Sustainability science was conceived in the late 20th century in order to develop and evaluate theories through empirical analysis about the complex and evolving relationship between people and their environment. For millennia humans have modified their environments in order to support life. These modifications have gradually grown in scale, so that humans have now become a planetary force. Sustainability science was developed in response to the lack of understanding of these complex dynamics of environmental change. Such understanding is necessary because many environmental, economic and social indicators suggest that we may have exceeded the biophysical capacity of our life support system. The development of this as a new scientific field is indicated by the proliferation of academic volumes, scientific journals and recognition by National Academies of Sciences, in the US and around the world.
To date, the scholarship and practice of sustainability has largely focused on the human dimensions. The past, present and future of society was viewed in terms of the development of culture, technologies, and economies. Indeed, trajectories of the progress of humanity were characterized as sustainable development; whereby the needs of the present do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Recognizing the multiple scholarly disciplines that study such needs, a number of new scholarly communities were developed. As a result, new hybrid disciplines emerged, such as Ecological Economics, Political Ecology and Human Ecology. While ecology appears in the name of these fields, in reality these and other sustainability approaches either consider nature and natural sciences as secondary or ignore basic environmental theories and principles. Among these missing theories are considerations of basic laws of biology, energy and materials, principles and properties of complex adaptive systems (such as resilience) and concepts of cross-scale dynamics, among others.
The practical and operational applications of sustainability are varied. Almost all multi-national corporations have sustainability executives indicating the importance of such concepts to those looking at the economic bottom line. Many governmental institutions, from towns to nations have sustainability officers and initiatives to operationalize sustainability concepts. Indeed, it was part of a strategic initiative of Emory University, with subsequent programmatic development in the operations and management portions of the University. A similar critique as presented in the prior paragraph can be applied to these programs of practice; they are largely devoid of the science of sustainability.
We assert that sustainability science is not only multi-disciplinary but it must deal with fundamental issues of how we understand and act across scales of space and time. It studies the complex dynamics of human-ecological systems from the local level to the level of the planet, and from the present into the future. Indeed, much of the sustainability literature focuses on inter-temporal relationships between current and future generations. Moreover, the research and scholarship, as well as the corollary education programs have tended to be organized around three distinct spatial scales; global, regional and local. Each of these is briefly described.
We now live in the Anthropocene, a new geological age attributed to the collective influence of humans on the planet. While the collective biomass of 7+ billion humans seems small on a planetary scale, our influence and impacts are now global. We interact with our world in at least two important ways; 1) we are appropriating increasing percentages of the earth’s natural resources and 2) our use of these resources has created environmental problems and issues that range from the global to the local. We now use 50% of the global primary production (the process by which solar energy is transformed into plant material), and have transformed 40% of the land surface for human food production. Most, if not all of the highly productive marine fisheries have collapsed or are overfished. Our collective actions have modified global cycles of key elements of life. Humans now remove the equivalent amount of nitrogen from the atmosphere than is removed from all natural processes. The application of that and other key nutrients (phosphorus, potassium) to the lands have increased food production, but at the expense of losing biodiversity and pollution of water and air. Our success at removing stores of cheap fossil fuels have set in place changes in climate at the planetary scale, with increasingly devastating regional and local impacts. Moreover, the linkages between the environment and global health have become a major focus of research, practice and education.
Many of the issues and opportunities for blending science, scholarship and education occur at a range of spatial scales from the local to the regional. Studies of water allocation, water quality and other management cross scales from the watershed to the household. Air pollution scholarship and education cover regional airsheds, such as the Atlanta metro area address key linkages that scale from individual decisions about transportation to global issues of climate change. Urban ecology and associated development features are key aspects of understanding human conditions such as poverty, health and prosperity.