how the scientific community might more effectively link their knowledge with action and decision making, Matson noted that one thing is quite clear: the ‘pipe model’ or the ‘loading dock’ models of knowledge transfer (where the research community develops new knowledge or technologies in isolation and then hands them off to user communities) do not work. Rather, we understand the importance of building trust, of diversifying the expertise and kinds of knowledge being brought to bear on challenges, and of taking time to ensure fairness and understand different perspectives across the science-action continuum. And power matters. Who’s voices are being heard, who decides, who’s in and who’s out, which kind of knowledge gets the priority positions, where do power disparities lay?—all of these affect the credibility and usefulness of research-based contributions to action. Such questions are extremely important to both research communities trying to engage and help, and to decision making communities

Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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trying to make change happen for the good of people today and in the future.

Drawing from all the panel discussions, Matson suggested that the importance of cross-scale dynamics is something that everyone—including action-oriented decision makers of all kinds—should be hyper aware of. For example, one speaker noted that information (or disinformation) flows across scales and can affect in surprising ways the adaptive responses of specific people and places, in manners that are not always useful. Others noted the importance of understanding and collaborating across scales. For example, engaging diversity and ensuring procedural equity—something all recognize as crucial—is often more easily done at local and regional scales; thus, ‘bottom up’ efforts at community levels are often seen a good place to start in sustainability efforts. For those efforts to ‘scale’ and have an impact far beyond the local area, however, connections and engagement of local groups work within regional and global networks will help.

In wrapping up, she concluded, “This workshop’s internal stock-taking and cross-fertilization among sustainability scientists was highly useful for our science but it can easily bridge to the front lines to help change agents pushing sustainable development on the ground.”

DISCLAIMER: This Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was prepared by Paula Whitacre and Emi Kameyama as a factual summary of what occurred at the workshop. The planning committee’s role was limited to planning the workshop. The statements made are those of the rapporteurs or individual workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all workshop participants; the planning committee; or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

REVIEWERS: To ensure that it meets institutional standards for quality and objectivity, this Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was reviewed in draft form by Anthony Bebbington (NAS), Clark University and Thomas Dietz, Michigan State University. The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the process.

PLANNING COMMITTEE: Pamela Matson (NAS) (Co-Chair), Stanford University; William Clark (NAS) (Co-Chair), Harvard University; Arun Agrawal (NAS), University of Michigan; Partha Dasgupta (NAS), University of Cambridge; Ruth Defries (NAS), Columbia University; Carl Folke (NAS), Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; Robert Keohane (NAS), Princeton University; Diana Liverman (NAS), University of Arizona; and Stephen Polasky (NAS), University of Minnesota. Staff: Vaughan Turekian, Executive Director, Policy and Global Affairs; Franklin Carrero-Martínez, Senior Director, Science and Technology for Sustainability (STS); Emi Kameyama, Program Officer, STS; and John Veras, Senior Program Assistant, Board on Higher Education and Workforce.

SPONSOR: This workshop was supported by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and the George and Cynthia Mitchell Endowment for Sustainability Science.

For additional information regarding the workshop, visit: www.nas.edu/sustainability.

Suggested citation: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop-in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.1726/26104.

Policy and Global Affairs

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Copyright 2020 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
×
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Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
×
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Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
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Page 10
Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
×
Page 11
Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
×
Page 12
Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
×
Page 13
Suggested Citation:"PROGRESS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE: Proceedings of a Workshop - in Brief." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26104.
×
Page 14
Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief Get This Book
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The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a virtual workshop on November 30-December 2, 2020 to examine scientific progress and gaps in sustainability science around six cross-cutting themes. These themes include the challenges of measuring progress toward sustainability; promoting equity and justice in sustainability efforts; adapting to change; moving beyond incremental change to transformational change; effectively linking knowledge with decision making; and governance of complex nature-society systems. The workshop was designed to explore opportunities for science to contribute to research-based knowledge in sustainability, and to provide scientific input to the National Academy of Sciences Grand Challenges in Science and the Nobel Prize Summit "Our Planet, Our Future," scheduled for April 2021. Invited speakers from academic institutions around the world were selected by the planning committee to discuss opportunities to contribute to research-based knowledge and use that knowledge in decision-making. Workshop participants included approximately 150 invited scholars and nearly 800 registrants from government, the private sector, academia, and non-governmental sector who viewed the virtual workshop. This proceedings in-brief provides a high-level summary of the presentations and discussions that took place.

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